Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson

Lockheed Aviation Legend - A Biography


"Be Quick, Be Quiet, And Be On Time"

Copyrighted June, 2000 by Leland Haynes, All Rights reserved

Kelly Joins Lockheed:

Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson came to Lockheed in 1932 hunting a job. He was turned down..insufficient experience. Johnson went back to school and obtained a Master's Degree in Aeronautical Engineering. He came to Lockheed again in 1933 and was hired as a tool designer. His salary was $83.00 per month and became the sixth Engineer working for the fledgling Lockheed Company. Then, as World War II approached, he helped the Company design the P-38, America's first 400 mph airplane. After assignments as flight test engineer, stress analyst, aerodynamicist, weight engineer, he became chief research engineer in 1938. In 1952, Johnson was named chief engineer of Lockheed's Burbank, California plant which later became the Lockheed-California Company. When the office of corporate vice president-research and development was established in 1956, he was chosen for the post. He became vice President-Advanced Development Projects (ADP) (Skunk Works) in 1958, a member of the board of directors in 1964 and a senior vice president of the corporation in 1969. He officially retired from Lockheed in 1975 but continued as a consultant to the Skunk Works and the Lockheed projects. Kelly left the Board of Directors in 1980. In June of 1983, the name of the 500 acre Lockheed Rye Canyon Research facility was renamed Kelly Johnson Research and Development Center, Lockheed-California Company, in his honor for 50 years of service to Lockheed.


Johnson has played a leading role in the design of 40 world renowned aircraft. Of these more than half were of his original design. Among them the F-80, America's first production jet; the double-sonic F-104 Starfighter; the high altitude U-2 and the spectacular 2,000 MPH YF-12A and the SR-71.

He contributed to the design of the first plane with power controls, the F-90 Interceptor.

Kelly designed single-handedly the Lockheed Hudson Bomber at the age of 29. Traveling to England with Courtland Gross, A Lockheed director, the British nixed the original design. Johnson recalls: "They told us the bombs had to go under the floor, that they needed forward shooting guns and dozens of other things." "So, I redesigned the airplane in my hotel room in a couple of days according to British specifications." Johnson's design landed Lockheed an order for 200 planes, the largest order that had ever been placed in the U.S. during peacetime. In all, Lockheed built 3,500 Hudson's for the U.K. by the end of World War II.




XP-80 On January 8, 1944, the late Milo Burcham about to climb into the cockpit of the XP-80, Lockheed's first jet, turned to project chief Kelly Johnson for instructions. "Find out if she's a lady or a witch." said Johnson.  She was a lady, appropriately nicknamed Lulu-Belle. She was built in just 143 days after Air Corps go-ahead. Principal designers and managers of Lulu-Belle autographed this photo of the XP-80. Kelly Johnson's autograph is center bottom.


Kelly Johnson's Designs and Contributions to Lockheed Aircraft

He designed and built the following aircraft:
           (click on the model for a picture)

Kelly Johnson Contributed to the Design and building of the following aircraft:

Kelly flew in the YF-12A Trainer

Childhood and Education:

"I knew I wanted to design airplanes when I was 12 years old" says Johnson. "I read every Tom Swift novel I could get my hands on. I read "Tom Swift and his Airplane"; "Tom Swift and his Electric Car" ; "Tom Swift and his Submarine" and I said that's for me." A native of Michigan, Johnson was born in the remote mining town of Ishpeming on November 27, 1910 to immigrant Swedish parents. Kelly was born seven years after the Wright Brothers made their first successful flight. After making his decision at the age of 12 to design aircraft, he went ahead to design his first airplane. Kelly called his first design "The Merlin 1, Battle Plane". Several weeks later he saw his first airplane; a World War I Jenny. His decision was confirmed. He later moved to Flint where his father had a construction business. Kelly graduated from Flint High School, working summers with his father and in the motor test section of the Buick Motor Car Company. By graduation he had saved up $300. He tried to give it to an Instructor at the Flint Airport in exchange for flying lessons, but the Instructor shook his head and probably changed the entire course of Kelly's life. "I've always had the greatest respect for that man," Kelly said later. "He needed that money more than anything else in the world. But instead of taking it, he said, "Look that money and go to school." Kelly did. He graduated from Flint Junior College and completed his education at the University of Michigan, where he received His Bachelor of Science Degree in 1932. Kelly Johnson worked his way through school by picking up scholarships, washing dishes and helping a professor; Edward Stalker, as a Teaching Assistant. He went on to received his Master of Science Degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1933. During this period he picked up small teaching fellowships and augmenting his income by renting the University's wind tunnel to run tests as a consultant on models of Indianapolis racing cars, trains and aircraft. "I made more more money that year than any of the first 10 years I worked for Lockheed." Kelly grins.


Many honors have come to him for his unique contributions to aerospace development through the years and to the defense of the United States and the Free World. Among these, Mr. Johnson has won the Collier Trophy twice. In 1958 to: The United States Air Force and Industry Team Responsible for the F-104 Interceptor; Clarence L. Johnson of Lockheed Aircraft Corporation for the design of the airframe. In 1963 to: Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson For designing and directing the development of the USAF A-11 Mach 3 aircraft.

The Collier Trophy (right) was established in 1911 by Robert J. Collier, publisher and early President of the Aero Club of America. The trophy is administered by the National Aeronautic Association of the U.S.A. and is awarded annually for "the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America, with respect to improving the performance, efficiency, and safety of air or space vehicles, the value of which has been thoroughly demonstrated by actual use during the preceding year.

On September 14, 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson presented to Clarence L. Johnson the Medal of Freedom, the highest civil honor the President can bestow. "Kelly Johnson and the products of his famous Skunk Works epitomize the highest and finest goal of our society, the goal of excellence. His record of design achievement in aviation is both incomparable and virtually incredible. Any one of his many airplane designs would have honored any individual's career." President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The citation to accompany the Medal of Freedom read:

         "Aeronautical engineer, his genius for conceiving unique airframes and his
                technical management skills contribute mightily to the Nation's security by
                creating aircraft of daring design with unmatched rapidity and

The National Medal of Science was awarded to Kelly Johnson in 1966 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Given to individuals "deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical, or engineering sciences".

On October 06,1983, President Ronald Reagan presented Clarence L."Kelly" Johnson The National Security Medal. It was the first time an aeronautical engineer had been awarded the medal. In White House ceremonies the medal was presented for "Exceptional meritorious service performed in a position of high responsibility and have made an outstanding contribution to the National Security of the Nation". (Photo insert shows Kelly's wife Nancy). During an informal moment, Kelly mentioned to the President that they were California neighbors; both having ranches In Santa Barbara County. "But, there's a difference in the two ranches", Reagan smiled. "Yours has heat". The Reagan ranch house depended on wood burning fireplaces for warmth.

The Aviation Hall of Fame
in Dayton, Ohio enshrined Johnson in 1974.
He created innovative technical concepts
that significantly advanced aircraft design, performance, and reliability.
He helped design Lockheed P-38, T-33, U-2, and SR-71 aircraft.
He helped achieve supersonic flight and spaceflight.

In 1975, Kelly won the Wright Brothers Trophy. It is awarded annually by the National Aeronautic Association of the U.S.A. to a living American in recognition of significant service of enduring value to aviation in the U.S. This original trophy was entrusted to the Smithsonian Institution by the National Aeronautic Association of the U.S.A., which each year presents a replica to the recipient on the anniversary of the historic first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Mr. Johnson has also received two Sylvanus Albert Reed Awards, one in 1956 and again in 1966.  The Reed Aeronautics Award is the highest award an individual can receive for achievements in the field of aeronautical science and engineering. The award is named after Dr. Sylvanus A. Reed, the aeronautical engineer, designer, and founding member of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences.

He won the Von Karman Award (twice). One in 1963 and again in 1964.

At the age of 71, Kelly Johnson was the 1981 recipient of the Daniel Guggenheim Award for "His brilliant design of a wide range of pace-setting, commercial, combat and reconnaissance aircraft, and for his innovative management techniques which developed these aircraft in record time at minimum cost". The first winner of the Guggenheim Medal, "Honoring persons who make notable achievements in the advancement of aeronautics", was Orville Wright in 1929.

Awarded the 5th Annual Howard R. Hughes Memorial Award by the Aero Club of Southern California in 1983.

Kelly with the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and with a mockup of the Model 10 Electra

Kelly Johnson's 14 Rules of Management

1.The Skunk Works manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects. He should report to a division president or higher.

2.Strong but small project offices must be provided both by the military and industry.

3.The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems).

4.A very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes must be provided.

5.There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.

6.There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been spent and committed but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program. Don't have the books ninety days late and don't surprise the customer with sudden overruns.

7.The contractor must be delegated and must assume more than normal responsibility to get good vendor bids for subcontract on the project. Commercial bid procedures are very often better than military ones.

8.The inspection system as currently used by the Skunk Works, which has been approved by both the Air Force and Navy, meets the intent of existing military requirements and should be used on new projects. Push more basic inspection responsibility back to subcontractors and vendors. Don't duplicate so much inspection.

9.The contractor must be delegated the authority to test his final product in flight. He can and must test it in the initial stages. If he doesn't, he rapidly loses his competency to design other vehicles.

10. The specifications applying to the hardware must be agreed to well in advance of contracting. The Skunk Works practice of having a specification section stating clearly which important military specification items will not knowingly be complied with and reasons therefore is highly recommended.

11. Funding a program must be timely so that the contractor doesn't have to keep running to the bank to support government projects.

12. There must be mutual trust between the military project organization and the contractor with very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis. This cuts down misunderstanding and correspondence to an absolute minimum.

13. Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled by appropriate security measures.

14. Because only a few people will be used in engineering and most other areas, ways must be provided to reward good performance by pay not based on the number of personnel supervised.


Kelly Johnson's Honors and Awards 1932 to 1984

 Clarence L."Kelly" Johnson: Publications:

 Kelly's Student License and Flight Record

(Photos Courtesy of the Johnson Family Collection)

Kelly Johnson's Student Pilot Certificate

Kelly Johnson's Flight Log


Kelly Johnson was first married to Althea Louise Young in 1937. Althea passed away in December 1969. His second marriage was to the former Maryellen Elberta Meade of New York state in May 1971. Maryellen passed away on October 13, 1980. She was only 38 years old. They had a home in Encino, California and a ranch near Santa Barbara, California. Mr. Johnson later married the former Nancy Powers Horrigan in November, 1980. They had resided in Encino, California. Johnson had triple heart bypass surgery for a cardiac problem.

About How Clarence L.Johnson became "Kelly":

Kelly Recalls: While attending grade school, I was chided by some classmates for my name; Clarence. The other boys started calling me "Clara". One morning while waiting in line to get into a classroom, one boy named Cecil started with the normal routine of calling me "Clara". I then tripped the boy so hard it broke his leg. The boys then decided that I wasn't a "Clara" and looking for a new nickname started calling me "Kelly". The nickname came from the popular song at the time.."Kelly With the Green Neck Tie". From that time forward it would always be "Kelly Johnson".

About Howard Hughes, Kelly recalls:

"I remember working with Howard Hughes in 1957, when he was ordering Constellations for TWA airlines. He was a night owl and he demanded we meet in the ballroom of the Beverly Hills Hotel at 11 PM. He had six of his goons stationed around the ballroom to make sure no one listened. We'd work through the night making little changes here and there. It nearly destroyed my health because I was also working during the day on the U-2 and the F-104."

About U.S. Defense Department's Cancellation of the F-12B
The Russian Backfire Bomber had just came out and Kelly comments: "Of course we do need such a plane (F-12B Fighter Interceptor similar to the SR-71) now...and we don't have it. It just shows that you can be right and still lose the ball game."

About Building the SR-71:
"It was no easy task. Everything about the SR-71 had to be invented from scratch...the design, the technology, even the materials. I offered a $50 reward to anyone who could come up with an easy answer. I still have the $50."  "During the program we were able to reduce the cost of a foot of a particular type of Titanium extrusion from $119 to $11." He said proudly. "And we dropped the cost of a particular Titanium bolt from $15 to .25 cents. In the words of Kelly Johnson, "It makes no sense to just take this one or two steps ahead, because we'd be buying only a couple of years before the Russians would be able to nail us again. No, I want us to come up with an airplane that can rule the skies for a decade or more." He wanted to design an airplane that used conventional engines and fuel, but still be able to outrace any missile.

About Designing Aircraft:
"If I didn't get the Hell scared out of me once a year, I would not have the proper balance to design future aircraft".

About the J-58 Engine: 

Shortly after development commenced, a wager was opened between Kelly Johnson and Bill Brown, over which of the two companies would succeed in producing the best fuel-injection system for the aircraft. It was settled that the loser would have to carry the costs for use of the wind-tunnel, which Brown estimated would be about $12,000. Pratt & Whitney won and true to his promise, Kelly Johnson sent a check of sufficient value. The event was used to play a prank. Bill Brown acquired a complete naval sailor's uniform, with cap and blue jacket, and thus attired had himself photographed in front of the 12.5
meters long private yacht of Bill Gordon. He sent the photograph to Johnson with the comment "thanks for the check". The photograph hung for many years afterwards on the wall of Lockheed's staff reunion room.

About UAV's:
"Fighters will get rid of the men and become drones with the ability to do everything a man-operated plane can do."

The Skunk Works beginning:
During World War II, Johnson set up the Skunk Works after receiving approval from the U.S. Air Corps to build a jet fighter (the F-80 Shooting Star). Johnson recalls, "At the time, space was scarce because Lockheed was busy building 17 P-38's a day; 4 B-17's; 6 versions of the Hudson and the Lodestar, for a total of about 28 planes a day." So Johnson had a new space created for him in the old China Factory plant at B-1 next to a wind tunnel using Wright engine packing boxes for walls and a circus tent for a roof. Under these conditions, he laid out a design for a new fighter for an Air Corps competition. It won. It became the F-80 Shooting Star. 
Security was so tight on the project, people around Lockheed began to wonder what Johnson was doing in his makeshift headquarters. One day, someone suggested he was stirring up some sort of brew....evoking images of the Kickapoo Joy Juice made by Al Capp's comic strip characters in Dogpatch's "Skonk Works". The Name "Skunk Works" stuck. And so did the Skunk Works reputation for building advanced aircraft under super-secret conditions. Secrecy was maintained, according to Kelly, because he doled out only portions of the projects to his staff and kept the over-all plans to himself. Under these conditions, Kelly later on built the first U-2 in a mere eight months.

Quotes about Kelly from others:

Ben Rich:
  Kelly disliked long written reports, so he limited any report addressed to him to a length no longer than 20 pages. Kelly said, "I don't have time to read long reports of anything". He also limited meetings to 15 people or less.

Soviet Mig Pilot Belinko Recalls:
Chasing the SR-71 along the Siberian Coast in a Mig-25, I could not match it's speed. One flight in the Mig-25 and we had to change our engines. I could not believe that such technologies existed.

In a memo dated November 1974, announcing Kelly's imminent retirement, Lockheed Corporate President Carl Kotchian summarized Mr. Johnson's career as follows:
Carl described Kelly's early accomplishments; the P-38 Lightening; the Hudson Bomber and the XP-80 Shooting Star. He went on to say:
"But these are only crumbs from the cake of Kelly's genius. He has performed Herculean tasks many, many times since...always living up to his motto: "Be quick, be quiet, and be on time". It is Kelly as a person I think we will miss most...His absolute honesty, his dedicated patriotism( he may be the most honored engineer in history, but many of the things he has done for his country will never be told), and his unswerving support for people who worked for him." "It is not probable that we will see Kelly's like again," Kotchian concluded. "We can all be grateful that he picked Lockheed as the place to do his work and make his contribution to aviation."

Kelly Johnson Dies;
    Johnson died on December 21, 1990 at St Joseph Medical Center after an illness of many years. Kelly is buried at Forest Lawn (Hollywood Hills), Los Angeles, California.


Kelly Johson Image Archive Link:

20 Images of Kelly courtesy of Lockheed Martin Corporation


 SR-71 Front Page   Links Page   Index Page   Recollections   2001 Reunion  
"SR-71 Blackbirds"  Web Site Navigator
First Created: April 15, 1996 - Last Revised: July 30, 2005
Copyright © 1996 Leland R. Haynes     Email:

This web page is  Copyrighted on June 29, 2000. Revised on July 30, 2005. This web site is Copyrighted property of Leland Haynes, Webmaster, SR-71 Blackbirds. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any format. Skunk logo is copyrighted property  of Lockheed Martin Corporation. Image kickapoo.jpg is copyrighted property of:  Capp Enterprises, Inc. corporate offices c/o Broude & Hochberg, L.L.P., 75 Federal Street, Boston, Massachusetts, 02110 Images: kelly's_license.jpg and kelly's_fltrecord.jpg are the property of the Kelly Johnson Family Estate.

Page #38 of "The SR-71 Blackbirds"