Kelly Johnson and the U-2 Dragon Lady
by Bob Bogash

I  recently received a few interesting pieces that motivated me to return once more to that product of Kelly Johnson and his whiz kids.  This is aimed more at Kelly, than the airplane, but the two are fairly inseparable.  People sometimes question whether airplanes are not more the product of teams and not of a single person.  While that may be perfectly correct in most of today's situations, and technically correct in the case of the Skunk Works,  any study of Kelly's life and personality clearly indicate his fingerprints were all over every product that rolled off his drafting table -- and on into the sky.  Kelly was a man with a strong presence and persona, from his earliest years,  --  and his designs all blazed new paths into the unknown, plowed new fields, solved new problems - usually in a stunning and mind-boggling way that surprised even aviation professionals.

    U-2  Dragon Lady

More than that, most of his products exhibited extraordinary good looks that demonstrated his unique "engineer as an artist"  talents, and many, many went on to have big production runs and long service lives.  Many of his airplanes were designed and developed during the same time periods,  demonstrating his ability to multi-task on a BIG scale, and he was certainly born as a man who thought "outside the box"  with so many unique solutions to problems presented.  (When oil from the U-2 engine sprayed into the cockpit air outlets - the solution was to stuff Kotex into the  air conditioning ducts.  "And, by God, it worked!" said Ben Rich.)

All of his accomplishments were topped by unique skills in personnel management - where his teams were minuscule (and very team driven);  attention to finances - a Depression-era man who knew the value of a dollar;   and scheduling - delighting in incredibly short flow times (many airplanes designed, built  and flown in less than a year - some in less than six months.)  His organization was also unique in the ability to keep a secret - "be quiet" was Kelly's phrase and mantra - and many of his airplanes were in service for long periods of time before the industry, the public, or even the trade press found out about them.


The F-104 that I have written about elsewhere on this website, was the 'Missile with a Man in It' interceptor, a Mach 2 airplane that had no wing and could go supersonic straight up.  The CIA craved intelligence info about the Soviets and Eastern Bloc, so their agent - USAF -
in July 1953
sent an RFP for a high altitude reconnaissance airplane to three manufacturers - Fairchild, Bell, and Martin.    Fairchild was ultimately eliminated, Bell won the contract, while Martin received a contract for an interim airplane - a re-winged / re-engined British Canberra bomber, that became the RB-57.  Kelly mulled this state of affairs - supremely confident in his ability to do better than those other guys - no matter what they came up with.  He decided to turn the F-104 into a high altitude long range airplane by bolting on a new long wing, which is what he did.  Altho the U-2 later morphed quite a bit, it's F-104 roots can still be seen in it's fuselage, cockpit, and engine air intakes.  The fuselage was initially built on the same tooling. (The F-104 was still in the XF-104 stage at this time, it might be added.)  Kelly was a man who saw absolutely no value in reinventing the wheel, and frequently borrowed parts and features from his other products, -- even from other manufacturers.

Like the F-104, he submitted his  proposal
unsolicited to the Air Force, which doubtless didn't like yet more nasty lumps in their punchbowl after their carefully orchestrated and lengthy program efforts.  Their evaluations had been going on for nearly a year, but they gave Kelly's submittal a reportedly "thorough" evaluation - one that resulted in it being returned  20 days later as "Rejected."  It has to be pointed out at this time that Kelly had never had a great relationship with the Air Force, and it deteriorated further during the hatching of the F-104.  He called them "Blue Suiters", rather derisively (actually blue-suiters, always lower case.)  He didn't like their rigid mindsets, NIH (Not Invented Here) attitudes, management style and especially, their bloated and lethargic bureaucracy. He hated their requirements, refused to let their pilots fly his airplanes until he felt they were "ready", and  didn't figure he needed any help - especially from USAF - in designing and building airplanes.   Since he was a man who suffered fools poorly ( 7 seconds - according to his long-time lieutenant and eventual successor - Ben Rich), his attitude showed through, and was reciprocated. (Ben's description:  "It was an open secret in the industry that Kelly  had often been his own worst enemy  in his unbending and stubborn dealings with the blue-suiters.  Several USAF Chief of Staffs had to intercede with their three star generals who weren't used to being told they didn't know shit from Shinola - especially right to their face!")   Eventually, Lockheed had to hire a VP to act as a middleman between Kelly and USAF.  The Air Force was stuck, they had to work with him - they were dealing with a genius who happened to be the greatest aircraft designer of all time.  He knew it, and they knew it.

Having his U-2 proposal quickly and unceremoniously stamped "Return to Sender," Kelly was about to cement his estrangement from his main customer.  He did an End Run around the Air Force, and submitted his proposal directly to the CIA.  They looked it over, and coincidentally, also taking just 20 days, bought 20 airplanes.  Clearly, the CIA was a customer that thought like Kelly, and moved out expeditiously. They wanted  an airplane to fly within a year of signing the contract -  hardly a problem for a man who prided himself on  quick flow projects. Kelly's proposal was actually for a first  flight within 8 months - and, in fact, the first airplane was completed in seven months, flew in 8 months, and met its design requirements, including cruise at 73,000 ft, at the 9 month point. At the one year milestone, four aircraft had been delivered and 5 more were in final assembly.  Kelly also had to develop the world's most advanced recon camera and film system, which he did with Edwin Land, of Polaroid fame.  Kodak developed brand new films.  Like everything Kelly laid his hands on - it was all New! New! New!
The program Kelly had proposed to the CIA, was essentially a Turnkey operation.  Kelly would design and build the airplanes, provide the pilots and ground crews, fly the missions - turning the film over to the CIA after landing.  Kelly was about to go into the "spy business" - BIG TIME!  (Eventually, Curtis LeMay - whose relationship with Kelly was often a little on the 'sand-papery' side, interceded to provide pilots and ops support from SAC and the rest of USAF - but the pilots all became born-again as Lockheed employees.  And Lockheed did the maintenance.)

    Assembling a U-2 at Groom Lake

Now, having proposed all this to the government, he had to go and get approval from his bosses!  (This was an exact repeat of his modus operandi in 1943-44 when the XP-80 jet fighter was proposed, designed and built - and flown  - in 143 days!)   In particular, this time, he had to convince them to let him build all the airplanes.  Up to this point, he and the Skunk Works had built a few test articles, turning over full production to Lockheed's main plant.  They said OK (better to ask forgiveness, after  --  rather than permission, before), and he began the job with 25 engineers (including himself) and 81 shop people.  (He claimed in his bio that he told his bosses he was "drafted" for the job - always a good strategy - and one unlikely to be verified.)  Altho this headcount grew over time, it was not by much, with never over 80 engineers and a total staff of less than 300.  In typical fashion, supposedly for security reasons, Kelly ran the project finances for a while out of his personal checking account.  (I'd love to see his checkbook register - Safeway - $30; Burbank Dry-Cleaners - $6; Joe's Garage - $45; Pratt&Whitney - $3,000,000.)  At the end of the program, Kelly wrote the government a check for $8 Million - he had under-run the program, and was returning the extra money.

Pleased with the progress of the program, at the one year point, the CIA  bought 30 more airplanes.  USAF, watching from the sidelines, canceled the "winning" Bell X-16 project, all too aware of Kelly having gone first CHECK, and then MATE.  (This was the nail in Larry Bell's fixed wing airplane coffin - they never recovered as a viable airplane manufacturer.)  After delivering this second batch of 30 airplanes, Kelly found he had a lot of extra parts lying around, so he completed and delivered 6 extra airplanes at no charge - actually he again wrote the  CIA a check  -  this time for $2 Million - for again under-running the contract.  Six extra airplanes, and a refund.  Such a deal!  

I hate to rub salt in open wounds- but contemplate the current state of aircraft program schedules and finances.....


The U-2 wasn't long in service when Kelly began designing its replacement - the stunning Blackbird.  This he also sold directly to the CIA.  (The Blackbird was designed and built with exactly ONE government employee on-site - an engineer named Norman Nelson who worked for the CIA.)   Kelly would have none of those huge AFPRO offices with their inspectors, auditors, and all the rest.  He always said he didn't have the time or resources to attend a bunch of worthless meetings or write a bunch of worthless reports.  (He left out the part about "for a bunch of worthless blue-suiters.")  If he was going to operate "Lean", then so was the government.  It's no overstatement to say that no one but Kelly could get away with all this.  After a few years, the CIA decided they wanted out of the operating business, and the airplanes migrated over to USAF.

    SR-71 Blackbird

USAF, of course, was not only peeved at Kelly, but mad at the CIA, who were buying and flying jet reconnaissance airplanes over hostile countries - a job the Air Force figured was smack dab in the middle of their main job description.  President Eisenhower had personally approved the scheme, so they were stuck.  ( Curtis LeMay's   evaluation of the U-2:  "This is a bunch of shit!  I can do all of that stuff with my B-36!" )

The U-2 was - and is - an amazing airplane.  (Why do I find myself saying that over and over and over about Kelly's creations?)  It was built in 16 different basic versions, with three different engines and two wings - a long-wing version (later called the short wing), and a much longer-wing version.  It was built in three different batches in three different locations having been put back in production twice after long lapses - itself unique in USAF history.  And, of course, it is still in-service, more than a two decades after its Kelly replacement - the SR-71 Blackbird  -  was retired.  (As of January 2010 - 32 are still on the active roster.)

Tony LeVier made the first (inadvertent) flight on 29 July 1955, when he found the big wings generated more lift than anticipated, even while taxiing at fairly low speed.  "Ooops, we're at 35 feet!"  The airplane could fly at Idle Thrust (actually it could CLIMB at Idle thrust) - and didn't want to land - each extra foot of altitude over the numbers added 1000 ft to the touchdown point.  (Well, in many ways, it was just a jet-powered sailplane.)   The first official flight took place a few days later.

Kelly insisted Tony land on the big main wheel first - Tony wanted to land three-point in a stall like a J-3 with the aft small tail wheel touching first (which had, BTW, solid rubber tires, like a Railway Express  wagon at a train station.)  Landing on the front wheel caused a porpoise.  After about 5 aborted attempts to land, with Kelly yelling at Tony on the radio while screaming down the runway alongside in a car (or was it a C-47, or a T-33?  There are various versions out there), Tony did it his way and the First Flight was over.  (Kelly Version:  "He made six attempts before I could talk him down."  Tony Version:  "Kelly: Remember, I want you to land on the  nose wheel"..... but finally, "I  held her nose high, just like I wanted to, and put her down in a perfect two-pointer, slick as a cat's ass."  

Jim Goodall 
   Touching down at Beale AFB - Apr 2006 - Tail wheel first......

Kelly was a stubborn guy and found it hard to admit he was wrong, even if only on occasion.   (He had a standing bet with anybody and everybody - he'd pay a quarter to anyone who could prove him wrong.  He had a big jar of quarters on his desk - proceeds from his various bets - but he did admit - grudgingly - that he had paid out a few also.)  He had a hard time acknowledging the tail wheel first landing - but, in his bio, makes it sound like this was the idea all along --  check out the landing on the video at the end of this tale.  See how they do it today.....

Kelly also swore a lot, could out-drink most, if not all, of his crew - with everyone chugging down the suds after an important flight. It was one big family, and Kelly ran the outfit like it was his own company.   And, having worked his way through his youth as a lather, ($10/day for 2000 laths - "That took a lot of nail pounding.")  had arms  like steel traps - and would take on any and all comers in arm-wrestling contests (usually after some lubricating brewski's).  One time he almost broke his test pilot's arm on the evening before a major flight!

After the U-2's First Flight:

 "all of us celebrated with the usual beer and arm-wrestling contests.  Thanks to my early lathing work, I was pretty good at both."

 "It has been our policy at the Skunk Works that everyone, -  workers, engineers, executives -  sees the first flight and is included in the traditional party afterward."

Altho the U-2 was more than a little tricky to land on a big strip, some U-2s actually operated from aircraft carriers.  There was a standard carrier kit  including cable guards and a tail hook that could be installed for a carrier operation.  Some even had folding wings.  Spoilers had to be added to enable lift dumping and the required spot landings.  The U-2 flew on and off a number of carriers, including the Kitty Hawk, Ranger, and America, and flew operational sorties at least once, monitoring French nuclear tests in the South Pacific.

Aboard the USS America

The U-2 flew a lot virtually in the "coffin corner" and had a lot stability problems in both pitch and yaw.  Early tests showed a pitch upset could lead to an in-flight break-up in just seconds.  (This is what likely knocked down Francis Gary Powers - a SAM missile (several analyses out there)  knocked off half of one of the horizontal stabilizers, and the airplane immediately flipped inverted, tearing off the wings.)  Maneuver loads  were as low as +1.8 / -0.8 G under some flight conditions.  Kelly had been ruthless about weight from Day One, noting every extra pound cost dearly in cruise altitude.  The airplane can best be described as fragile, and has a Kelly patented load alleviation system to keep the wings from failing in turbulent air at lower altitudes.

The spread between Mach buffet and Stall buffet could be as low as 10 kts, and, under the very worst conditions, as little as 3-4 kts.  It was said you could stall the inside wing in a turn, (causing a loss of control), while inducing over-speed Mach buffet on the outer one! (causing structural failure.)  The airplane needed an autopilot to fly in these delicate conditions, but pilots were afraid to fall asleep even on the longest of missions --   if the Russians didn't get you, an upset would.

    U-2 at Groom Lake

The U-2 was tested out in the Top Secret Area 51 in the Nevada desert, actually a cluster of several bases with names like  Groom Lake or Watertown - Kelly called the airplane Angel and the place Paradise Ranch - or just  "The Ranch."  Kelly likewise located and built this facility under the guise of CLJ Engineering (Clarence L. Johnson - he always found a way to use his initials) - all for $800,000.  He sent Tony out in the company Bonanza to scout locations, and two days later, they landed on the dry lake bed that was to assume such notoriety.  (Tony tossed out a few 16 lb lead shot weights to see if the surface was hard enough for landing.)  The below PPS presentation shows the early days at this Top Secret facility, with everyone living in the heat and dust in a bunch of travel trailers.  The pictures are quite unique, seem to be genuine home movie type photos, taken by someone that was there and were recently uncovered.  (I've always found it amazing how many home movies were taken in an assortment of supposedly highly classified operations - from the Doolittle Raid to the U-2, etc.)

Area 51 in the early days

Click here for more excellent old photos of U-2 testing at Groom Lake in "the good old days."

Ray Goudey was a Lockheed test pilot.  He was Project Pilot on the JetStar - making the first and last flights of the Prototype 25 years apart. That airplane is in the Museum's collection, and I got to meet him when he came to visit his old bird.  Since then, we have become good friends.  Ray also flew the U-2 - in the Linked PPS presentation, you can see him in several photos.  Ray hadn't seen this collection, and was glad to re-live the 'good old days' after I sent them to him.

     Ray Goudey     c. 1956


In Ben Rich's book on Lockheed's Skunk Works, CIA Director Richard Helms states " Building the U-2 was absolutely the smartest decision ever made by the CIA.  It was the greatest bargain and  the greatest triumph of the cold war."    His  aide Richard Bissell expanded on this theme:  "I have no doubt that the U-2 overflights of the Soviet Union made up the most important  intelligence-gathering operation ever launched by the West."  Knowing essentially nothing about Soviet bomber, missile, or nuclear weapons activity, President Eisenhower declared  this intelligence was the most urgent priority for the intelligence community.  "He told me the minute I flashed the signal to him that Kelly Johnson was ready to deliver that airplane, he was ready to give me permission to start those flights."   This intelligence changed the entire course of  the cold war and U.S. programs and strategies.  "After only four or five flights,....the evidence caused the president of the United States to draw in a deep breath, smile, and relax a bit."  

The U-2, in 1962, also discovered Russian missiles in Cuba that precipitated  the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Kennedy-Khruschev face-down that almost resulted in nuclear war.

That's Heavy stuff, and it came from Kelly Johnson - a guy who wouldn't take "No" for an answer.

Bob Bogash

    The Master with his creation


Wanna fly in a U-2?  The attached Link will take you to an interesting video of a British journalist taking a ride in the U-2  (wonder how you get to do this???)  It's quite impressive, including his repeatedly declaring he was "speechless."  I think the word he was looking for was "loquacious."  (BTW, the SR-71 flew a lot higher.)

Excellent page of U-2 Photos taken by Jim Goodall at Beale AFB in April 2006

My friend and aviation writer Barry Schiff describes his U-2 flight here.

Here's a page I created to commemorate Ray Goudey's visit to the Jetstar Prototype

The story of the U-2 Prototype, lost in an accident 4 April 1957 killing pilot Robert Sieker

Video of U-2 Aircraft Carrier Ops

    R.O.C.  Air Force pilots training on U-2

U-2s were operated by the Republic of China Air Force (Taiwan) on behalf of the CIA, and five or six were shot down over Mainland China.
The story of these operations is told in detail at this webpage.

One of these pilots made a dead-stick landing at night in Colorado during training.
 His first hand account can be found on this fascinating video.

A U-2 inadvertently overflew the Soviet Union at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.  The Russians tried to shoot it down, it ran out of fuel, and glided to a deadstick landing in Alaska.
The amazing story in the National Security Archives here.

Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr was uncovering Russian missile installations in Cuba when he was shot down on 27 Oct 1962. 
The full story here from the National Security Archives.

Reference Bibliography:

50 Years of the U-2 by Chris Pocock  --  The definitive U-2 reference book.

Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady by Dennis R. Jenkins - Warbird Tech Series Vol. 16

An excellent U-2 history:

Copyright 2010-2011  Robert Bogash.  All Rights Reserved.

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