DESIGN: Those Were The Times No.29: Parallel Genius – Walt Disney and Kelly Johnson

Written by Bob Gurr. Posted in Bob Gurr, Design: Those Were The Times

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Published on April 30, 2014 at 3:00 am with 7 Comments

Today’s Wheel of Years stopped at 2014, so here we go. While folding newspapers for my Studio City California Hollywood Citizens-News paper route in 1944, a screaming roar approached me. A jet plane, the first jet plane I’d ever seen. Not just any jet plane, but America’s very first jet plane – the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. In seconds it was out of sight, just the exhaust roar fading in the distance. That experience is still vibrant in my memory today, seventy years later.

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A few years earlier in 1941 I attended Burbank Military Academy situated near the famed Lockheed Aircraft factory located at the Lockheed Air Terminal (now Bob Hope Airport). Lockheed was building both the twin-engined Hudson Bomber and the spectacular P-38 Lightning Fighter. These planes performed test flights many times each day as they rolled off the assembly line destined for Britain and the war against Nazi Germany. After the US became embroiled in WWII that December 7th, America needed more advanced warplanes – a jet fighter. In early 1944, Lockheed was rumored to have one, built at a new secret Burbank factory internally known as the Skunk Works. (To learn more, visit HERE)

Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star

Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star

Soon, actual photos were released of the Shooting Star – to me, the most beautiful airplane I’d ever seen. Sleek and simple, pure of shape, shiny soft gray in color, America’s first real fighter jet plane, built close to where I lived in North Hollywood California. Over the next year or so, more of these gorgeous jets were doing local test flights along with the other Lockheed designs – Hudsons and Lightnings, even B-17 Bombers license-built by Lockheed’s Vega Division. Oh boy, I was in airplane watching heaven!

Not until many years later did I learn the full story of the Skunk Works. In 1953 I had a very secret temporary job at Lockheed working on final interior designs for President Eisenhower’s Columbine – today known as Air Force One. It was a graceful four-engine Constellation. It turned out I was actually working right next to the Skunk Works…whoa! My work was so secret, I actually forgot about it until years later. By that time, the Skunk Works was quite well known, led by a genius engineer named Kelly Johnston.

P-80 Cutaway Drawing

P-80 Cutaway Drawing

Hop ahead to about 1990. Kelly had written a fantastic book all about his unique and spectacular airplanes – Shooting Star, Constellation, U-2 Spy Plane, and the stellar SR-71 Blackbird. The U-2 and the SR-71 were the most amazing secret weapons America needed during the Cold War. Kelly was the Star. Educated as an aeronautical engineer, but gifted beyond belief as an advanced aircraft designer, a true Rembrandt of airplanes. From what I then learned, he became my number one design hero. I yearned to learn everything I could about his creativeness, about his team, about how they did it, typically in total secrecy.

Back in the early 1940s, Air Progress Magazine printed detailed technical phantom drawings showing exactly how airplanes are built. I cherished every drawing, learning all I could about aircraft design. Eventually the Lockheed Shooting Star was revealed in all it’s detail. The interior structures were just as beautiful as the exterior shapes. An airplane designer was what I wanted to be when I grew up. But, long story short, Walt Disney’s WED Enterprises was to be my home from 1954 thru 1981.

Revealed in Kelly’s book was a 14-point list of how successful projects are managed. I was startled by how parallel these points were to how Walt guided his co-workers (later referred to as Imagineers) got things done so fast. Not only fast, but first-of-a-kind breakthroughs too. Disneyland. These points became the operating bible of the famed Skunk Works. My admiration for Kelly was such that I asked him to autograph a poster of the SR-71 Blackbird in 1990. Shortly afterward the Air Force arranged a special low altitude flight over the Lockheed factory as a salute to a then ailing Kelly Johnson. I was there also and witnessed the sight of an SR-71 doing a buzz job over the Burbank Airport at an altitude BELOW the air traffic control tower – not one, but two passes. Kelly was said to have shed tears at the sight. Not long afterwards, the Skunk Works master genius had gone west.

Blackbird - c. Lockheed- Martin

Blackbird – c. Lockheed- Martin

Hop ahead again, this time to April 2014. I had been invited to make a presentation to the engineers of the Skunk Works by their Engineering VP out at their super secret plant in Palmdale, located in the desert north of Los Angeles. Oh my gosh, what an honor – to share with Kelly’s newest generation of engineers some tales of how Walt Disney’s organization got things done so fast, but not in secret! The Skunk Works real name is Lockheed-Martin Advanced Development Programs, or ADP for short. Several times a year ADP invites “outsiders” to share their engineering experiences with ADP folks in a monthly forum, Lunch & Learn (with free pizza).

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A Nighthawk – Photo by LM Aero

ADP had planned a four-hour visit for me – the forum, plant tour, and a wrap-up executive meeting. This was the the top highlight of all the presentations I’ve made over the past 40 years. To share the Disney design experiences with the successors of my hero Kelly Johnson inside their American Treasure, the Skunk Works. I shared with them my edited version of Kelly’s 14 points to illustrate the parallel paths shared by both Walt and Kelly:

  1. The Skunk Works manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects. He should report to a division president or higher. I had total control and one boss only.
  2. Strong but small project offices must be provided both by the military and industry. One office only.
  3. The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems). Only a handful.
  4. A very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes must be provided. Myself and/or 4 or 5 drafters – boss handled first drawings, I furnished sketches on the fly – no RFP forms.
  5. There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly. None.
  6. There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been spent and committed but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program. No reviews, just follow the weekly cost runs without comment.
  7. The contractor must be delegated and must assume more than normal responsibility to get good vendor bids for subcontract on the project. Commercial bid procedures are very often better than military ones. We built it.
  8. The inspection system as currently used by the Skunk Works, which has been approved by both the Air Force and Navy, meets the intent of existing military requirements and should be used on new projects. Push more basic inspection responsibility back to subcontractors and vendors. Don’t duplicate so much inspection. I watched it all.
  9. The contractor must be delegated the authority to test his final product in flight. He can and must test it in the initial stages. If he doesn’t, he rapidly loses his competency to design other vehicles. I was the test driver.
  10. The specifications applying to the hardware must be agreed to well in advance of contracting. The Skunk Works practice of having a specification section stating clearly which important military specification items will not knowingly be complied with and reasons therefore is highly recommended. We didn’t specify – just build it!
  11. Funding a program must be timely so that the contractor doesn’t have to keep running to the bank to support government projects. At Disney, money was never an issue at any time – we built it until it was finished.
  12. There must be mutual trust between the military project organization and the contractor, the very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis. This cuts down misunderstanding and correspondence to an absolute minimum. We worked closely with Disneyland maintenance and operations so no surprises either way.
  13. Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled by appropriate security measures. We invited vendor close cooperation – they were excited to help the new Disneyland project.
  14. Because only a few people will be used in engineering and most other areas, ways must be provided to reward good performance by pay not based on the number of personnel supervised. We all worked together – I led.

What a wonderful connection that had it’s beginning 70 years ago.

Well folks, what do you think? Did Walt Disney and Kelly Johnson have it right? How does that compare to how things are done today?

 - Bob Gurr

About Bob Gurr

Bob Gurr is a true Disney legend who was hired on to design the Autopia for Disneyland. Over nearly four decades, Bob would become famous for developing the Monorails, Submarines, Flying Saucers, antique cars and double-decker buses of Main Street, Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway (at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), Omnimover ride system, Matterhorn and lots more. It has been said that if it moves, Bob probably played a part. Upon leaving Imagineering in 1981, Bob worked on a number of "leisure-time spectaculars" and "fantastical beasts" for parks and developments all over the world. Most notably, he created King Kong and Conan's Serpent for Universal Studios Hollywood, A UFO for the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the memorable T-Rex figure featured in Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Jurassic Park." You can find Bob's column, Design: Those Were The Times, right here on MiceChat. Though don't pin Bob down to a schedule, he's busy being "retired."

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  • wmatzner

    What great parallels in thinking. It shows that many geniuses think alike. Did Walt and Kelly ever meet as far as you know?
    Does Imagineering still follow these basic principles?

  • Erik Olson

    Bob,

    Echoing what wmatzner asked – how do current WED / Imagineering SOPs correlate to the Skunk Works today? Given what many of us perceive as a “farming-out” or subcontracting of Imagineering to outside vendors, things must certainly be different since your retirement?

  • lionheartkc

    I think we just found, in print, why Disney was far more innovative and worked a lot more quickly back in Bob’s day…

    “Funding a program must be timely so that the contractor doesn’t have to keep running to the bank to support government projects. At Disney, money was never an issue at any time – we built it until it was finished.”

    Those days are obviously long gone.

    • Bob Gurr

      Sadly yes, those were the days my friend… Today, business is a necessary MBA managed world, but the amazing personal contributions to American Achievement by both Walt and Kelly stand self-evident for a free-leader method. I’m honored to have been asked to help.

  • flayrah

    Such a great article and excellent operating principles I can apply to my own work. I never new you worked on the Columbine – I’d like to hear more about how you approached design and function on the first Air Force One! And growing up surrounded with the latest technology and innovation literally flying overhead. What experiences you’ve had, and unquestionably more to come!

  • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

    Wonderful stuff here. And although the project process may have changed dramatically over the years, there is a lot here for modern project managers to learn from the successful builders of the past. There’s no doubt that Walt and Kelly got it right!

  • DobbysCloset

    I am not much of a aeronautical engineering but the P-80 is cute for an airplane. It reminds me of the two-seater Ford Thunderbird, and I could see it on duty in the Toontown Air Force.