WASHINGTON. — Soon after the Korean War, President Eisenhower was understandably curious about what Moscow might inspire next. The CIA couldn't tell him. To look for answers, Ike wanted an airplane that could safely overfly the Soviet Union.
The solution was obvious, but only one man could provide it. Into the president's office walked that man, Kelly Johnson.
''We're looking for an airplane that can fly so high no one can touch it,'' Ike said.
''That's pretty high,'' said Johnson.
''Can you do it?''
''With enough money, we can do anything.''
''How about $30 million?''
Maybe, Johnson said, but ''Who's going to be the boss? I don't like working with committees.''
''It will be you, a few generals here and there, and the CIA.''
''No dice, Mr. President. That's too many.''
In two more sentences, the poker game was over. Johnson would be boss. Predictably, it got more complicated than that. But Kelly Johnson was chief designer and ramrod -- and in a matter of months, the glider-like U-2 reconnaissance plane made its first flight.
Ernest K. Gann tells of this encounter between Eisenhower and Johnson in his book, ''The Black Watch,'' about ''the men who fly America's secret spy planes.'' There is much more to tell about Johnson, who died the other day at the age of 80.
Nobody else had a hidden hand in as many of America's great adventures of the past half-century. Presidents made decisions, generals oversaw their execution, pilots flew the missions -- but Kelly Johnson made the missions possible by designing the airplanes.
The U-2, which took detailed pictures of the Soviet heartland for four years before Moscow finally made a missile that could bring it down, was at the center of the historic 1960 showdown between Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev. Soon afterward it provided the photos to prove Khrushchev was installing offensive missiles in Cuba.
That was merely Johnson's most publicized invention. He also designed the fork-tailed P-38 Lightning, one of the fastest fighters of World War II. It was the only fighter with enough range to reach out and shoot down the Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who master-minded the Pearl Harbor attack, after U.S. code-breakers discovered he was headed for the combat zone in 1943.
Johnson designed the F-80 Shooting Star, this country's first jet fighter, a great success against Soviet MiGs in Korea. He designed the F-104 StarFighter, first operational jet to fly twice the speed of sound.
He was behind the Hudson, a maritime patrol plane that watched the seas for submarines in World War II, and a series of increasingly sophisticated planes that have filled that role ever since. He designed the Lockheed Constellation transport, with its distinctive triple rudders.
Aircraft designers still have not surpassed the SR-71 Blackbird, lTC the plane he built to succeed the U-2. It flies higher than 70,000 feet at sustained speeds of over 2,000 mph. It was America's eye in the sky for a quarter-century, on call for quick, precise intelligence on trouble spots off the orbital path of spy satellites. The Air Force said the Blackbird was honorably retired last year, but if a few are not flying around the Persian Gulf today, they should be.
Through cold war and hot, Johnson's planes have been everywhere. But their performance in flight may not be as remarkable as the way he brought some of them into being. One after another, he took on highly classified projects like the U-2 at his famed ''skunk works'' plant at Lockheed. And one after another, he brought them in under budget, under deadline.
Johnson proved that ''black'' projects, so secret they were beyond bureaucratic and political meddling, could work. But since his heyday, the B-2 Stealth bomber has run far beyond budget, and the Navy's A-12 seems about to be canceled. The obligatory conclusion is that ''black'' projects can indeed succeed -- if there is a Kelly Johnson to run them.
With nine years to go before 2000, some eager list-makers are already in print with their top men and moments of the century. At the dignified extreme, those lists are dominated by politicians. At the other end, they might even include Elvis and the Beatles.
Some discerning list-maker will recognize this as the Century of Flight -- from 1903, when man soared 852 feet at Kitty Hawk, past 1969, when he stepped onto the moon. If Kelly Johnson is not on that list, there will be a big hole in the middle of the century.