Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Kelly, by Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson with Maggie Smith

Kelly: More than My Share of It All, by Clarence L.

Clarence "Kelly" Johnson was one of the key aircraft designers at Lockheed, involved with such successes as the P-38 Lightning, the U-2, and my favorite, the SR-71 Blackbird. Kelly is the autobiography of this engineer, and a great deal of history about the Lockheed Corporation, now Lockheed Martin. The look Kelly gives into how aircraft were developed in the early part of the aviation era is fascinating, with wind tunnels and advanced metallurgy in their infancy. The mortality rate for test pilots was high, and at times Kelly came across as quite cold discussing this. "...the plane exploded on impact. The design result was an improved spline and pump and installation of an emergency fuel system."

The famous Skunk Works program was also founded by Kelly. The software industry has co-opted the term: at a good company it is used to describe small teams that foster innovation, and at a bad one it is used to ask people to do extra work under the guise of innovation. (Sadly, the latter is more common.) It was interesting reading about the formation and goals behind the original; one quote that stuck with me is one I'll use in my own career: "it is much better to lead people, not to drive them." That is a very eloquent way of phrasing a difficult concept—which probably is why it still resonates today despite being originally said in the 1930's.

Kelly wrote the book in 1985 and died in 1990. The conclusion was exactly what you'd expect from an engineer that was born when heavier-than-air craft were looked at with skepticism and retired after man walked on the moon. "By the year 2000, the 'death rays' of the comic strips and and science fiction will be a reality." The Star Wars SDI program never did materialize, but the LaWS laser system is about to be put into active service. Still a long way from phasers or blasters, but then we don't have our flying cars yet either. Ending aside, this book is a great look at a glamorous time in aviation history, and a peek into the life of a very interesting man.

First Sentence:
Northern Michigan in mid-winter is harsh, cold country to a young immigrant seeking to carve out a new life.

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