Kelly Johnson, Design Pioneer of Lockheed Aircraft, Dies


Clarence L. (Kelly) Johnson, creator of Lockheed’s secret “Skunk Works” research and development division and legendary designer of aircraft, died Friday. He was 80.

The planes he designed ranged from the World War II P-38 Lightning to the U-2 and triplesonic SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft.

Lockheed announced that Johnson died at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank after a long illness that the company did not describe.


Tony LeVier, Lockheed’s former chief test pilot who flew many of Johnson’s planes, said Friday that Johnson’s state-of-the-art aircraft “kept us out of World War III.”

LeVier said Johnson’s planes “flew like a dream.” The test pilot described the engineer as a stern father figure with great influence in the Pentagon.

Johnson was a renowned aircraft engineer from the outset of his career at Lockheed in 1933. Within four years, when he was only 27, he won the Lawrence Sperry Award for outstanding aeronautics achievement for developing the world’s fastest commercial air transport. Johnson had personally piloted the craft, which flew 250 m.p.h., in some of its test flights.

Johnson founded the “Skunk Works” in 1943 to build the XP-80 Shooting Star, the United States’ first production jet fighter, for World War II.

Housed in circus tents next to a plastics factory in Burbank, the secret facility smelled so bad that engineers dubbed it the “Skunk Works” after the foul-smelling moonshine distillery in Al Capp’s comic strip “Lil’ Abner.”

Johnson, who contributed significantly to the design of more than 40 planes, was the key designer of the Constellation or “Connie” transport planes, the Hercules cargo planes, the P-2V anti-submarine patrol aircraft, and the Agena spacecraft.


His indelible mark was also stamped on the F-104 Starfighter, the first production aircraft to fly at twice the speed of sound; the U-2, a favorite target of the Soviets in the 1950s and the first plane able to make a sustained flight above 60,000 feet, and the YF-12 and SR-71 Blackbird, the world’s fastest and highest-flying planes.

With the assignment to develop the U-2 under a joint CIA-Air Force request for a high-altitude strategic reconnaissance and special-purpose research aircraft in 1954, the “Skunk Works” became an autonomous unit of Lockheed, complete with its own manufacturing facilities. The complex was formally named Advanced Development Projects.

Considered something of a heresy in the aerospace industry because its tiny staff and informal operation could sidestep red tape and bureaucratic reports associated with government work, the “Skunk Works” became the natural place for military leaders to go when they needed something invented and produced quickly.

The unit took only eight months to build the first U-2, code-named “Aquatone.” It was a U-2 in which Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 and another U-2 that provided photographic proof in 1962 that the Soviets were installing missiles in Cuba.

Johnson’s triplesonic Blackbirds were only recently retired by the Air Force. The planes could fly faster than 2,000 m.p.h. and higher than 85,000 feet. Even on the way to museum display last March, the last Blackbird shattered at least three airspeed standards crossing the continent.

Born in Ishpeming, Mich., on Feb. 27, 1910, Johnson learned about tools from his Swedish immigrant father, who was a carpenter and bricklayer.

Young Johnson, certain by the age of 12 that he wanted to build planes, studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan. He worked on the aerodynamic design of cars slated to run in the Indianapolis 500 while studying for his master’s degree.

Lockheed’s chief aircraft designer for more than three decades, Johnson was named vice president for research and development in 1956. The same year, he was named Aviation Man of the Year by aviation writers for his development of the F-104 supersonic jet fighter.

Always close-mouthed about his secret research projects, Johnson was known for following his own advice: “You can’t put your foot in your mouth if you keep your mouth shut.”

In 1960, after the Soviet Union had shot down a number of his U-2 spy planes, Johnson characteristically refused in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars to discuss the plane’s reconnaissance role.

“Over the years, during the development of the program, it was essential that we learn how to keep our mouths closed,” he told the veterans, “and I would like to say it would be a splendid idea if we could carry out this tactic in a large number of other defense fields.”

Over the years Johnson collected laurels as fast as his planes collected speed and altitude records. Along with the prestigious Collier trophy and the Theodore Von Karman award, Johnson won the Thomas D. White National Defense Award for “outstanding contribution to the national defense and security of the United States”; the National Medal of Science, presented by President Lyndon B. Johnson for the revolutionary U-2; the Sylvanus Albert Reed Award twice from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics for “the most notable contribution to aircraft design”; the Kitty Hawk Memorial Award for several airplane designs, and the National Security Medal, presented by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 for his “original ideas in aerodynamics and aircraft design.”

In 1974, Johnson was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame at Dayton, Ohio.

“Kelly Johnson and the products of his famous ‘Skunk Works’ epitomize the highest and finest goal of our society, the goal of excellence,” noted President Johnson in presenting him the Medal of Science.

“His record of design achievement in aviation is both incomparable and virtually incredible,” the President said. “Any one of his many airplane designs would have honored any individual’s career.”

Johnson retired from Lockheed in 1975 with the title of senior vice president, and left the company’s board of directors in 1980. In 1987, Lockheed donated $350,000 to Caltech to establish the Clarence L. Johnson Professorship in Aeronautics.

Johnson is survived by his wife, Nancy, a brother and a sister.

Services are scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday in the forecourt of the Hall of Liberty at Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills. Visitation will be at noon that day in the Old North Church, Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills.

The family has asked that any memorial contributions be made to St. Joseph Medical Center Foundation for Taro Yokoyama’s Heart Program, 501 S. Buena Vista St., Burbank 91505.