Clarence Johnson – The Brain Behind The Blackbird
Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, a Lockheed aviation legend, wanted to design an airplane “that use conventional engines and fuel, but still be able to outrace any missile.”
Such motive compelled him to play a major role in designing 40 renowned aircraft, one of which is the Lockheed SR-71, a strategic reconnaissance aircraft developed from the Lockheed YF-12A and A-12 aircraft by the Lockheed Skunk Works.
Building the SR-71, which was popularly known as Blackbird but often called Sled or Habu by its crew, was not an easy task. Johnson had to invent it from scratch, from the design, the technology, to the materials. Despite the odds, he and his team were able to reduce the cost of some of SR-71’s major parts and design the aircraft’s many advanced concepts.
Years later, the SR-71 was one of the first aircrafts to be designed to reduce
radar cross section. Though it had a large radar signature to be tracked, the SR-71’s defense was high speed and operating altitude. Its standard evasive action was to simply accelerate speed if a surface-to-missile launch is detected.
It is such story of success that placed Johnson in the annals of aircraft design.
His success may also be attributed to his childhood passion for designing airplanes since he started reading Tom Swift novels like “Tom Swift and his Airplane” and “Tom Swift and his Submarine”. Born in 1910, seven years after the Wright Brothers made their first successful flight, Johnson designed his first airplane which he called “Merlin 1, Battle Plane”.
Johnson finished schooling through scholarships and odd jobs like dishwashing and working as teaching assistant. He received his Master of Science Degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1933 from the University of Michigan where he got teaching fellowships and rented the University’s wind tunnel to test models of Indianapolis racing cars, aircrafts, and trains.
Starting out as a tool designer for Lockheed in 1933, he went on to serve the company for 50 years. He officially retired from Lockheed in 1975 but “continued as a consultant to the Skunk Works and the Lockheed projects.” As a tribute, the Lockheed Rye Canyon Research facility was renamed Kelly Johnson Research and Development Center in 1983.
In his lifetime as an aeronautical engineer, 1932-1984, Kelly was recognized for his unique contributions to aerospace development. He has received over 40 awards, prominent of which are his first and the last award- 1932 Sheehan Fellowship in Aeronautics, University of Michigan and the 1984 Honorary Royal Designer for Industry conferred by the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce, London.
Johnson died on December 21, 1990 after an illness of many years. He left the aerospace development industry with an indelible mark on the design of 40 world renowned aircrafts. Among these aircrafts are the F-80, the first production jet in the US, double sonic F-104 Starfighter, U-2, 2,000 MPH YF-12A, and the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a Mastercraft Collection bestseller.
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