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SKUNK WORKS’ KELLY JOHNSON

October 16, 2017

 

One of the great mysteries of World War II was why the Americans were so slow to fly jets.

 

 

 

 

 

In January 1944, a full five years after the Germans had first flown jets, test pilot Milo Burcham strolled across an apron in the Mojave Desert and climbed into a plane called Lulu Belle.

Lulu Belle had straight stubby wings but no propeller. Burcham fired up the engine, a de Havilland Goblin from England, raised his thumb and taxied out while his watchers covered their ears against the Goblin’s shriek. 

Static thrust was terrible, and he knew enough to keep the plane low until it had built up enough speed to climb. When he had altitude and speed, he pushed the nose down and gave the watchers a fly-past that made them duck.

When he landed, the watchers shouted and clapped as they ran forward to congratulate Burcham. It was Lulu Belle’s first flight. No American plane had ever flown so fast.

Lulu Belle’s official name was the ‘Lockheed XP-80 Shooting Star’. It was the first fighter jet in the United States military. It was 40 years since the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, and amazingly, just 143 days since the XP-80 had been conceived.

The team that built the XP-80 at the height of World War II faced a tough demand: build a jet-powered plane that can fight, and build it fast. The USA was badly behind. In 1943, British code breakers had discovered that the German’s had built a jet fighter with a top speed of 600 miles per hour. The plane, the twin engined Messerschmitt Me262 Schwalbe, or Swallow, was agile and manoeuvrable, despite being armed with four machine guns, rockets, and, if necessary, bombs. And it was already in mass production. General Hap Arnold reckoned it would be raining death on Europe by early 1944. The German’s were using technology that had been inconceivable just a few years earlier. 

The man who led the team to counter the threat of the Me262 was Clarence Johnson, an engineer known to all as ‘Kelly’. The urgency and complexity of the challenge were not Johnson’s only problems – the United States government believed German spies were listening to its communications. Johnson had to build a “secret lab using old boxes and a circus tent,” and hide it next to a wind tunnel at the Lockheed plant in Burbank, California. His small team had to do everything from designing jets to cleaning toilets, as he could not hire secretaries or cleaners, and his engineers could not tell anyone, not even their families, what they were doing.

One engineer called the place the ‘Skunk Works’, after a factory that ground skunks and shoes into oil in a popular comic strip called Li’lAbner. The Skunk Works name for Lockheed’s advanced projects division stuck.

General Hap Arnold had a strong aviation background, and so knew he needed to make up for lost time. He gave Johnson and his team just six months to design America’s first jet fighter. They took less than five.

The XP-80 was the first plane developed by the engineers at the Skunk Works, and they went on to design and build the supersonic F-104 Star Fighter; the U2 surveillance plane; the SR-71 Blackbird, which cruised at three times the speed of sound, and stealth aircraft.

Kelly Johnson had started working at Lockheed in 1933. At the time, it was a small aircraft manufacturer with only five engineers, restructuring after bankruptcy and struggling to compete with two much larger companies: Boeing and Douglas (later McDonnell Douglas).

In a lesson of leadership, Johnson’s first day at Lockheed was nearly his last. He had been hired in part because, as a student at the University of Michigan, he had helped test Lockheed’s new Model 10 Electra in the university’s wind tunnel. His professor, Edward Stalker, the head of Michigan’s department of aeronautical engineering, had given the Electra a good report. But Johnson disagreed.

On his first day at Lockheed, the 23-year-old Johnson, who had only just graduated in aeronautics and had been hired, not as an engineer, but to make technical drawings, announced that “the new airplane, the first designed by the reorganised company and the one on which its hopes for the future were based, was not a good design – actually it was unstable. They were somewhat shaken.”

Recalling the exchange, Johnson says, “It’s not the conventional way to begin employment. It was, in fact, very presumptuous of me to criticise my professors and experienced designers.”

There are few companies today where this would be a good career move. In the 1930s, there were probably even fewer. What happened next almost explains Lockheed’s success all by itself. Johnson’s boss was Hall Hibbard, Lockheed’s Chief Engineer. Hibbard’s aeronautics degree was from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then and now one of the world’s greatest engineering schools. He wanted what he called ‘new young blood’ – people who were ‘fresh out of school with newer ideas’.

Hibbard said, “When Johnson told me that the new airplane was no good, and it was unstable in all directions, I was a little bit taken aback. And I wasn’t so sure that we ought to hire the guy. But then I thought better of it. After all, he came from a good school and seemed to be intelligent. So, I thought, let’s take a chance.”

Instead of firing Johnson for impudence, Hibbard sent him on his first business trip, saying, “Kelly, you’ve criticized this wind-tunnel report on the Electra, signed by two very knowledgeable people. Why don’t you go back and see if you can do any better with the airplane?” 

Johnson drove the 3,000 km to Michigan in his basic car on America’s rough roads with a model of the Electra balanced in the back of his car. He tested it in the wind tunnel 72 times, until he solved the problem with an, at that time, novel H tail that had a fin on each side of the horizontal stabiliser to get the benefit of the prop-wash from the wing mounted engines. 

Hibbard’s response to the new idea was to work late writing Johnson a letter: 

 

“Dear Johnson, 

You may be sure that there was a big celebration around these parts when we got your wires telling about the new find and how simple the solution really was. It is apparently a rather important discovery and I think it is a fine thing that you should be the one to find out the secret. Needless to say, the addition of these parts is a very easy matter; and I think that we shall wait until you get back perhaps before we do much along that line.

Well, I guess I’ll quit now. You will be quite surprised at the Electra when you get here, I think it’s coming along quite well.

Sincerely,

Hibbard.”

 

When Johnson returned to Lockheed, he found that he had been promoted. He was now Lockheed’s sixth engineer.

In almost any other company, or talking to almost any other manager, Johnson would have been laughed out of the room, and possibly out of his job. What made Lockheed, and thus the USA, so successful, and led to the Skunk Works’ incredible legacy of achievements, started with this one act of fearless leadership. America’s first jet fighter, its supersonic aircraft and then stealth technology, all came about because Hibbard had a rare quality: he was intellectually secure. 

Intellectually secure people do not need to show anyone how smart they are. They are empirical and seek truth. The antithesis, leaders who are intellectually insecure, need to show everyone how smart they are. They are egotistical and seek triumph.

Notably, intellectual security is not related to intellect. People who are more skilled with their hands than their minds are also often intellectually secure. They know what they know and enjoy people who know more. And of course brilliant people are usually intellectually secure, too – for the same reason. 

Christian leadership guru John Maxwell famously differentiates between five levels of leadership. To appreciate Hall Hibbard, it’s worth looking at Level 5 – the Pinnacle. Hibbard recognised that he had to develop Johnson, rather than try safeguard his own position.

 

 

 

Maxwell writes, “Not only is leadership at this level a culmination of leading well on the other four levels, but it also requires both a high degree of skill and natural leadership ability. It takes a lot to be able to develop other leaders so that they reach Level 4; that’s what Level 5 leaders do. The individuals who reach Level 5 lead so well for so long that they create a legacy of leadership in the organization they serve.”

It was this quality that made Lockheed great and gave rise to the Skunk Works.

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