Johnson's Hunch Becomes a Lockheed Signature

Johnson's Hunch Becomes a Lockheed Signature
October 01, 2020

After more than 70 tests, Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson pulled the model airplane with the 55-inch wingspan out of the wind tunnel at the University of Michigan for the final time. It was 1933, and the 23-year-old aviation engineering wunderkind had sensed months earlier that there was a problem with the design of the sleek plane. Now he had proof he could share with the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation engineering team in Burbank, Calif.

The stakes couldn’t have been higher. As the first all-metal Lockheed airplane and the first to be outfitted with twin engines, the model represented a dramatic leap forward in aircraft technology. In fact, it represented the future of Lockheed itself. The company had been bought out of receivership the previous year during the depths of the Great Depression by its new owner, Robert Gross, himself just 35 years old. Lockheed was desperately in need of a new aircraft that would once again position it as an innovative industry leader.

Johnson’s insight, confirmed by the wind tunnel tests, was that the model’s single-tail configuration lacked stability. He recommended a twin-tail design, with the rudders placed directly behind each engine as well as related design revisions. Not only did the twin-tail version far outperform the initial design, it became a signature Lockheed design repeated in other Lockheed models.

Change Is in the Air

Johnson’s wind tunnel work was the first of many crucial insights that, in his own lifetime, branded him the century’s leading aircraft designer. It also represented the innovative approach to teamwork adopted by Lockheed’s new management team.

Lloyd Stearman, the President of the newly-reorganized Lockheed Aircraft and an expert aircraft designer in his own right, began working on designs for an all-metal, single-engine, single-rudder plane. The design was envisioned to replace the wooden, single-engine Orion. The combined brainpower and vision of Lockheed’s young leadership team would transform that initial design into a true game-changer.

Gross wanted an aircraft that embodied the very latest in engineering innovations; a plane that would be fast and inexpensive to produce, and easily adaptable to the constantly evolving aviation market. He turned to a team of developers already in place—men like noted engineers Richard Von Hake and Stearman—who each had experience building their own planes. Chief engineer Hall Hibbard brought Johnson on board, and backed Johnson’s initial hunch that the plane’s single-tail configuration was a problem.

Together, the Lockheed team created a unique twin-engine, twin-tail prototype. It was called the Electra—named after a star in the Pleiades cluster—but also carried the designation Model 10, which was the next available model number in the Lockheed line.

Amelia Earhart

The Electra immediately attracted the interest of smaller airlines, especially Northwest Airlines and Pan American Airways, both of which purchased Electras for their fleets by yearend 1934. But for sales to outpace development costs Gross knew he needed to attract to other sectors of the aviation public: the military and private plane enthusiasts.

Enter Amelia Earhart. As the first woman to successfully undertake a transatlantic flight, which she navigated in a red Lockheed Vega, Earhart positively sparkled with star power.

Earhart had set her sights on a new goal: circumnavigate the globe along a grueling 29,000-mile route following the equator, the longest distance yet attempted. The aircraft she’d use for the journey would be a Lockheed Electra.

To enable the plane to travel farther between fueling stops, Lockheed engineers equipped her 10-E Electra with special fuselage tanks that allowed the plane to carry 1,200 gallons of fuel instead of the customary 200.

Earhart’s ambitious mission was both unprecedented and dangerous. During the flight, she disappeared with her navigator, Fred Noonan, somewhere over the South Pacific.

The story of Earhart’s disappearance recently gained new momentum, as a new expedition began their search for the Electra’s wreckage near the Pacific island of Nikumaroro.

Electra Junior

To meet a need for a smaller, faster aircraft, the Lockheed engineering team oversaw a major redesign creating the Model 12 Electra Junior, which reduced the original plane’s wing area by 23 percent yet ensured a respectable top speed of 225 mph.

For someone like Capt. James Sidney Cotton—a British World War I ace known for wearing mechanic’s coveralls in flight—the Model 12 Electra Junior was the perfect plane, both fast and easily maneuverable. Cotton hid seven cameras on his personal aircraft and flew numerous missions in his Electra Junior above the Mediterranean and North Africa through 1939, snapping key photographs of Nazi positions. His work led to the formation of the Royal Air Force’s Photographic Reconnaissance Unit.

Howard Hughes

The Electra’s bigger cousin, the Model 14 Super Electra caught the eye of a man who seemed determined to conquer the skies.

The irrepressible Howard Hughes, known for his daring motion picture epics, set out in 1938 to achieve his most daunting goal yet: setting the speed record for an around-the-world flight. He asked Lockheed to equip a Super Electra with 1,100-horsepower engines and the latest in radio and navigation equipment.

The Electra proved more than up to the task, averaging 206.1 mph for Hughes, who flew around the world in a flight time of just 71 hours, 11 minutes, and 10 seconds.

Global Reach

By this time, Lockheed’s Model 14 Super Electras were selling well, especially to foreign commercial carriers. Lockheed pitted its Super Electra directly against the Douglas DC-3, offering an aircraft that boasted a 45-mph speed advantage and new Fowler flaps, which reduced approach and landing speeds.

By 1937, Lockheed had $5 million in orders for this regal Model 14, ultimately building 112 planes that could be seen taking off and landing at airports from Poland to Japan.

While the movie-going public in 1942 teared up during the final heart-wrenching goodbye between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, a scale model of a Lockheed Model 10 Electra appeared in the mist to whisk her and her husband, the dashing resistance leader Paul Henreid, out of North Africa to safety.

Sources and Additional Reading