Tuesday, March 25, 2008

By Carol Bidwell, Staff Writer
Article Last Updated: 03/19/2008 09:35:29 PM PDT

Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, considered by many the best airplane designer in history, had a simple formula for good work in the Lockheed "Skunk Works" design shop in Burbank:

"Our aim is to get results cheaper, sooner and better through application of common sense to tough problems," Johnson once explained. "If it works, don't fix it. ... Reduce reports and other paperwork to a minimum. ... Keep it simple, stupid - KISS - is our constant reminder."

His approach worked. Out of the Skunk Works came the Model 14 Electra, a wartime bomber for the British; the XP-80 jet in 1944; the F-80 Shooting Star, the first U.S. fighter to exceed 500 mph; the T-33 trainer, which taught more pilots to fly jets than any other plane; the F-104 Starfighter, which could fly twice the speed of sound; and the P2V Neptune antisubmarine patrol plane.

Johnson's team of engineers and builders helped transform the Constellation, which started out as a commercial airliner, into a World War II transport plane, then back again to a passenger carrier after the war.

And as the Cold War heightened, the Skunk Works team designed and built the U-2 jet, the first spy plane.

The U-2 not only was a stealthy, ultra-high-flying craft that let the U.S. keep tabs on the Soviet Union, but Johnson's team also gave the U.S. government back about $2million of the original $20million contract, and it built six planes extra for the cost of the original 20 ordered.

Johnson's motto: "Be quick, be quiet, and be on time."

Although his brusque manner antagonized some of his co-workers, he was universally respected, wrote colleague Ben R. Rich in a biography of Johnson for the National Academy of Sciences.

At 12 years old, Johnson knew that he wanted to design airplanes someday.

He earned an engineering degree in Michigan and came West, where he settled in at Lockheed. His first job there paid $83 a month.

When he retired in 1975, he had turned down Lockheed's presidency three times and was head of Advanced Development Projects, otherwise known as the Skunk Works. And he had won nearly every prize offered worldwide for airplane design and innovation.

President Lyndon B. Johnson also gave him the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor a president can bestow, for his "significant contributions to the quality of American life."

And all this came from what began as little more than a shed crammed with plane designers and builders, always conscious of orders that their work be kept top-secret.

That's how the strange name for the elite unit was born.

The original facility sat next to a stinky plastics factory. As a gag one day, an engineer showed up for work wearing a gas mask, and another engineer, Irving Culver, began referring to their headquarters as the "Skonk Works."

In the Al Capp comic strip "Li'l Abner" - popular in the 1940s and `50s - the "Skonk Works" was a clandestine still in which a nefarious backwoods character ground up dead skunks and old shoes to make a brew he called "kickapoo joy juice."

One day, Culver answered the phone with "Skonk Works, inside man Culver."

"What?" demanded the voice at the other end. "Skonk Works," Culver repeated.

The name stuck - with a slight spelling change to avoid copyright problems with the cartoonist.

Culver said in a 1993 interview that when Johnson heard about the incident, "he promptly fired me; it didn't really matter, since he was firing me about twice a day anyways."

Johnson retired from Lockheed in 1975 and died in 1991. Lockheed closed the old Skunk Works site and moved out of Burbank the same year. A Lockheed Martin facility in Palmdale now bears the name.