Clarence "Kelly" Johnson is probably the most recognizable name in the Aerospace Industry, rising to an iconic level as the designer of or major engineer involved with aircraft from the P-38 Lightning to the F-104 Starfighter and from the Lockheed Constellation to the SR-71 blackbird. He is widely regarded as a supremely capable engineer and aircraft designer, if not, THE supreme figure of the aerospace design and engineering industry. One of his principles was to seek the simplest solution for any problem, and this autobiography fits squarely in that mold, being a taut, quick, and easy to read story of what was a truly amazing life.
Kelly was born into rural northern Michigan to a working class family in 1910, a very modest begining for a meteoric career, but one which would prove fundamental. His family left him with a solid work ethic and a drive for learning, which he married to an intense interest in aviation he found by age 12. Working early in construction taught him the value of practicality and gave him a good knowledge of machinery. Guided half by accident and half by design he attended the University of Michigan gaining an excellent engineering degree - where aerospace engineers had to first complete strings of courses in all other engineering fields and where one of the nation's first wind tunnels was located. For someone who has suffered through engineering school, particularly being up till 2:00AM for days in a row studying in the dorms with a 8:00AM class looming while it seemed like over 50% of the rest of the students were running through the halls drunkenly fondling each other with classes in hyphenated American studies no earlier than noon, Kelly's experiences in college were, sadly, reassuring. He did not drink, nor did he have any time left over from his studies to go on any more than two dates his entire time at U of M, and he also suffered from ulcers that would last his entire life. He loved his studies though and what he got was a strong foundation in physics and engineering, and the discipline and know-how to teach himself to stay abreast of aerospace technology for what would be aviation's heyday of seemingly daily major advances.
Kelly's career at Lockheed is relatively well known and I won't go into it in detail, although the book does satisfyingly so. What was best for me from this majority section of the book were the timeless lessons learned about how best to design aircraft, build an aerospace company, deal with customer, etc. compared to how these things normally go in real life in contrast. Throughout the book he is straightforward and to the point, never embellishing, never bragging. He does however find room for levity, especially with regards to trying to teach Howard Hughes how to fly the Connie, and also for his philosophy of what is important in life which is quite morally inspired and rests on good values.
What emerges from this book is a picture of a patriotic, hard working, dedicated, and brilliant man who attained his genius more through work ethic and common sense than what was surely a healthy dose of natural ability. Near the book's end are his predictions for the aerospace industry, circa 1985. Many did not come to pass (not foreseeing the fall of the Soviet Union he predicted laser and particle beam weapons being common by 2000), some did (the shift in commercial transportation from speed to economy and fuel efficiency), and some may still (his predictions of mostly unmanned combat aircraft.) Throughout the book you get a well worthwhile glimpse into the reasoning behind the design decisions he made and the reasons for his beliefs and predictions for aerospace, which become more interesting in the limelight of hindsight rather than less so.
A passionate advocate for ethics and direct, straightforward management in the aerospace industry Kelly has set an example worthy of emulation by today's engineers, designers and managers. Definitely recommended for workers in the aerospace industry, or aerospace history buffs.