Clarence “Kelly” Johnson is the Babe Ruth of aerospace design. Aircraft programs under Johnson were so cutting edge and historically influential, and his cult of personality and management strategy so effective, that he and Lockheed’s Skunk Works (which he also founded) are forever enshrined in mankind’s technological hall of fame.
The Lockheed Electra, P-38 Lightning, Constellation, P-80 Shooting Star, F-104 Starfighter, C-130 Hercules, U-2 Dragon Lady, Jetstar, and of course the almost supernatural A-12 Oxcart and its SR-71 Blackbird successor are just a few of the nearly 50 designs Johnson worked on during his 50 year career with Lockheed.
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How did he achieve such amazing success? Beyond being a brilliant aerospace engineer and larger-than-life character, he was able to successfully navigate the pitfalls of the Pentagon’s crushing bureaucracy and the military brass’s need to meddle in every good design. Beyond his moniker “quick, quiet, and quality,” he did this by operating by a code that was unique to himself and his subordinates: a living mental set of commandments of sorts that pulled from both his experience and his vision. These became known simply as “Kelly’s Rules,” which were basically operating laws for Johnson and those working on his projects. Although slight variations exist, they go something like this:
1. The Skunk Works manager must be delegated near complete control of his program in all aspects. He should report to a division president or higher.
2. Strong but small project offices must be provided both by the military and industry.
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.
5. There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.
6. There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been spent and committed but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program.
7. The contractor must be delegated and must assume more than normal responsibility to get good vendor bids for subcontract on the project. Commercial bid procedures are often better than military ones.
8. The inspection system as currently used by the Skunk Works, which has been approved by both the Air Force and Navy, meets the intent of existing military requirements and should be used on new projects. Push more basic inspection responsibility back to subcontractors and vendors. Don’t duplicate so much inspection.
9. The contractor must be delegated the authority to test his final product in flight. He can and must test it in the initial stages. If he doesn’t, he rapidly loses his competency to design other vehicles.
10. The specifications applying to the hardware, including rationale for each point, must be agreed upon well in advance of contracting.
11. Funding a program must be timely so that the contractor doesn’t have to keep running to the bank to support government projects.
12. There must be mutual trust between the military project organization and the contractor, and there must be very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis. This cuts down misunderstanding and correspondence to an absolute minimum.
13. Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled by appropriate security measures.
14. Because only a few people will be used in engineering and most other areas, ways must be provided to reward good performance by pay not based on the number of personnel supervised.
Kelly also had a unofficial 15th, 16th, and 17th rules, which he is known to have stated repeatedly to his subordinates:
15. Never do business with the Navy!
16. No reports longer than 20 pages or meetings with more than 15 people.
17. If it looks ugly, it will fly the same.
It is amazing to think that one man did so much to advance mankind’s aerospace capability. Even his few dead-ends and failures had key technologies that would lead to wins or lessons learned down the road.
I often wonder what Kelly Johnson would think of America’s aerospace industry today, when we have airframe design and aeronautical performance have arguably devolved, but avionics and sensors are more advanced than ever. His take on the F-35 program in particular, which the Skunk Works has had its hands in, would be amazing to hear. I doubt it would be pretty, as i seems to go against almost every single one of his commandments and it definitely is not “quick, quiet and quality.”
I marvel more and more at what enterprising engineers were able to do with slide rules and drafting tables so long ago. We have lost something in the aerospace engineering world, and I wish we has leaders like Kelly Johnson around so that we could somehow get it back.
Photos via Lockheed
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.