The Lockheed U-2 flew at 70,000 feet, an altitude so high that it was virtually invulnerable to the jet interceptors and even surface-to-air missiles of the era.

Today would have been the 102nd birthday of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the famed aircraft engineer and founder of the legendary “Skunk Works”. Johnson’s accomplishments are simply amazing — think of him as the Steve Jobs of the aerospace industry, except that he had both the engineering AND design skills. Here are just some of the aircraft that he was largely responsible for:

    P-38 Lightning
    P-80 Shooting Star
    F-104 Starfighter
    U-2
    SR-71 Blackbird (and its predecessor, the A-12)

Johnson won the prestigious Collier Trophy twice, once for the F-104 and again for the SR-71. The Blackbird, which first flew in 1964 remains the fastest aircraft ever built and still holds the record for altitude for a conventional plane.

Johnson was able to accomplish these remarkable feats of engineering by isolating his team in a building just off the main Burbank campus, a blacked-out structure dubbed the “Skunk Works”. He kept the team relatively small and focused, bypassing long-held industry protocols by sometimes allowing work to proceed before drawings were finalized and having the men on the floor design parts from sketches. He was not necessarily a fun guy to work for, but he engendered a great deal of loyalty and his track record is unassailable.

When Johnson was working on the U-2 spyplane for the CIA, the work was so secret, he was sent cheques to his personal mailbox to cover the cost of R&D. The Air Force was not too happy when they found out that the CIA had gone behind their back to start their own covert air arm. Pilots overflying the Soviet Union had to resign their Air Force commissions and become civilians. The CIA aircraft bore no national markings. It was the height of the Cold War and the Skunk Works led by Johnson played a huge part in gathering intelligence. It is unlikely that any aircraft will ever duplicate the feats of the U-2 and SR-71.

Today, aircraft are designed and built by consortiums comprised of multiple companies across multiple countries. The days where Kelly could sell the Air Force a new jet based just on his sales pitch and then retire to the Skunk Works to preside over its creation are gone forever.