I am an average pilot who feels very lucky to have known Paul Johns who died last week at age one hundred and four. I’ve been shooting his birthday portraits for the past few years and below you can see the last of them from his final birthday celebration in October of 2017.
Years ago an acquaintance introduced me to the idea that one might touch greatness. He played a fine Martin D45 and chose his heroes from among the greatest guitarists of his youth. This was long before people became famous for being famous, and touching greatness meant more than being a fan-boy for the latest fad. My friend the musician never bragged about his famous friends or claimed degrees of separation. By touching greatness he meant that under unique and fortuitous circumstances an average person might meet someone celebrated for significant achievement and for living a noteworthy life.
Paul Johns, pilot
Paul Johns had the kind of flying experience that many dream of but few will have. He soloed for the first time in a glider in 1929 when he was fifteen years old. That was on his first training day marking him as an early and gifted pilot.
His celestial navigation and instrument flying were so superior that he was recruited to teach military pilots to depend entirely on their instruments for flight in the clouds. Navigating by cockpit instruments alone is required whenever the nighttime or weather make it impossible to see outside the airplane. That’s just as true today but modern pilots have additional situational help from ground and satellite-based navigational aids, radar, and GPS that were not yet invented in Paul’s time.
After the war Paul flew DC3s and flying boats for Pan American Airlines including the Boeing Clipper on the 2,400 mile route from San Francisco to Honolulu. On each eighteen hour crossing the lives of two dozen passengers depended on the pilot/navigator’s skills. In recognition of his long and remarkable aviation career Paul Johns joined the 2009 inductees of the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame.
Paul Johns, Centenarian
Paul flew his home-built Kitfox airplane until the age of 85. Then at ninety years old he learned computer repair and became a competent iPad user. Paul was a licensed ham radio operator (KF9ZN). And as a centenarian he was still building and selling his own design for one of the best radio antennas for fabric airplanes. He could tell a good story full of memorable details and never lost a bit of his mental sharpness or good humor. At his 104th birthday Paul Johns stood for ten minutes with microphone in hand telling stories and thanking by name his many friends at which he never faltered.
In August 2015 the Central County Airport at Iola, Wisconsin, was renamed Paul Johns Field to honor him for his long and remarkable career. Lunch at Iola is a Friday event sponsored by the Central County Flyers group of pilots and other community volunteers that draws aviation enthusiasts by plane and car (many of which are prized and vintage) from near and far. Paul Johns rarely missed the weekly Lunch at Iola. He was a pilot and a gentleman, innovator, inspiration, friend, and role model.
In late spring his ashes will be scattered in the grass of Runway 22 and Paul Johns will be remembered as a wonderful man, a very good friend who will be greatly missed by us all.