A Brief History
On December 21, 1990, one of the greatest contributors to American military technology and perhaps the greatest airplane designer of all time passed away quietly in Burbank, California at the age of 80. Born in a small Michigan town to poor Swedish parents, Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson was an enthusiastic student and showed a glimpse of the future when he designed his first airplane at the age of 13!
Education at Flint Junior College and the University of Michigan followed, where he was awarded a Master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering. At Michigan Johnson realized a wind tunnel test of a model of Lockheed’s Electra showed the plane was unstable. The information was relayed to Lockheed and Johnson went to work for the company upon graduation. There his contributions to aircraft design created some of the most iconic aircraft of all time, especially in the realm of military and research.
At first working on civilian aircraft such as airliners and cargo planes, when World War II loomed Johnson went to work on military aerial applications, starting with the B-34/B-37/PV-1 and PV-2 family of aircraft. This plane was an adaptation of the Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar, and could easily be called the “forgotten bomber” of World War II. A twin engine medium bomber adapted for regular bombing, maritime patrol and attack, and reconnaissance, over 3000 were made. More famous Kelly Johnson creations included the P-38 Lightning (first 400 mph fighter plane), the giant triple tail Constellation (used as a cargo and passenger plane, later for electronic warfare of various types), the P-80 Shooting Star (the first operational US jet fighter, over 8000 built including trainers), P2V Neptune anti-sub plane, X-7 (ramjet powered experimental plane capable of Mach 4 speed), F-104 Starfighter (first Mach 2 fighter, over 2500 built), C-130 Hercules (turboprop cargo plane in production since 1954, longer than any warplane ever), F-117A Nighthwak (first stealth combat plane), U-2 Dragon Lady (high altitude recon plane in use since 1957), and the SR-71 Blackbird (fastest plane in the world from 1966 to 1998, perhaps ever). Of course, this impressive list does not include many of the experimental and other civilian planes Johnson worked on, such as the Lockheed JetStar (1957), the world’s first business jet.
Johnson was a mainstay at the Lockheed “Skunkworks” secret aircraft development center and there developed the groundbreaking aircraft for which he is famous. This center is where the top-secret stuff happened, resulting in spy planes and the successful keeping of the “Stealth” secret development.
Despite being a legend in the aeronautical community and despite having received an incredible array of awards and honors, Johnson does not seem to be widely known among average Americans. Kelly Johhnson’s status as an American hero should never be forgotten. Question for students (and subscribers): Can you think of any other airplane designer that has been more influential? Give us your nominations in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Alef, Daniel. Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson: From Skunk Works to the Edge of Space (Titans of Fortune). Titans of Fortune Publishing, 2010.
Johnson, Clarence L. “Kelly” and Maggie Smith. Kelly: More Than My Share of It All. Smithsonian Books, 1989.