Kelly Johnson designed the Blackbird, a plane that flew non-stop from London to Los Angeles in less than four hours, outracing the sun and landing four hours before it had taken off, a remarkable feat--and this was more than 35 years ago. Johnson was the innovative genius behind Lockheed's "Skunk Works," and played a leading role in the development of more than forty aircraft, including some of America's most sophisticated planes. In 2003, as part of its commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' flight, an Aviation Week & Space Technology poll ranked him 8th on its list of the "Top 100 Stars of Aerospace" in the first century of flight, just behind the Wright brothers, Leonardo Da Vinci and Charles Lindbergh. The president of Lockheed once said: "That damned Swede can actually see air." Award-winning author Daniel Alef tells the remarkable tale of the man who garnered 35 major awards for his aviation feats, including the Medal of Freedom, and brought us to the edge of space. The Johnson profile includes a timeline, a short bibliography and links to videos of his aircraft including the Constellation, Shooting Star, F-104, U-2 and the SR-71 Blackbird. [4,541-word Titans of Fortune biographical profile].


Kelly Johnson was a brilliant airplane designer and possibly the most innovative aviation pioneer since the Wright brothers. I have fond memories of flying overseas on Kelly-designed TWA Constellations. Years later, my son and I built models of the alien-like SR-71 Blackbird, another Kelly innovation. And I remember sitting in the stands in front of the runway at Edwards Air Force Base near Mojave, California, during Armed Forces Day, and having the privilege of seeing a top-secret Kelly-designed craft.

It was a strange looking plane, flying low and slow, and the people in the crowd murmured its name softly as if they were afraid of divulging a military secret. It had unusually long wings, resembling those of a glider, but as it neared the middle of the runway it suddenly turned its nose skyward and with a menacing and throbbing roar of its J57 turbojet engine, headed straight up until it was out of sight, a breathtaking display of power. It was the U-2.

Kelly, head of Lockheed’s top-secret “Skunk Works,” designed the world’s highest-performance aircraft, planes capable of feats many engineers deemed impossible; unknown to those naysayers, in some cases the secret planes were already operational.

The superiority of his designs is irrefutable. After more than 45 years, Kelly’s 2,000 mph Blackbird remains the fastest piloted jet ever built. In 1974 it flew from New York to London in a record-breaking 1 hr. 55 min!  And returned non-stop London to Los Angeles in 3 hr. 48 min, outracing the sun and landing four hours before it had taken off. It covered its final flight from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. in slightly more than an hour. And this is declassified information. Its real performance limits remain classified.

As a result of his work, Kelly garnered every conceivable award and medal issued to aircraft pioneers, including the Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Science and the
National Security Medal. He is also ensconced in the Aviation Hall of Fame for helping achieve supersonic flight and spaceflight.

Above all, Kelly loved what he did during his 44-year career at Lockheed Aircraft Co. Three times he turned down offers to assume Lockheed’s presidency, a position most executives could only dream of attaining.   His mantra was simple: Be quick, be quiet, and be on time.

Kelly was born Clarence L. Johnson in Ishpeming, Mich., in 1910. His father, a Swedish immigrant, was a bricklayer and his mother a washerwoman. We were very poor,” Kelly recalled, “we had to help earn what we needed.”  The family gathered coal for the cooking stove by picking up pieces dropped by trains along the tracks. Sometimes sympathetic engineers would hurl a sack of coal from the locomotives for them. Wood for the heating stove came from the surrounding forests.