Read an Excerpt
Kelly Johnson was a brilliant airplane designer and possibly the most innovative aviation pioneer since the Wright brothers. I have fond memories of flying overseas on Kelly-designed TWA Constellations. Years later, my son and I built models of the alien-like SR-71 Blackbird, another Kelly innovation. And I remember sitting in the stands in front of the runway at Edwards Air Force Base near Mojave, California, during Armed Forces Day, and having the privilege of seeing a top-secret Kelly-designed craft.
It was a strange looking plane, flying low and slow, and the people in the crowd murmured its name softly as if they were afraid of divulging a military secret. It had unusually long wings, resembling those of a glider, but as it neared the middle of the runway it suddenly turned its nose skyward and with a menacing and throbbing roar of its J57 turbojet engine, headed straight up until it was out of sight, a breathtaking display of power. It was the U-2.
Kelly, head of Lockheed's top-secret "Skunk Works," designed the world's highest-performance aircraft, planes capable of feats many engineers deemed impossible; unknown to those naysayers, in some cases the secret planes were already operational.
The superiority of his designs is irrefutable. After more than 45 years, Kelly's 2,000 mph Blackbird remains the fastest piloted jet ever built. In 1974 it flew from New York to London in a record-breaking 1 hr. 55 min! And returned non-stop London to Los Angeles in 3 hr. 48 min, outracing the sun and landing four hours before it had taken off. It covered its final flight from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. in slightly more than an hour. And this is declassified information. Its real performance limits remain classified.