75 years of Innovators: Clarence "Kelly" Johnson

Jan. 8, 2004
Few men have been so directly involved in designing as many successful aircraft as Clarence Johnson.

In the 75 years since Machine Design began publication, here are some of the people who have changed the way we live.

Clarence "Kelly" Johnson
Aeronautic genius

As an engineer at Lockheed Aircraft Co. for 50 years, he had his hand in over 40 aircraft projects and was largely responsible for the design of about 20 of them. They include the P-38 Lightning; F-80 Shooting Star, America's first production jet; F-94 Starfire, the first all-weather interceptor; F-104 Starfighter, the first Mach 2+ fighter; SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest aircraft ever built; the C-130 Hercules; and a host of other transport and military aircraft.

The first time he applied for a job at the then recently formed Lockheed Aircraft Co., however, he was turned down for lack of experience. But a year later, with a new masters degree in aeronautical engineering, they saw fit to take him on as a tool designer and the sixth engineer on its payroll. He went on to become Chief Engineer in five years.

Kelly also changed the way large companies fund and fast-track high-priority projects with his Skunk Works, an R&D facility that attracted the best engineers, provided them the best tools and technology, and let them focus on getting the job done away from the company's red tape and bureaucracy. (The facility was named for cartoonist's Al Capp's Skonk Works, the mysterious place in the Lil' Abner strip where Kickapoo Joy Juice is brewed.)

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