Quick prototypes. Small teams. No bureaucracy. No lengthy documentation. Limited meetings. A Skunk Works approach to design. They were all essential to Clarence (“Kelly”) Johnson’s process for creating some of the most remarkable planes of the past century, including the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird [SvN]. Johnson was once described by Time Magazine as perhaps the most successful aviation innovator since Orville and Wilbur Wright.


Six months for the first jet fighter
Head Skunk [Air & Space Magazine] describes how, in 1943, Johnson promised a commanding officer the first jet fighter in six months. The prototype was designed in 150 days in a space built out of engine crates and a circus tent.

Johnson flew back to Burbank to present the project to Lockheed president Robert Gross. The company was working for the war; with three shifts a day, six days a week, it produced 28 airplanes daily. There was no space and there were no people for another project. But Gross, who thought Johnson walked on water, okayed the project and put him in charge of it.

Johnson went around the factory collecting people: “I simply stole them,” he later wrote. He set up a secret shop beside the wind tunnel in a space walled with wood from Hudson engine crates and roofed with a circus tent. Once the facility had been set up, the time remaining for actual design and construction of America’s first jet fighter was 150 days. This was not impossible; North American had designed and built the P-51 Mustang prototype in even less time. Johnson’s team beat the deadline—and the budget—with what would become the P-80 Shooting Star.

The P-80 Shooting Star.

Skunk Works
Johnson’s Skunk Works was the official alias for Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs (ADP). Of course, the term is now used in many fields to describe a small group that works under the radar on a project.

Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works was a revolt against the formalities of conventional industry. It was a throwback to a time when airplanes were created by small teams who all broke for lunch together. Johnson crammed a small number of capable people into close proximity, so that “engineering shall always be within a stone’s throw of the airplane.” He believed in the freewheeling inventive genius of individuals—particularly himself; he resented the intrusions of committees of government bureaucrats with their meddlesome meetings, and rebelled against their minutely detailed specifications.

He pared away procedural dross: Whatever used up time without advancing the project was banned—even visits from the customer. Finished drawings were not required; shop men were encouraged to work from sketches and when possible to develop parts directly on the airplane. Decisions, once made, would not be second-guessed; good enough was good enough. Meetings were limited to two or three essential participants. Initial flight tests would be conducted by the builders—not, as was usual at the time, by the customer’s pilots.

To the extent that an organization could, the experimental shop would behave like a single person…

While the Skunk Works is usually viewed as a unique creation of Kelly Johnson’s, it was so only in the context of a bloated American aerospace industry. France’s Marcel Dassault used small, elite staffs in the same way that Johnson did, developing the Mirage IV supersonic bomber with a design team of fewer than 100. The revolutionary vertical-takeoff Hawker P.1127, which became the Harrier, emerged from a similar-size team of designers. Compared with the British or French, American firms typically employed two or three times as many people on a project.

Lockheed still lists Kelly’s Skunk Works®’ rules of operation at its site.

3. The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems).

4. A very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes must be provided.

Other interesting Johnson facts
The Air & Space Magazine article also notes that Johnson was a flight-test engineer—the person who collects data during test flights—and joked that he needed one good scare a year to keep in touch with what he called “the concern of the pilot” (i.e. staying alive).

Johnson also hated excessive documentation and big meetings, according to his Skunk Works successor Ben Rich.

Kelly disliked long written reports, so he limited any report addressed to him to a length no longer than 20 pages. Kelly said, “I don’t have time to read long reports of anything”. He also limited meetings to 15 people or less.

The Time article mentions that Johnson’s early experience of working summer jobs in auto plants gave him hands-on exposure to metal machining:

His early experience in metal machining acquired during summer jobs in auto plants proved invaluable in working the heat-resistant titanium sheets needed for the SR-71’s tough skin, which heats up to cherry red temperatures of 630° F. during flight. Johnson deplores the trend toward specialization with the lament of a designer who also knows how to handle machine tools. “Some of the fellows in the Skunk Works never had any cutting oil splashed on them.” He expects more and more future decisions to be made by committees of experts with no experience beyond their own specialties. Trouble is, he says, committees “never do anything completely wrong, but they never do anything brilliant either.”

See more of Johnson’s planes at this collection of his airplane designs.

Johnson with an early variant of the U-2.