Photo of Clarence L. Johnson

Clarence L. Johnson

  • National Medal of Science
  • Engineering

For bold innovations in the use of materials and in the design of aircraft of unusual configurations that pioneered new vistas for the possibility of flight

In grade school, Clarence L. Johnson broke the leg of a bully who dared to call him “Clara.”

The trouncing earned him the tougher nickname “Kelly” – a moniker that survived a career of confronting challenges.

Johnson was known for his gall.

In his first weeks at Lockheed, the former Michigan farm boy marched into his boss’ office and flagged errors in the company’s new aircraft, the Electra. In 1938, Johnson, then 28, spent 72 sleepless hours designing a new plane to help Great Britain prepare for war.

He is credited with designing the first 400 MPH aircraft, the P-38 Lightning. His secret group of engineers – called Skunk Works – spent nine months developing the world’s first spy plane, the U-2.

A demanding leader, Johnson didn’t tolerate making the same error twice, often holding his employees to the same perfectionistic motto he lived by himself:

“Be quick, be quiet, be on time.”