The Time Of The Angel

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Kelly Johnson was a shy, chubby genius who looked rather like W. C. Fields, and whose idea of recreation was working calculus problems. He was probably the most brilliant aircraft designer alive. During his long career he created the famous P-38 of World War II, the F-80, which was America’s first jet fighter; the C-130 Hercules, which is still an Air Force cargo workhorse; the F-104 Starfighter; and the high-altitude SR-71. A man who liked to work with a compact staff and a minimum of fuss and red tape, his stature with Lockheed was such that he had almost total autonomy. Now he hand-picked a small team of twenty-three engineers and technicians and moved them into a Lockheed hangar in Burbank, California—a secret workshop that Johnson named “the Skunk Works,” after the spot in Dogpatch where Hairless Joe brewed UD his famous Kickanoo Joy Juice.

 
 

It was no wonder the Air Force had considered the plane impossible to build. To be safe from interception it had to fly at an altitude of seventy thousand feet—some twenty-five thousand feet above the operating ceilings of contemporary aircraft. In the thin air at that altitude, a jet engine would barely run at all, and it would produce only 6 per cent of its sea-level thrust. The plane had to stay in the air for over ten hours and cruise as far as a B-52, and its fuel capacity was so limited that it had to get an incredibly efficient five miles per gallon of fuel while flying at five hundred miles per hour. And since the crash landing of a spy plane on foreign soil would have serious diplomatic repercussions, the new aircraft had to be highly reliable.

Under tight security, Johnson’s team went to work on the project, which was code-named “Aquatone.” The plane that soon took shape in the Skunk Works was a marvel of elegant simplicity, a sleek machine with an eighty-foot span of slender, tapering wings. It looked more like a glider than a conventional airplane, and indeed from seventy thousand feet it would glide for three hundred miles before touching the earth. Johnson’s engineers struggled to pare away every ounce of excess weight. They designed a wing that weighed only three pounds per square foot- a third that of a normal aircraft. They attached the tail assembly to the fuselage with just three bolts. They designed the canopy above the cockpit to be operated by hand. Instead of heavy conventional landing gear the plane had “pogos”—tiny wheels suspended from the wingtips by slender rods. On takeoff, the pogos dropped off as soon as the plane was airborne. On landing, the pilot coasted in on a belly wheel and lightweight skids on the wingtips. Disassembled, the entire plane could be stowed away in a cargo aircraft or transported to a take-off point by truck.

The plane would ultimately become known as the U-2. But the men in the Skunk Works had a nickname of their own for the graceful machine they were creating. They called it “the Angel.”

As the first Angels were built in the Skunk Works, Bissell, Kelly Johnson, and Lockheed test pilot Tony Levier armed themselves with topographical maps and made scouting flights over the western deserts, looking for a location so remote that the Angel could be test flown in total secrecy. Finally they found a dry lake bed that could serve as a landing strip. Now roads had to be built, a well dug, hangars and living quarters erected at the hidden site. The construction crews who did this job had no idea what they were working on, and indeed everything about the Angel was shrouded in secrecy. In discussions the plane was known as “the article,” the pilot was called “the driver,” and the secret desert base was called “home plate.” In Burbank, disassembled Angels were loaded into covered trucks, which pulled out at dusk and traveled to “home plate” during the night.

On August 6, 1955, just under eight months from the day that Kelly Johnson got the go-ahead from Bissell, the Angel was ready to fly. On its first taxi test the plane popped thirty-six feet into the air—with its ultralight construction and enormous wingspan, the Angel simply wanted to fly. When Tony Levier took the plane up on its first flight, he had to try five times before he could force the eager Angel back to earth.

Until the pilots got accustomed to the plane, the Angel’s determination to stay airborne caused them considerable difficulty. There were other snags too. Condensation formed on the faceplates of the pilots’ pressure suits, blurring their vision, and the Pratt and Whitney engine that powered the plane proved subject to flameouts at high altitudes. Before all these problems were solved, one Angel crashed, a second disintegrated, and a third disappeared along with its pilot.