Beyond the Horizons
The Lockheed Story
by Walter J. Boyne

St. Martin's: New York, 1998

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
542 pages; many illustrations May 2012

History aloft and concealed

Aviation historian Walter J. Boyne provides in Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story a solid history of the Lockheed Aircraft Company. There's a wide range to cover: early experimental airplanes; a number of aircraft types critical in World War II; later missiles and satellites — and plenty in between. Aircraft designers, builders, pilots, and managers of the complex effort all are profiled and their interwoven challenges explained. The story begins with the Loughead brothers' pioneering ventures into aviation in the early years of the Twentieth Century, and ends with the giant corporate merger of Lockheed with Martin Marietta in 1995.

Since both my parents had been pilots, with my father Wilfred R. Franson briefly working for Lockheed during World War II while awaiting active-duty orders from the Army Air Corps, Lockheed remained a household word in my family when I was a kid, and later. Along with admiration for the company's innovative and reliable products, I particularly recall my father's scorn at the attempt to camouflage the giant Lockheed aircraft plant in Burbank, a San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles. Boyne says:

After the stunning attack on Pearl Harbor, the fear of a similar strike on the West Coast was very real. Aircraft factories were camouflaged with netting that was replete with trees, houses, and so on to make the area look like a rural countryside from the air.

My father maintained that simply comparing an ordinary gas-station map of Los Angeles to aerial observation or photographs would immediately reveal the giant "rural" intrusion into the city-street grid, clearly delimiting the famous aircraft plant.

The famous planes discussed include the Vega with its wooden hull, Electra twin-tail airliner, Hudson two-engine bomber (based on the Electra), P-38 twin-engine fighter, B-47 four-engine bomber, Constellation / C-69 airliner, F-94 Starfire (first all-weather jet fighter), C-130 Hercules giant cargo plane, U-2 high-altitude spy plane, and JetStar. I enjoyed the coverage of the designers working through a variety of engineering problems, including speed, reliability, survivability (for the military planes). Of course the planes all had to be tested, so we also see a number of test pilots risking their lives to check out new machines or configurations. During the Cold War, Lockheed built, for U.S. Navy submarines, the Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident ballistic missiles.

Early designers and engineers besides Allan Lockheed include Kelly Johnson, Jack Northrop, and Gerald Vultee. More widely famous flying pioneers discussed and shown in Beyond the Horizon include Amelia Earhart, Howard Hughes, Charles Lindbergh, Wiley Post, and Roscoe Turner — not only superb pilots but necessarily engineers and showmen as well.

We're so used to flying as a matter of everyday life, that it's hard to recapture the sense of wonderful adventure, danger, and romance in aviation through World War II and somewhat beyond. My father didn't do any flying for Lockheed during his short stint at the Burbank plant during World War II, but when he began his workdays, he would hang on some prominent hook his leather flight jacket with Army Air Corps pilot's wings facing outward. As a young single guy, he really enjoyed the looks he got from the gals doing war-work at the plant.

Before the Second World War began, Lockheed was talking with the British government about plane designs, such as converting the Super Electra airliner into a bomber — which became the British Hudson two-engine bomber. For a wooden mock-up early in 1938,

... the fact that it was available and on-hand for inspection [in only five days] impressed the British representatives, and raised Lockheed from its previous position in the West Coast shadow of Douglas and Boeing to the rank of a principal contender for the flood of contracts about to be unleashed from Europe.

As designs focussed and competition intensified,

The British didn't care for the crew placement, and asked that the navigator be placed close to the pilot so that they could work together on reconnaissance missions. The man who was later to command the RAF's Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris, was invited to return to see the changes a few days later. Harris demurred because he still had to visit the Consolidated and Boeing plants. Later he wrote, "To my astonishment, only twenty-four hours later a car arrived to fetch me out to the Lockheed works, and there I saw a mock-up of all our requirements in plywood, fitted complete in every detail, with two alternative noses hinged on to a real aircraft all ready for our inspection. ... I was entirely convinced that anyone who could produce a mock-up in twenty-four hours would indeed make good all his promises — and this Lockheed certainly did."

I found some of the most interesting history here to be that of the P-38 Lightning, giving me quite a bit more respect for this twin-engine fighter plane, "a very stable gun platform":

More than one hundred pilots became aces in the P-38 in the Pacific, where the Lightning claimed 1,358 victories, more than any other fighter. ...

Major Richard Bong was America's leading ace in World War II, with 40 victories, all achieved in the P-38. ...

Charles Lindbergh ... delighted to be employed in meaningful war work after his ill-favored attempt at pacifist politics before the war, had a long acquaintance with Lockheed products. His cruise-control methods of low rpm and high manifold pressure were widely adopted, extending the range of the Lightning to seven hundred miles. Lindbergh was flying with McDonald's flight of eight P-38s on July 28, 1944. They encountered two Japanese Ki 51 Sonia reconnaissance planes; in a long, confusing dogfight, Lindbergh found himself firing at one Sonia that kept turning into him, finally passing under him by less than ten feet. His shots had gone home, however, and the Sonia crashed into the water below.

There are three problems in Walter Boyne's Beyond the Horizon, and none of them are really his fault, nor from a sufficiently elevated perspective, flaws at all. The first is that there is way too much history for any single volume to cover everything interesting with the depth we might like. The Skunk Works brilliant and efficient engineering center, the Corona and Discoverer spy satellites, C-130s supplying besieged Khe Sanh in Vietnam, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the infamous C-5A cost overrun, the Hubble orbital telescope, and so on — all receive good coverage which makes me wish for more. The second problem to my taste is that toward the end of the book we read more about management and less about products. One reason for this is the inherent bureaucratic tendency toward self-suffocation: for the C-130,

The Lockheed response to the Air Force's request for a proposal was less than three-quarters of an inch thick. Only fourteen years later, the Lockheed proposal for a proposed Air Force transport would weigh six thousand pounds.

A third difficulty is that with Lockheed's shift into defense work, its projects increasingly are secret, and remain so with good reason. So if we are reading more about excellent managers of the versatile Lockheed team doing work that cannot be described in Beyond the Horizon, the situation is to America's benefit and ours; and on that note we will draw a curtain across Lockheed Aircraft's great and continuing accomplishments.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

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