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Clarence “Kelly” Johnson was an American system engineer and aeronautical innovator. He earned renown for his contributions to many noteworthy aircraft designs, especially the Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes, but also including the P-38 Lightning, P-80 Shooting Star, and F-104 Starfighter, among others. 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".[1] He played a leading role in the design of over forty aircraft, including several honored with the prestigious Collier Trophy, acquiring a reputation as one of the most talented and prolific aircraft design engineers in the history of aviation. In 2003, as part of its commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' flight, Aviation Week & Space Technology ranked Johnson 8th on its list of the top 100 "most important, most interesting, and most influential people" in the first century of aerospace.[2] Hall Hibbard, Johnson's Lockheed boss, referring to Johnson's Swedish ancestry once remarked to Ben Rich: "That damned Swede can actually see air."

Kelly Johnson was born in the remote mining town of Ishpeming, Michigan. His parents were Swedish, from the city of Malmö, county of Scania. Kelly was ashamed of his family's poverty, and vowed to return one day in prominence.[4] Johnson was 13 years old when he won a prize for his first aircraft design. He worked his way through Flint Central High School and graduated in 1928, then went to Flint Junior College, now known as Mott Community College, and finally to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he received a Master's Degree in Aeronautical Engineering.

At the University of Michigan, he conducted wind tunnel tests of Lockheed's proposed twin-engined Lockheed Model 10 Electra airliner. He found that the aircraft did not have adequate directional stability, but his professor felt it did and reported so to Lockheed. Upon completing his master's degree in 1933, Johnson joined the Lockheed Company as a tool designer at a salary of $83 a month. Shortly after starting at Lockheed, Johnson convinced Hall Hibbard, the chief engineer, that the Lockheed Model 10 Electra was unstable. Hibbard sent Johnson back to Michigan to conduct more tests. Johnson eventually made multiple changes to the wind tunnel model, including adding a "H" tail, to address the problem. Lockheed accepted Johnson's suggestions and the Model 10 went on to be a success. This brought Johnson to the attention of Lockheed management, and he was promoted to aeronautical engineer.[5]

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 that one of the engineers began answering the intra-Lockheed "house" phone "Skonk Works!" In Al Capp's comic strip Li'l Abner, Big Barnsmell's Skonk Works — spelled with an "o" — was where Kickapoo Joy Juice was brewed. 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 department. Here, the F-104 Starfighter and the secret reconnaissance planes U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird were developed.

Johnson led or contributed to the development of a number of aircraft. A few examples illustrate the influence of his work. In the late 1930s, Johnson helped lead the team that developed the P-38 Lightning. Eventually, almost 10,000 of these fighters were built. They played a significant role in World War II. In 1943, responding to United States Army Air Forces' concerns about Germany's development of high performance jet fighters, Johnson proposed to develop a jet airplane in six months. The result, the P-80 Shooting Star, was completed on time and became America's first operational jet fighter. The need to find space to develop the P-80 also led to the creation of the facility that would be later called the Skunk Works. Johnson also led the development of the SR-71 Blackbird family of aircraft. Through a number of significant innovations, Johnson's team was able to create an aircraft that flew so high and fast that it could not be intercepted nor shot down. No other jet airplane has matched the Blackbird's performance.

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 and Development Center in Santa Clarita was renamed Kelly Johnson Research and Development Center, Lockheed-California Company, in honor of Johnson's 50 years of service to the company.

A number of factors contributed to Johnson's extraordinary career. He was a very talented designer and engineer. For instance, he could quickly and accurately estimate design characteristics such as mass, characteristics that usually were determined through long calculations. He was also ambitious and an excellent salesman, aggressively promoting ideas while also earning others' trust. In addition, he created teams and a work environment where creativity and productivity could flourish.

Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson