In January 1960 the U.S. Air Force gave the Skunk Works
the go-ahead for the design, manufacture, and testing of
twelve A-12s. "The aircraft that were to become the
Blackbirds were the first to use the 'stealth' technology
we developed for radar avoidance," Johnson said.
High speed was another prime objective for the
Blackbirds. As he continued:
"The idea of attaining and staying at Mach 3.2 (more
than three times the speed of sound) over long flights
was the toughest job the Skunk Works ever had and the
most difficult of my career".
Aircraft operating at those speeds would require
development of special fuels, structural materials,
manufacturing tools and techniques, hydraulic fluid, fuel
tank sealants, paints, plastics, wiring, and connecting
plugs. Everything about the aircraft had to be invented.
But it all came together. Technologically ahead of their
time, Johnson's Blackbirds were in the skies in the early
1960s: the A-12's first flight was in 1962; the YF-12A in
1963; and the SR-71 in 1964. With in-flight refuelling,
the SR-71 attained global range. SR-71 Blackbirds went on
in the 1970s to chalk up records for speed (2,193 mph),
altitude (85,069 feet), a trans-Atlantic mark of one
hour, fifty-four minutes, on a 3,470-mile flight from New
York to London; and a world speed record of three hours,
forty-seven minutes on a 5,463-mile flight from London to
Los Angeles. In March 1990, the year the Air Force
retired the Blackbirds from service, an SR-71 streaked
across the United States in a record sixty-eight minutes
on the 2,400-mile flight coast to coast.
When Clarence L. (Kelly) Johnson died in 1990, his SR-71
Blackbird, which first flew almost thirty years before,
was still the world's fastest and highest-flying
aircraft. The secret of Kelly Johnson's success was
really no secret. He was not only one of the world's
foremost designers, but he was an innovative manager who
gave people who worked for him challenges to constantly
create better products.
"Our aim," he said, "is to get results
cheaper, sooner, and better through application of common
sense to tough problems. If it works, don't fix it."
"Reduce reports and other paperwork to a
"Keep it simple, stupid - KISS -is our constant
Johnson instinctively knew how to select people for his
organization. He knew how to get the most out of the
fewest people and how to get the job done well. He let
his managers run their programs with a minimum of
interference. He not only gave managers the authority but
also the responsibility.
As a man of high integrity himself, Johnson expected
complete honesty from the people of the Skunk Works.
Mistakes were allowed, but they were to be brought to his
attention immediately. And Kelly also expected
recommendations to correct mistakes.
He was firmly convinced of the importance of being honest
with people, not just telling them what they wanted to
hear. He emphasized the necessity of good communication,
urging us always to ask a lot of questions.
One of Kelly's challenges to employees was a standing
25-cent bet against anyone who wanted to differ with him.
It was not the quarter, of course, but the distinction of
winning it from the boss, Kelly said. "It's another
incentive. And I've lost a few quarters, too," he
admitted. But not often, it must be noted.
Said President Lyndon Johnson when he presented the
National Medal of Science to Johnson at the White House
"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 aeroplane
designs would have honoured any individual's
And what a collection of honours!
Lawrence Sperry Award, presented by the Institute of
Aeronautical Sciences (now the American Institute of
Aeronautics and Astronautics) for "important
improvements of aeronautical design of high speed
commercial aircraft" for development of the Fowler
flap on Model 14. Presented annually "for
outstanding achievement in aeronautics by young
The Wright Brothers Medal, presented by the Society of
Automotive Engineers for work on control problems of
The Sylvanus Albert Reed Award, presented by the
Institute of Aeronautical Sciences, for "design and
rapid development of high-performance subsonic and
Corecipient of the Collier Trophy as designer of the
airframe of the F-104 Starfighter, sharing the honor with
General Electric (engine) and U.S. Air Force (flight
records). The F-104 was designated the previous year's
"greatest achievement in aviation in America."
The General Hap Arnold Gold Medal, presented by the
Veterans of Foreign Wars for design of the U-2
high-altitude research plane.
The Theodore von Karman Award, presented by the Air Force
Association for designing and directing development of
the U-2, "thus providing the Free World with one of
its most valuable instruments in the defense of
The Medal of Freedom, presented by President Lyndon B.
Johnson in ceremonies at the White House. The highest
civilian honor the President can bestow, this medal
recognizes "significant contributions to the quality
of American life." Kelly Johnson was cited for his
advancement of aeronautics.
The Award of Achievement, presented by the National
Aviation Club of Washington, D.C., for "outstanding
achievement in airplane design and development over many
years, including such models as the Constellation, P-80,
F-104, JetStar, the U-2 and climaxed by the metallurgical
and performance breakthroughs of the A-11 (YF-12A)."
The Collier Trophy (his second), following his work on
the 2,000-mph YF-12A interceptor. Johnson's achievement
for the previous year was called the greatest in American
The Theodore von Karman Award (his second), presented by
the Air Force Association for his work with the A-11
Honorary degree of doctor of engineering, University of
Honorary degree of doctor of science, University of
Honorary degree of doctor of laws, University of
California at Los Angeles.
1965 San Fernando Valley Engineer
of the Year, so designated by the San Fernando,
California, Valley Engineers' Council.
Elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering.
Elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Sylvanus Albert Reed Award (his second), given by the
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
"in recognition of notable contributions to the
aerospace sciences resulting from experimental or
National Medal of Science, presented by President Lyndon
B. Johnson at the White House.
The Thomas D. White National Defense Award, presented by
the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Elected an honorary fellow of the American Institute of
Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Elected a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
The General William Mitchell Memorial Award, presented by
the Aviators Post 743 of the American Legion at Biltmore
Hotel, Wings Club, February 14.
The Spirit of St. Louis Medal by the American Society of
On behalf of Lockheed's Advanced Development Projects
facility, which Johnson directed until his retirement in
1975, he accepted the first Engineering Materials
Achievement Award of the American Society of Metals.
Lockheed's ADP program "took titanium out of the
development phase into full production for aircraft
The Engineering Merit Award presented by the Institute
for the Advancement of Engineering, Beverly Hills,
Honored by the Air Force Association, Washington, D.C.,
for Johnson's design of the P-38 Lightning.
The Sixth Annual Founders Medal of the National Academy
of Engineering in recognition of his fundamental
contributions to engineering.
The Silver Knight Award by the Lockheed Management Club
of California for his contributions to Lockheed's
The first "Clarence L. Johnson Award" by the
Society of Flight Test Engineers for his contributions to
aviation and flight test engineering.
Civilian Kitty Hawk Memorial Award by the Los Angeles
Area Chamber of Commerce for outstanding contributions to
the field of aviation.
The Air Force Exceptional Service Award for his many
outstanding contributions to the U.S. Air Force from 1933
to 1974. Presented by Secretary of the Air Force John
Enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in
Dayton, Ohio, for his outstanding contributions to
Awarded the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy for vital and
enduring contributions over a period of forty years to
the design and development of military and commercial
Sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and
Astronautics, "A Salute to Kelly Johnson"
night--an hour-long multimedia presentation of his career
Bernt Balchen Trophy, the highest award of the New York
State Air Force Association, presented annually to
"an individual of national prominence whose
contribution to the field of aviation has been unique,
extensive or of great significance."
The Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public
Service, presented by Defense Secretary Harold Brown.
Elected a fellow of the Society of Automotive Engineers
for "his abilities to motivate a small staff to work
within a tight time frame and budget in creating
revolutionary aircraft designs."
The "Kelly Johnson Blackbird Achievement
Trophy" was created by the USAF to "recognize
the individual or group who has made the most significant
contribution to the U-2, SR-71 or TR-1 program since the
previous annual reunion."
The Daniel Guggenheim Medal "for his brilliant
design of a wide range of pacesetting, commercial, combat
and reconnaissance aircraft, and for his innovative
management techniques that developed these aircraft in
record time at minimum cost."
Meritorious Service to Aviation Award from the National
Business Aircraft Association, recognizing his designs of
more than forty aircraft, including the world's first
business jet, the JetStar.
The Howard Hughes Memorial Award for 1982, presented by
the Aero Club of Southern California in joint sponsorship
with the Marina City Club. Recipient is recognized as a
leader in aviation who has devoted a major portion of his
life to the pursuit of aviation as a science and an art.
The National Security Medal, presented by President
Ronald Reagan for exceptional meritorious service in a
position of high responsibility and for outstanding
contribution to the national security of the nation.
Appointed Royal Designer for Industry, an honor
originally established in 1936 by the British Royal
Society of Arts recognizing designers who have attained
eminence, efficiency, and visual excellence in creative
design for industry. Limited to 100 recipients, Johnson
was the seventy-second to receive the appointment.
Diplomas are issued under the authority of the Council of
the Royal Society of Arts.
Honored by the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum with an
exhibit recognizing him as one of the founding fathers of
the jet age. The exhibit ran for one year and was viewed
by an estimated 16 million people.
Installed in the American Institute of Aeronautics's
"1985 Aerospace Pioneer Hall of Fame," honoring
him for his distinguished career in aerospace.
Recognized by titanium producers association for the
"earliest large-scale use of titanium in an aircraft
The Lord Medal for "Leadership in Wealth
Creation," for "contributions to the
development of products that add to the civilized aspects
of human societies."
The National Medal of Technology for "outstanding
achievements in the design of a series of commercial,
military and reconnaissance aircraft that have
incorporated a wide range of technological
Inducted into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame in
recognition of his many outstanding contributions to the
field of aviation.
National Air and Space Museum Trophy from the Smithsonian
Institution "in recognition of extraordinary service
in aviation, space science, and technology" and for
the SR-71, a "past achievement that has contributed
significantly to advancing aerospace activities."
National Management Association Hall of Fame.
Kelly Johnson also received forty-four U.S. patents. Some
of the more important ones are listed below.
Design for Airplane Model 27 (D-116,094).
Design for Airplane Model P-38 (D-119,714).
Anti-Icing Duct for Model 12 and P-38 (2,320,870).
Design for Airplane Model P-80 (D-143,822).
Auxiliary Fuel Tank for Model P-80 (2,421,699).
Airplane Design for Model C-130 (D-172,969).
Afterburning Means for Turbo-Jet Engines (2,771,740).
Airplane Design for Model F-104 (D-179,348).
Airplane with Variable Swept Wings (2,794,608).
Landing Drag Flap and Lift Spoiler (2,791,385).
Jet Utility Transport (D-183,657).
Turbine Engine Blow-Out Preventer (2,870,684).
Aircraft Propulsion Systems (Jet Flap) (2,928,627).
Airplane Design for Model JetStar (D-191,243).