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Aero Throwback: The original skunk works

Best known for answering the threat of a jet-powered Nazi super-plane, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson left another legacy as well.| Medium Read
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IMAGE:  A young Kelly Johnson (pictured, middle) with other Lockheed employees during the early skunk work days.

As a Michigan Engineering student in the 1930s, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson staked an early claim to a sturdy reputation. He never drank and rarely dated – though he did play poker with Professors Felix Pawlowski and Edward Stalker, whom he called “not only my mentors but my friends and companions, and not because their losses…added [to my] income. ”

Johnson’s income as a student was substantial. Stalker hired him as a 20-year-old undergraduate to assist with wind tunnel research, and when Johnson and Stalker tested Lockheed’s new twin-engine Electra, Johnson detected serious control and stability problems. But Stalker overruled him.

Following graduation Johnson landed a job at Lockheed, where he immediately told his boss, “the Electra is unstable and I did not agree with the university’s wind tunnel report.” His boss’ first thought was to fire him, but instead he sent Johnson back to the U-M wind tunnel, where 72 additional runs solidified not only the original diagnosis but also the solution – including the innovative twin-tail that would become Johnson’s trademark.

During a 42-year career at Lockheed that spanned the Second World War and the Cold War, Johnson contributed to the design and construction of more than 40 aircraft – including the path-breaking F-104 Starfighter, U-2 reconnaissance, SR-71 Blackbird, and F-117 Stealth Fighter.

But Johnson’s standing as a legendary designer of military aircraft was launched in 1943, when Germany introduced the Me-262 – a jet fighter much faster than any warplane in the American arsenal. The U.S. War Department commissioned Lockheed (meaning Johnson) to develop its own flying fighter, with two seemingly impossible requirements: That it fly more than 100 miles per hour faster than the P- 38 – a Johnson-designed plane that had set previous speed records – and that it be combat-ready in 180 days.

For America’s answer to the original Nazi super-plane – a U.S. jet fighter that would become the P-80 Shooting Star – Johnson established the Advanced Development Projects Unit. And what followed was not just a feat of engineering genius but a standard for rapid innovation that persists to this day.

Among the small band of mechanics and engineers Johnson hand-picked for this secret mission was a man named Ben Rich, who labored alongside Johnson for many years before eventually succeeding him. Some had privately called Johnson, “W.C. Fields without the sense of humor,” and Rich acknowledges that Johnson could be “relentless…with…[a] chili-pepper temperament…[that]…was poison to any bureaucrat, disaster to ass-coverers, excuse-makers, or fault-finders.”

Johnson’s “intensely cohesive group” labored in cramped quarters in a balcony overlooking the crowded Lockheed production floor until Johnson “rented a big circus tent and set up shop next to a noxious plastics factory, whose stench kept the curious at bay.” Al Capp’s just-introduced “L’il Abner” comic strip featured a character whose malodorous moonshine still was called the “Skonk Works.” The connection “was apparent to those inside the tent who were forced to suffer the plastic factory’s stink,” and the nickname stuck – though most used it only behind Kelly’s back.

The term “skunk works” (Lockheed has registered the trademark “Skunk Works®”) remains widely used in business, engineering, and other fields to describe any group given broad authority and autonomy – without bureaucratic oversight – to work on an advanced or secret project. It’s still recommended for any relatively small group willing to work outside convention to achieve extraordinary results.

Johnson called his operational directives “The 14 Practices and Rules.” But by whatever name or method, his eclectic group of thinkers and builders appeared, in record-breaking time, to defy the laws of nature.

“But who knows?” Ben Rich once joked. “Maybe it was that smell that spurred Kelly’s guys to build [the Shooting Star] in only 143 days – 37 days ahead of schedule.”

Aerospace Engineering at U-M is celebrating 100 years, with first courses in aeronautical sciences offered in the fall of 1914. Join us for the celebration Thursday, September 18, to Saturday, September 20.

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Randy Milgrom
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Michigan Engineering

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