SECRET SKIES

Ishpeming native, spy plane designer profiled on History Channel

Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, chief designer at Lockheed’s secret “Skunk Works” facility, initially designed the U-2 around the F-104 Starfighter fuselage. (U.S. Air Force photo)

By Craig Linde
Premiering in June on the History Channel was a two-hour special called “Secrets in the Sky: The Untold Story of Skunk Works.” This program dealt with the history of the super-secret “Skunk Works” research facility at Lockheed Aviation and its chief designer and director, Kelly Johnson. Johnson was the renowned developer of a multitude of famous aircraft over a span of 50 years.
Those unfamiliar with this name may have seen it before and not realized it. If you have ever driven out to the terminal building at K.I. Sawyer Airport using the access road off M-553, you might have noticed a small green sign denoting it as the Kelly Johnson Memorial Drive. This sign is located on the right side of the access road just after the turn onto it.
Clarence “Kelly” Johnson was born in Ishpeming in 1910, the seventh of nine children. The first chapter of his autobiography, Kelly: More Than My Share of it All, talks about his upbringing in Ishpeming and how he acquired his nickname, which he used the rest of his life.
At the age of 13, his family moved downstate where his father, a Swedish immigrant, opened a construction business.
As an adult, Kelly graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Aeronautical Engineering. He was soon hired at the Lockheed Corporation in Burbank California. His illustrious career involved the design or development of some of the most important aircraft of the 20th century…

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