Aircraft designers and artists share a common trait – the ability to think out of the box and incorporate new concepts into their works . While the artist strives to create a pleasing appearance out of their work, whether art or sculpture, the aircraft designer must first meet a set of performance criteria in order to produce a successful aircraft, the artistic form being of secondary importance. During the course of this blog we’ll trace the career of an engineer who designed a number of aircraft achieving both impressive performance and appearance.
Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson was born in Ishpeming, Michigan on February 27, 1910. Johnson decided to pursue a career in aeronautical engineering at the age of 12, largely as a result of reading a series of Tom Swift novels. A few months later, he designed his own small plane, which he named the Merlin 1 Battle Plane. After seeing a Curtiss Jenny in flight during a local exhibition, he became interested in flying aircraft as well as designing them. During his high school years, Kelly moved to Flint, where his father had a construction business. He also worked part time in the motor test section of Buick, gaining a practical knowledge of engineering. By the time he completed high school, Kelly had saved about $300 to defray the costs of flight school. When Johnson approached the flight instructor, he persuaded him to use the money to further his education.
While Johnson was surprised at the instructor’s response, he respected him, and after holding a number of odd jobs, graduated from the University Of Michigan in 1932, receiving a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering. After gaining a number of teaching fellowships, as well as serving as a consultant to the university, he received a Master of Science in Aeronautical Engineering the following year. Johnson’s first assignment at Lockheed in 1933 was to design tools from which to build aircraft . However, it wasn’t long before he was involved in the design of Lockheed’s first line aircraft of the era, such as the Model 10 Electra flown by Amelia Earhart. Johnson would later design the military version of the Electra, the Hudson Lockheed, for the British from a set of sketches he made from his hotel room. By 1938 Kelly was serving as an assistant to Lockheed’s chief engineer, Hall Hibbard. In 1937 the Air Corps contracted with Lockheed to produce an aircraft capable of speeds in excess of 400 mph., with nearly double the range and firepower of existing fighter aircraft. Within a year, Hibbard and Johnson designed a twin-boomed plane, a radical departure from current practice, with armament of four fifty caliber machine guns with a 20 mm. cannon in the nose, with a larger internal fuel capacity augmented by detachable drop tanks underneath the inner wing panels. The aircraft was test flown in 1939 and entered service in 1941 as the P-38 Lightning. The P-38 proved to be a versatile plane, performing a variety of missions ranging from ground attack to the night fighter role.
In 1943 Hibbard and Johnson were presented with a new challenge. Both Germany and Britain were developing fighter aircraft driven by jet propulsion, while the USAAF program efforts lagged. Another reason for a practical jet fighter was the receipt of intelligence reports in early 1943 about a German jet fighter undergoing advanced testing, the ME-262. Fearful the new German fighter would soon become operational, Lockheed was awarded the contract and Johnson promised the design would be completed within six months. Hibbard and Johnson decided to build the new jet fighter around the existing British De Haviland Goblin engine, already in use in the Gloster Meteor. Within a mere 143 days, the new jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star, had completed its first test flight and production began two months later. While too late to see action in World War II, the P-80 saw extensive action in Korea, in both the ground attack and aerial combat roles. Variants of the P-80/F-80 were in use until 1997.
Due to a perceived Soviet bomber threat, the CIA issued a requirement in late 1953 for an aircraft capable of scanning large segments of Soviet territory from an extremely high altitude. During the last year of the Korean War, several Convair B-36 bombers flew over Manchuria, taking pictures of Mig bases from a relatively high altitude. The large bomb bay area, long wings, and a high altitude dash capability from it’s four jet engines made the B-36 a good camera platform for its time. The proposed aircraft would not be as big, but would have long, glider like wings, coupled with a lightweight fuselage powered by a single jet engine mounted in the fuselage. The contract was awarded to Lockheed the following year and Kelly Johnson went to work. The initial specifications called for an aircraft capable of operating at an altitude of 70,000 ft. with a range of 1,700 miles. Johnson shortened the fuselage of an experimental F-104 Starfighter with long, slender wings. The design was powered by the J73 General Electric jet engine and emphasized weight saving, discarding features such as a landing gear and ejection seats. It took off from a special cart and belly landed when returning. The aircraft, designated Utility Two or U-2 , could cruise at an altitude of 73,000 ft. with a range of 1,600 miles. By 1955 the U-2 was in production and CIA operators were flying it over the world’s trouble spots the following year. These flights over the Soviet Union ended in May 1960 with Francis Gary Powers U-2 shot down by a Soviet SA-2 missile. However, the U-2 continued to serve in other areas, providing valuable intelligence during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the aircraft remaining in service for over 50 yrs.
In the 1960s, Johnson designed the successor to the U-2, the SR-71, The SR-71 was a twin jet, twin tail, delta-winged reconnaissance aircraft, capable of sustained mach 3 speeds with a service ceiling in excess of 85,000 ft. with a range of 2,900 miles. From the technology standpoint, the SR-71 or Blackbird, was a totally new design made largely of titanium, which was ironically imported from the Soviet Union at the time. The SR-71 was in service for over 30 yrs. and set a number of world speed and altitude records – many of them still standing. Kelly Johnson was instrumental in the design of some 40 aircraft during his forty plus years at Lockheed, designing a number of great planes at pivotal times in our nation’s history – making him a true hero of aviation.
This blog is the fourth in a series about the heroes of aviation.