On June 17, 1943, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, Lockheed’s 33-year-old chief engineer, was at the U.S. Air Corp’s Eglin Field in Florida, observing the performance of the latest version of his P-38 Lightning war plane. This was the day Johnson (BSE AeroE ’32, MSE ’33) first learned — as Wright Field’s Colonel M.S. Roth sidled over to confide in a whisper — that the U.S. military was testing a new U.S. Bell jet.
“You wanted to build a jet for us once,” Roth reminded Johnson. But Johnson didn’t need any reminders.
Johnson and Lockheed had developed the P-38 beginning in 1937. And though it still was the nation’s fastest propeller-driven fighter, Johnson had only been able to increase its speed by a mere 17 miles per hour — even while nearly doubling its power. In 1939, with the Brits and the Germans working feverishly on jet turbines, Johnson proposed his own audacious new jet design that he claimed would approach the speed of sound. But the Air Corps — more eager for more planes to fly more immediately into battle — turned him down flat.