Thursday, 17 May 2007
Clarence Leonard "Kelly" Johnson 1910-1990
Clarence Leonard "Kelly" Johnson (February 27, 1910 – December 21, 1990) was an aircraft engineer and aeronautical innovator. As a member and first team leader of the Lockheed Skunk Works, Johnson worked for more than four decades and is said to have been an 'organizing genius.' He played a leading role in the design of over forty aircraft including several that were honored with the prestigious Collier Trophy. Johnson acquired a reputation as one of the most talented and prolific aircraft design engineers in the history of aviation.
Born to immigrant Swedish parents from the city of Malmö, county of Scania, in the remote mining town of Ishpeming, Michigan, Johnson was 13 years old when he won a prize for his first aircraft design. He worked his way through school, first at Flint Junior College, and then at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
At Michigan, he conducted a wind tunnel test of Lockheed's proposed twin-engined Lockheed Model 10 Electra airliner. He found that the aircraft did not have adequate directional stability, and proposed adding a "H" tail to address the problem. Lockheed accepted his suggestion and the Model 10 went on to be a success. This brought Johnson to the attention of Lockheed management. Upon completing his master's degree in 1933, Johnson joined the Lockheed Company as a tool designer at a salary of $83 a month. After assignments as flight test engineer, stress analyst, aerodynamicist, and weight engineer, he became chief research engineer in 1938. In 1952, he was appointed chief engineer of Lockheed's Burbank, California plant, which later became the Lockheed-California Company. In 1956 he became Vice President of Research and Development.
Johnson became Vice President of Advanced Development Projects (ADP) in 1958. The first ADP offices were nearly uninhabitable; the stench from a nearby plastic factory was so vile one of the engineers began answering the intra-Lockheed "house" phone "Skonk Works!" Big Barnsmell's Skonk Works– spelled with an "o"– was where Kickapoo Joy Juice was brewed in the comic strip L'il Abner by Al Capp. When the name "leaked" out, Lockheed ordered it changed to "Skunk Works" to avoid potential legal trouble over use of a copyrighted term. The term rapidly circulated throughout the aerospace community, and became a common nickname for research and development offices– however, reference to "The Skunk Works" means the Lockheed ADP shop. Here the F-104 Starfighter, and the secret reconnaissance planes, the U-2 and the SR-71 Blackbird, were developed.
On December 16, 1953, Johnson personally witnessed a UFO, and would later reflect on this experience by saying that "for at least five years I have definitely believed in the possibility that flying saucers exist - this in spite of a good deal of kidding from my technical associates. Having seen this particular object on December 16th, I am now more firmly convinced than ever that such devices exist, and I have some highly technical converts in this belief as of that date.
In 1955, at the request of the Central Intelligence Agency, Johnson initiated construction of the airbase at Groom Lake, Nevada, later known as Area 51. This project provided a secret location for flight testing the U-2.
He served on Lockheed's board of directors from 1964 to 1980, becoming a senior vice president in 1969. He officially retired from Lockheed in 1975 and was succeeded by Ben Rich, but continued as a consultant at the Skunk Works. In June 1983, the Lockheed Rye Canyon Research facility was renamed Kelly Johnson Research and Development Center, Lockheed-California Company, in honor of Johnson's 50 years of service to the company.