You probably don’t know who Kelly Johnson is, so I’ll just spell it out: he started Lockheed’s Skunk Works program and designed the SR-71 Blackbird, the U-2 spy plane, the F-117A Stealth fighter, and made the idea of a delta wing aircraft possible in the B-2 Stealth bomber. In fact, he helped design America’s first production jet, so he’s been as instrumental to the development of American aircraft history as the Wright brothers were to the idea of flight itself.
For a little perspective, the United States decommissioned the Stealth fighter this year, deeming the technology outdated. In the meantime, India still has aircraft in its air force with three wings. For another perspective, the Soviet Union tried to surprise the SR-71 Blackbird on a flight over Siberia by chasing it down with a new MiG-25. The Blackbird sped away at Mach 3 and the MiG-25 was grounded after its first flight for an engine overhaul. Keep in mind that designing the Blackbird required about three generations’ worth of advances of technology in four different engineering fields – he needed chemical engineering to make radar absorbing skin, mechanical engineering to make a lightweight titanium body aerodynamic enough to fly at Mach 3 but sturdy enough not to be ripped apart by the wind, computer engineering to handle the controls, and materials engineering to make all these parts cost effective.
But starting at the beginning, Johnson’s story at Lockheed is incredibly interesting. He went there in 1932 to ask for a job but was turned down because he didn’t graduate from a particularly good undergraduate school (Michigan). Johnson went out and got a Master’s in aeronautic engineering before coming back, where he was hired as a tool designer; he cut his teeth in Michigan renting the wind tunnel to help design race cars for the people at Indianapolis. He distinguished himself by making a modification to a transport aircraft that turned it from rubbish into gold (he added the H-tail to give it directional stability). He got himself Skunk Works during a trip to Britain, where the British Army rejected a Lockheed project for a variety of engineering reasons. Johnson single-handedly redesigned the aircraft in his hotel room in two days and went back to America with an approved project.
President Johnson put it best, when he presented Johnson with the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor for a civilian: “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.”