Kelly: More Than My Share of It All

Reviewed on , book by Clarence L. Johnson

Kelly Johnson was the Elon Musk of the 50s and 60s. He’s designed some of the most popular fighter jets, not to mention the fastest plane ever built, the SR-71 Blackbird. This is his story, from a poor family in Michigan, to the head of Skunk Works—one of the most productive aircraft design departments ever.

Some of my favourite lines from the book..

I have a philosophy that those who design aircraft also should fly them—to keep a proper perspective. The engineer knows where the quarter-inch bolts may be marginal, what the flaps are likely to do or not do. I’ve shared the concern of the pilot. I figured I needed to have hell scared out of me once a year in order to keep a proper balance and viewpoint on designing new aircraft. … A lot of engineers don’t like pilots. Even more pilots don’t like engineers.
Kelly understood Skin in the Game.

I get the Ben Franklin vibe of relentless self-development, with such a deep, genuine interest in his field:

It was and is important for an engineer to keep up with advancing technology. Studying, fortunately, still held for me the same fascination that it had when I discovered the Carnegie library in Ishpeming. On one summer vacation in those early years, I reworked all of the problems in Fred Weick’s classic book, Aircraft Propeller Design. On another vacation years later, I reworked every problem in Dr. Clyde E. Love’s, Differential and Integral Calculus, which I had completed in college. I was determined not to lose my capability in mathematics. And I enjoyed both vacations.
I found the number of engineers who worked on these ridiculously complicated planes mindblowing:

The Skunk Works at Lockheed has moved four times since the first shop was constructed of engine boxes and a tent in 1943, and its first project, the XP-80 jet fighter, was built with just 120 people in 143 days. There were only 23 engineers on the project. There were 37 engineers on the JetStar corporate transport. The U-2 many years later employed a total of 50 people on both experimental and production engineering. On the enormously more difficult SR-71, there were only 135 engineers.
Finally, some important lessons in setting up a “moonshot department” within an established company:

Most companies, while desiring the benefits, will not pay the price in revised methods and procedures for setting up a Skunk Works-type of operation. They will not delegate the authority to one individual, as Lockheed did in my case from the very first Skunk Works. It requires management confidence and considerable courage.
I quite liked this line:

There is a tendency today, which I hate to see, toward design by committee—reviews and recommendations, conferences and consultations, by those not directly doing the job. Nothing very stupid will result, but nothing brilliant either. And it’s in the brilliant concept that a major advance is achieved.
Books like Loonshots also advocate for businesses needing two separate cultures. One that rewards ‘franchising’ what’s already there with incremental changes, and one that rewards step-changes:

Development of some of this country’s most spectacular projects—the atom bomb, the Sidewinder missile, the nuclear-powered submarine—all were accomplished by methods other than the conventional way of doing business outside the system.
The only reason this is not 5 stars is that in the middle of the book he goes on to explain the airplanes he was designing, one by one. This got repetitive for me, as someone who’s not too spellbound by aeronautics, but more by the culture of the environment and Kelly’s own history.