Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson was a path breaking aeronautical engineer who worked for Lockheed Aircraft for over four decades. Born in Ishpeming, Michigan, on 27 February 1910, he graduated from the University of Michigan with an M.S. in aeronautical engineering in 1933 and joined Lockheed that same year.
Johnson was creative, dynamic, ambitious, and unafraid to question others’ expertise and ideas. Soon after arriving at Lockheed, he told his employers that the design of a new aircraft they were working on was flawed and would make the plane dangerously unstable. Instead of firing him, Lockheed asked him to work on the problem. He developed the double vertical tail configuration that became one of the trademark features of the company’s aircraft, including the A-12.
From there, Johnson rose quickly and became Lockheed’s chief research engineer in 1938. In 1952 he was appointed chief engineer of the firm’s Burbank, California, plant and then vice president of research and development in 1956, and vice president for advanced development projects in 1958. Johnson became a member of Lockheed’s Board of Directors in 1964 and senior vice president of the corporation in 1969. He retired in 1975, but he served on as a consultant at the Skunk Works until 1980. He died at the age of 80 on 21 December 1990.
“Johnson was creative, dynamic, ambitious, and unafraid to question others’ expertise and ideas”
Johnson’s contributions to advanced aircraft design were extraordinary. He designed or contributed significantly to the development of 40 well-known and important military and civilian aircraft. In addition to the U-2, the A-12, and the SR-71, they included the P-38 Lightning, the Constellation, the PV-2 Neptune, the F-80 Shooting Star, the F-94 Starfire, the F-104 Starfighter, the B-37 Ventura, the C-130 Hercules, the C-140 Jetstar, and the AH-56 Cheyenne attack helicopter. His accomplishments were founded on a hard-charging but informal management style and an openness to experimentation that brought out the best in his coworkers. Among his numerous awards and honors from industry, professional societies, and the Air Force, are two Collier Trophies (1959 and 1964), the National Medal of Science (1966), the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1967), the CIA Distinguished Intelligence Medal (1975), and the National Security Medal (1983). He was elected to the Aviation Hall of Fame in 1974.
Sketches from Kelly Johnson's Notebook: