“Fait pour Valour” a story about my hero, my mentor, Captain Ralph S. Johnson

“Fait pour Valour” a story about my hero, my mentor, Captain Ralph S. Johnson
“Fait pour Valour” a story about my hero, my mentor, Captain Ralph S. Johnson

“Fait pour Valour”

(Born to Fly)

Billy Walker

The Captain Ralph S. Johnson story is an amazing portrait of a great American aviator. From his humble beginnings on an Indiana farm, we look back on his 100 years of remarkable achievements.

NOTE:  There are a couple of links at the end.  One, a voice recording of Purdue University’s oral history of Ralph.  The other, a link to the printed oral history done in 2007.

Learning to fly as an Army cadet in 1930 following his graduation from Perdue University was the start of his amazing career in aviation. Johnson became an accomplished Army flier and was chosen to be Maj. General Edwin B. Winans personal pilot flying the Tri-motored Fokker F-10.

On one of the General’s inspection 3rd Army tours, they flew to Cheyenne, Wyoming where Fort. DA Russell was located. Cheyenne would later play a major roll in Johnson’s storied career.

Ft. DA Russell was named after Brig. Gen. [Brevet Major General] David Alan Russell, who was killed at the Battle of Opequon Creek near Winchester, Va., on Sept. 19, 1864. His Confederate opposite, Major Gen. Robert E. Rhodes, was killed in the same battle.

In 1927, the last cavalry units left, ending 60 years of cavalry history at Fort Russell. In 1930, President Hoover issued a proclamation changing the name to Fort Francis E. Warren, honoring Wyoming’s territorial governor and first state governor. Later, Warren served as a U.S. Senator for 37 years.

Warren received the Medal of Honor when he was 19 for heroism during the Civil War. Senator Warren’s daughter married Capt. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, who later commanded the U.S. forces in World War I and was promoted to General of the Armies. Only one other man, George Washington, served in that capacity. General Pershing’s family lived at the fort, in a home still in use today. Other distinguished residents over the years were Gen. “Billy” Mitchell and Dr. Walter Reed.

Johnson left the Army after two years to begin his quest to become a pilot for the fledgling airlines. Prior to Johnson settling in Cheyenne, Wyoming, near Ft. Warren, he became a pilot for the Ball Brother’s Muncie Aviation based out of Muncie, Indiana flying a Sikorski S-39 back and forth to the Chicago Worlds Fair.

One day he happened to park near where a National Air Transport Ford Tri-Motor was parked. Johnson found himself in a conversation with the notable Walt Addems, chief pilot of NAT.

Ralph mentioned that he would like to get on with the airlines. Addems then pointed towards the ungainly looking S-39 and asked: “…did you fly that thing in here?” Johnson replied in the affirmative.

Sikorsky S-39

Addems said, well if you can fly that thing, you should be able to fly for us. That was the beginning of Johnson’s airline career. It was 1933.

Walter J.Addems was a pioneering aviator who built his first plane in 1916 and his last one in the 1960’s, but only after he had barnstormed across the nation and flown the mail in the 1920’s, trained pilots in the 1930’s and served as director of flight operations for United Airlines until the 1950’s. Addems died on Nov. 21, 1997 at a hospital in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 98 and for all his love of aviation, had not flown since the 1980’s.

To suggest that Mr. Addems was born with a yen to fly would be an exaggeration. It wasn’t until he was almost 5 years old that the Wright Brothers made their first flight. And it wasn’t until he was in high school that Addems, a native of Loda, Ill., and grew up in nearby Kankakee, got around to building his first plane, a glider that he put together from plans in the magazine Aviation Week. His mother sewed together the pieces of muslin he stretched over the wooden struts, and cooked up a cauldron of starch to provide the requisite stiffening. Then, on July 15, 1916, with a friend towing him behind an Oakland touring car in a pasture south of town, Addems made it aloft. He soared perhaps 15 feet above the pasture for an admittedly short hop that ended when he hit a fence and landed on his hands and knees. But he had flown alone in time to qualify for membership in an exclusive club: the Early Birds The 1916 date was critical. When the organization was formed in 1928, the 13th anniversary of the Wright Brothers flight was chosen as the cut-off date for members, separating the true aviation pioneers from the Jenny-come-latelys who flocked to the skies by the hundreds in World War I. Although many Early Birds dropped out of aviation almost as soon as they made what became their qualifying solo flights, once Walt Addems tasted the joy of the sky he hardly wanted to be anywhere else.

Over the next several years, he bought, built and flew just about every famous plane of his era, among them the Curtiss JN-4 trainer, the World War I Jenny and a Thomas-Morse Scout, or Tommy. Before his passion for aviation became an obsession, however, Addems, a champion high school athlete whose track and field exploits attracted the attention of the University of Chicago football coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, made what amounted to a double detour, first a semester at the University of Illinois and then a stint in the Army. After a year away from flying, Addems, who had tried to enlist as a Signal Corps pilot but was routed to an artillery unit instead, decided he had had enough of formal education. Following his family to Judd, Iowa, in 1920, he haunted the local airstrip, honing his flying skills, and was soon off barnstorming, participating in air shows, becoming a familiar figure at Checkerboard Field in Maywood, Ill., the Chicago area flying mecca, and taking passengers aloft for $5 a head. When a pretty schoolteacher, Genevieve Mongeau, caught his eye, he would buzz her country schoolhouse in his Thomas Morse Scout, land in a nearby field and then fly her home.

In the era of the flivver and the rumble seat, his courtship was inspired: The Tommy was a single-seater and Miss Mongeau had no choice but to sit on his lap. Not that she seemed to mind. The couple were married in 1925 and stayed married until her death 70 years later.

With a wife to support, Addems gave up barnstorming and began flying mail from Chicago to Milwaukee for a fore-runner of Northwestern Airlines. In 1927, he switched to the Chicago-Cleveland route of the fledgling National Air Transport and stayed on when it became the eastern wing of United Airlines in 1931. With the Postal Service offering a bonus for night deliveries, Addems was a pioneer in testing instrument flying equipment, becoming so proficient that the self-taught pilot was soon training other United fliers. As United’s most revered pilot, he became director of flight operations, flying and mapping each new route, testing each new plane and developing many procedures that became industry standards. Although he was always a stickler for safety, Addems lost his desk job at the Denver headquarters when the airline suffered a series of crashes in the early 1950’s. Many of the airline’s pilots thought he had been unfairly treated, but Addems could hardly complain. As a result of the demotion he was returned to the skies, first flying between San Francisco and Tokyo on government contract runs and then becoming chief pilot on United’s San Francisco-Hawaii route. After he reached the mandatory retirement age of 60 in January 1959, Addems, who had settled in Atherton, Calif., near Palo Alto, had what amounted to a second childhood, building a plane once again, this time a replica, exact to the very Indian design on the fuselage, of the famous Nieuport flown by the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I. Over the next two decades he performed at exhibitions and even had a stint as a movie pilot. At the age of 83, Walt Addems made his final flight, delivering his Nieuport to San Diego and donating it to the San Diego Aerospace Museum.

Billy Walker and “El Duce” Nieuport 17

Following Walt Addems welcome to NAT, Ralph became a “mate” flying co-pilot on the Ford Tri-Motor. He didn’t have much to do with the flying since the captains were all former WWI pilots who resented being forced to fly with co-pilots.

Johnson’s duties were to crank down the baggage bin which amounted to cut-outs in the bottom of the wings. These were the days before the steward and stewardess.’ So, Ralph would hand out the box lunches to the passengers sitting in the wicker seats in the cabin.

Occasionally, the captain would get Johnson to pull the Johnson Bar. The original Tri-Motor pilots had to use an awkward “Johnson Bar” braking system that operated the brakes by pulling a lever back, left, or right in the cockpit. The system wasn’t too challenging to operate while sitting still, but it could be a handful for a pilot trying to juggle ailerons, throttle, rudder, and brake all at the same time while landing.

The Ford Tri-Motor they rode in was, indeed, elegant. But there was no heat in the cabin, and the noise and vibration from the plane’s three engines was a ceaseless assault to both the ears and the body. The planes flew low, so turbulence was common, making some flights extremely uncomfortable and dumping some of the lovely hot consommé soups the escorts served right in the passengers’ laps. And while the Tri-Motors that flew the route were revolutionary for their day, they were slow and possessed few instruments or systems for handling any weather.

The Tri-Motor was designed, appropriately enough, by the Stout Metal Airplane Company (which became the Stout Metal Airplane Division of the Ford Motor Company when Henry Ford bought the company in 1925). The company was actually named for its founder and president, William Stout, but its name also aptly described its founder’s philosophy of aircraft design. Ford and Stout were both concerned about safety, and the all-metal Tri-Motor was designed to change people’s ideas about aviation and air travel. It was, in many respects, the first popular “responsible” airplane, built not for maneuverability, dog-fighting, or barnstorming, but for carrying passengers comfortably, sedately, and safely. Ford also funded widespread advertising campaigns about the safety, convenience and benefits of air travel, which probably did as much to advance commercial aviation as the development of the Tri-Motor itself. Henry Ford was instrumental in developing numerous safety-enhancing innovations for aviation, as well, including the radio-range navigation system that guided pilots and airliners across the United States from 1929 until after World War II.

Few people would consider the Tri-Motor a sleek or sexy airplane. Its squat, splayed gear and waddling taxi gait earned it the nickname “The Tin Goose,” and looking at it head-on, it seems more like a mechanical Gigantor robot than a beautifully crafted flying machine.

Ralph was struck by the looming majesty of this first Grand Lady of the skies. Its boxy, 50-foot-long fuselage swoops downward toward the tail, finally pausing to level out impossibly close to the ground at the back. Its thick, broad, cantilevered wing, which stretches 74 feet from wingtip to wingtip, dominates and dwarfed everything else in the hangar in those days. The DH-4’s, used on the mail runs, even looked like a ridiculously tiny play toy beneath the massive span of the Ford’s corrugated metal airfoil.

United Air Lines, organized in 1931 as a management company for four of the first commercial carriers: Boeing Air Transport, National Air Transport, Pacific Air Transport and Varney Air Lines, becomes a separate business entity.  34 year old William A. (“Pat”) Patterson began his tenure as United’s Chief Executive. As a young Wells Fargo Bank officer, Patterson was drawn into the airline business after making a controversial $5,000 loan to a “flying machine” company, Pacific Air Transport. More than 30 years at the helm, Patterson guided United through its formative years and into the jet age.

He had help. Johnson’s friend, Otis Kline, became the number two executive after having a stellar career flying the mail in the Boeing Model’s 95’s and 40B’s. As Executive Vice-President, Kline would rise to become a member of the board of directors.

Ralph’s engineering mind was quickly working on creating better procedures to recommend along with specific duties for the “mates.” Soon he would be called upon to join the flight test department.

I was reminded of one of Johnson’s reminisces from when he was a captain flying right seat for another captain who had a girlfriend living on the second floor of an apartment building in downtown Cheyenne.

After takeoff on a flight to Billings, MT, the captain turned left remaining at a low altitude and flew down the street past his girlfriend’s window.
Amazed, Ralph said to the captain of this fight, “I sure hope she doesn’t move to the ground floor!

He lived thru numerous flights which proved fatal to a number of his friends and colleagues. Especially, those flying the old Tri-Motor Fords and Boeing 247’s thru “Hell Stretch” a particularly hazardous area of the Alleghenies aptly referred to as “The Pilots Graveyard!” Again, it was the losses that motivated Johnson to invent and innovate through his career to improve aviation safety.

United’s Boeing 247

By 1934 he was a captain and soon after the chief test pilot for the newly organized United Air Lines. Based in Cheyenne, Johnson quickly gained an industry-wide reputation for results.

Until the mid-1920s, American commercial airplanes were built for mail, not people. Boeing’s Model 80, “Pioneer Pullman of the Air,” along with the Ford and Fokker tri-motors, were a new breed of passenger aircraft. The model 80 first flew in August, 1928 and was working along Boeing Air Transport’s route two weeks later. The twelve-passenger Model 80 and the more-powerful, 18-passenger 80A (re-designated 80A-1s when the tail surfaces were modified in 1930) stayed in service until 1933, when replaced by Boeing’s all- metal Model 247.

Boeing Model 80-A

Interestingly, many of the former WWI pilots flying the Boeing Model 80-A complained being cooped up in an enclosed cockpit. So, in addition to the tail modification, the Boeing Model 80-B was an open cockpit!

Johnson went from the Ford’s to the Model 80 A, then to the new Boeing 247 hailed as the first modern airliner. The Boeing 247 first flew in 1932 and marked the emergence of fast, comfortable air travel. This sleek, all-metal monoplane carried 10 passengers at 160 mph.

In those days, the manufacture would design and deliver a basic aircraft. All the after-market changes and improvements would be handled by the individual airlines.

Douglas Aircraft “borrowed” Johnson for additional flight testing on their new DC-3. He engineered several modifications along with putting forth new innovations all of which made the airplane and aviation safer. Johnson was the chief test pilot for the ill-fated DC-5 program which succumbed to internal corporate politics.

Initially, the Douglas DC-5 was developed as a16/22 passenger civilian airliner, with a high wing And tricycle landing gear. Four examples were produced for KLM Airlines, and were used to evacuate civilians from Java to Australia in 1942. The Japanese, captured a damaged DC-5 and flew it extensively. U.S. DC-5 military operations was with the U.S. Navy and Marine Aviation. Seven examples were bought in 1939. Three were R3D-1 16-seat personnel carriers, and four were R3D-2s. The Marine Corps used the R3D-2’s as a 22 man jump aircraft.

Another interesting story of the DC-5 was when Bill Boeing bought the prototype after it was recommended by his own pilot, Clayton “Scotty” Scott, but was later impressed into the U.S. Navy as the sole R3D-3.  The R3D-3 airplane was flown by Bert Hall during WWII. Hall was famous for the number of military airplanes he flew during the war.  He later retired as a senior captain for the historic Frontier Airlines.

There is likely a ton of information on this airplane located on the web. Johnson thought the DC-5 was a very good airplane.

Ralph Johnson demonstrating single engine capability of the DC-5

Douglas DC-5:

Type:  cargo and passenger transport

Crew:  6

Armament:  none


     Length: 62′ 6″ (19.05 m) Height: 19′ 10″ (6.05 m)

     Wingspan:  78′ 0″ (23.77 m)

Wing area:  824 sq. ft (76.55 sq. m)

Empty Weight:  13,674 lb (6,202 kg)

Max Weight:   20,000 lb (9,072 kg) max at takeoff


No. of Engines: 2

Powerplant:   Wright GR-1820-F62 radial

Horsepower:   850 hp each


Range: 1600 miles (2575 km)

Cruise Speed:  202 mph ( 325 km/h)

Max Speed:  221 mph ( 356 km/h) at 7,700 ft

Ceiling:  23,700 ft (7225 m)

Johnson was responsible for the development of the stainless steel firewall, alcohol propeller de-icing, visual slope indicator, improved braking and, most important of all, the stabilized approach. The latter being the greatest change to the industry since December 17, 1903.
 Prior to Johnson having developed the stabilized approach, landing accidents were common place. Each pilot seemingly would develop his own technique with few actual procedures followed.  Ralph proved his concept and recorded it then spent years coaxing other flight departments including United to adopt this life saving innovation.

As performance capabilities improved with larger – faster aircraft, it became apparent to Johnson that standardized flight operations would be essential to get a handle on the degradation of air safety.  He proved through a series of filmed flight tests using a DC-3 that the stabilized approach would be the answer to standardizing approach procedures that would work in any weather, good or bad. This would be called the All Weather Flight Methods. Now it is simply called The Stabilized Approach.

United moved its maintenance and flight test to San Francisco in 1947. Johnson decided to remain in Cheyenne effectively retiring just as the new pressurized DC-6’s were coming on the scene.

During the time Johnson worked with my father, Pic Walker, at Plains Airways Aerial Surveys, he wrote a series of articles that were published in Air Transport Magazine in 1947 which went into great detail on how his methods would save lives by improving flight procedures.

From the military to the airlines and then to General Aviation, Johnson’s career spanned the entire aviation industry. His contributions have been varied and many.  Johnson and Pic Walker teamed up using Johnson’s engineering talents and Walker’s DC-3. Johnson developed a device called “The Bomb” which was an innovative electronic survey device  towed behind the DC-3. They discovered the vast oil aquifer lying between Denver and Cheyenne


L-R:  Pete Appel; Ralph Johnson; Pic Walker in N-80201

With Walker’s exit of the agriculture spray business, Johnson began negotiating government contracts using surplus military aircraft and converting them for agriculture needs.

Johnson flew a wide range of aircraft before settling on the Lockheed PV-2 “Harpoon.” Initially, he used surplus Douglas DC-3’s, DC-4’s, and B-18 “Bolo” bombers. He flew B-25’s, DC-B-26’s, B-17’s, a Curtis C-46, as well as the ubiquitous C-82 and the unusual Chase C-122 “Aldren Annie.”

/\ Fairchild C-82 “Flying Boxcar”

Chase C-122 “Aldrin Annie”  \/

The C-82 was the predecessor of the Fairchild C-119. It was a great spray aircraft albeit underpowered. The Chase C-122 was originally designed as a large troop glider for the military. Johnson bought several as surplus from the auction at David Monthan AFB in Tucson. Then he engineered modifications such as installing surplus B-25 Wright R-2600 engines, wing fences, and other aftermarket improvements making it an outstanding platform for low level chemical dispersal. His long time friend, Ham Hamilton of Hamilton Aircraft performed the actual Johnson engineered modifications.

The Chase would hold an 800 gallon tank easily installed via the aft ramp. Spray booms would be added to the trailing edges of the wings.

Johnson had a knack for using his engineering talents along with his aviation expertise to make airplanes and ancillary equipment better. He had always pushed for improvements in procedures and created inventions and innovations to enhance aviation safety.

He developed the scroll type check list, The Coordinator, which became universally used by airlines, military, and general aviation operators.

During WWII, Johnson became concerned with the number of allied aircraft lost while on approach at night. The German night fighters would wait to see when the runway lights and the aircraft landing lights illuminated and would swoop down and take advantage of the vulnerability of the landing aircraft.

Johnson conceived and developed the hooded light system which later became VASI or Vertical Approach Slope Indicator. This novel means allowed the landing aircraft to fly to a pre-determined point in space where the pilot could view the hooded light and simply follow the “beam” to the ground.

During the agriculture operations there were problems with the spray swaths not overlaying pursuant to the contractual requirements. Again, Johnson’s unique talents came to play. He installed an automatic direction transmitter in a van to be used by the ADF receiver in the airplane.

The van would position itself at pre-determined points so that all Johnson’s pilots had to do was simply home in on the low frequency signal from the van. The swaths were perfect and the government observers delighted.

In 1957 I was 17 years old with a freshly minted Private Pilot certificate in my pocket. That summer, my father was asked by Johnson to help out with the spray contract. Pop was to fly a vintage Navion as spotter airplane with government Agriculture Department observers as his passengers.

I was invited along presumably so that my dad would be better able to monitor me in this, my age of discontent. I remember flying with my dad in the Navion between Cheyenne and Sheridan enroute. Asleep from short nights spent pursuing the fair sex and creating nervousness on the part of some Wyoming parents, I was suddenly wide awake. Pop had let the fuel tank run dry before changing to the full tank! It is funny how you can be asleep in a noisy environment with the engine and prop beat along with the air noise. Take the noise away with the engine quitting for lack of fuel, it was suddenly impossible to sleep. My father’s laugh at my expense was annoying until I was awake enough to remember I was where I always wanted to be, aloft and flying.

“To feel the joy that swells within; To leave the earth with its troubles and fly, And know the warmth of a clear spring sky…” a portion of Gary Claud Stokor’s poem fit the moment.  Arriving at the Sheridan, Wyoming airport, I watched as the ground crews and pilots readied the two big C-82’s and the one C-122 for the morning’s flight.

I asked my dad and Ralph if I could help out. The immediate answer was, in unison, “NO!” “Just stay out of the way; we’ll go have some breakfast after we return.”  I watched for a while and found it impossible to not pitch in. After all this was how I had been raised. “…what ever it takes to get the job done.”  Expecting an admonishment from either Ralph or my dad, I pulled the hoses from one needed place to another, washed bugs from windscreens, and followed the lead of the experienced ground crewmen.

After the morning flights we all were off to fill up empty stomachs and hit the hotel bed for some rest prior to the afternoon flights. They were unable to fly mid-day due to winds and temperatures affecting the dispersal.

That afternoon’s en-masse arrival at the airport the preparations again began. After I had helped the ground crew with the Aldrin chemical pumping into the C-82’s and C-122, Ralph approached me. Oh Oh, I thought, jigs up and I am apparently in the way. I noticed an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach. I really didn’t want to be left out of the excitement. “What could I say,” I thought, to convince Cap’t. Johnson that I really could be of help.

I was nearly floored when Ralph said: “I could use a co-pilot. Would you like to go along?” I didn’t remember what I stammered in response, but I will never forget the feeling of joy that moment.  Ralph introduced me to the cockpit pointing out where the different switches and instruments were and how to operate the radios in the C-122. As I studied my surroundings the C-82’s started engines, Ralph clambered aboard and asked “Ready to go?”  With stars in my eyes, I managed a fervent “Yes!” Ralph called for the before start check-list which I managed to scroll through without missing anything. Ralph started up the two R-2600’s and taxied out in sequence with the two “Packets.”

After the second Packet departed, Ralph lined up for take-off and asked: “Are you ready to make the take-off!” I couldn’t believe that I was not only getting to fly with Ralph, I was actually being asked to make the take-off the first time I had flown in a C-122.

The C-122 is he predecessor of the Fairchild C-123 “Provider” used extensively during the Vietnam War.   Fairchild bought out Chase sometime after the C-122 was produced.

The Chase C-122 started out as a glider!

2nd generation C-122 utilizing Wright R-1820 engines

Acquiring my Private Pilot Certificate was more a formality of reaching the minimum age. The flying time required was forty hours. Twenty hours solo, twenty hours dual. I had 117 hours logged when I finally was of legal age to solo on my 16th birthday. I had the good fortune of growing up in an aviation family where a number of golden opportunities occurred.

My father, Pic Walker, first started flying in 1924 and my mother, Frances Emily, was the first female to learn to fly in Wyoming. During WWII my father and an uncle ran 3 Army Air Corps CPT Schools in Wyoming and Colorado.

I had flown my father’s former DC-3 with the Fram Oil Corp. pilots and had flown the Lockheed L-18 Lodestar with Phillips Petroleum’s Billy Parker on several occasions.  I had some flying hours logged in the D-18 Twin Beech. But had never made a take-off or landing in anything larger than my dad’s Cessna 180.

I had the presence of mind to act like I knew what I was doing and started the throttles forward. Ralph had given me the power settings and speeds to fly. It helped that the C-122 was a very easy to fly aircraft.  Ralph fine tuned the throttle settings and called out “Rotate!” I responded with “Gear up!” His voice ever calm and re-assuring, Ralph said: “We don’t raise the gear on this airplane for these flights, I will explain later.”

The C-122 had fixed main gear albeit the nose gear was retractable. It made sense to leave the gear down to make the procedures less complicated with all that went on with the job of attacking the grasshopper infestation.  Ralph said to me “You are doin’ good, just relax.” Relax! I had arrived at the Pearly Gates early. This was heaven flying that old airplane down across the sage brush with the R-2600’s roaring and the hydromantic propellers beating a strong note of confidence.

All summer long, I would fly all the C-122s take-offs and landings as well as the flights to and from the dispersal areas. During the actual runs, Ralph would do the flying while I would operate the pump switches on Ralph’s command.

At the end of the summer’s operations, as I prepared to leave for the start of football season in Saratoga, I was asked to report to Ralph’s office. There he handed me a check for $2,100.00. This was more money than I had seen before! I looked again and saw it really was made out to me!  “I don’t understand,” I questioned Ralph. The reply: “You earned it! I couldn’t legally pay you to fly as you only have a Private Certificate, so you were paid what the ground crews were paid.”  I was thinking: “I should be paying him!” Ever since I have felt that I am being paid to do my hobby!  I have never worked a day since then!

One day Kent Westedt had an unbelievable flight with Ralph. They were solid IFR and lost all electrical and all instruments! All they had was a magnetic compass to fly with! Ralph adroitly mentally converted the magnetic compass into a primary flight display for pitch, bank, direction and even speed. How many experienced aviators could do that before spinning in?

They were enroute from Dalhart, Texas to Cheyenne, Wyoming and just passed Denver. Ralph was able to use his new “instrument” to letdown and see traffic lights and then the beacon at Greeley where he landed with weather obscured at 50 feet – visibility 1⁄4 mile…

According to Westedt, Ralph never broke a sweat. Kent held a flashlight on the mag compass, so he gets a lot of credit for their surviving such a malfunction. Here’s the story in Kent’s own words:

Ralph S. Johnson – Electrical / Vacuum Malfunction – Bonanza

“As we grow older in life, we reflect on things in the past that have truly molded us and have given us inspiration to do a lot of things and tackle the seemingly endless jobs that nobody else wants to do. One such mentor to me was a quiet, calm, self-assured person who had dedicated the majority of his life to the field of aviation design, test, operation, and innovation, Ralph S. Johnson. As I was maturing thru my teen years, I spent summers and countless hours around this man and his dedicated crew in the midst of modifying, rebuilding, renovating, redesigning, and test flying various WWII vintage aircraft and subsystems. As a result of this exposure, I became a Pilot and secured a degree in Aeronautical Engineering and most of my career was spent designing and building spacecraft, manned and unmanned.

But I digress, one of the most profound lessons in survival and keeping your wits about you occurred during a relatively routine flight starting around 10:00 o’clock in the morning on a clear day in Douglas, Arizona.

Ralph had been involved in purchasing and activating (taking out of mothballs) WWII PV-2s from Litchfield Park, Arizona and flying them down to our hanger and workshop facilities at Douglas. I had taken the semester off from college to gain some hands- on experience while taking what courses I could by correspondence. We were going to fly back to Cheyenne, Wyoming, for a much-needed R & R. We took off and flew to Silver City, New Mexico, landed, fueled, ate lunch and attended to some business, and left late in the afternoon.

As we were flying from Silver City to Cheyenne, we were using Visual Flight Rules and flying at an altitude around 8-9,000 feet, depending upon turbulence. We had some high, scattered clouds and knew of a front advancing from the west-northwest late in the evening; however it came in quicker than anticipated.

We ran into a snowstorm north of Denver at about 8 p.m. that was a complete whiteout, causing us to convert to Instrument Flight Rules. Ralph called the Cheyenne tower and they notified him that the weather at Cheyenne was clear.  He had just started the descent into Cheyenne when the aircraft electrical supply system went out, rendering all electrical instruments useless, with no lights in cockpit or instrument panel. The engine was running fine with no loss of power.

Within 30 seconds of that event, the aircraft vacuum system failed, rendering all vacuum-related instruments useless as well as the electrical system.

Ralph knew that the only instrument left that wasn’t supplied by either system was the wet compass, however, it was in complete darkness.Ralph, realizing the gravity of the situation, immediately took his feet off the pedals to eliminate the yaw response and use only the ailerons and elevator control to try to stabilize a horizon.

I remembered that I had a small flashlight in a briefcase in the back seat. I retrieved it and held it so he could see the float of the compass as well as the direction to try to maintain the smallest signs of stability by using the float of the compass as a small horizon indicator along with maintaining a steady directional heading.

As the eyes became accustomed to the eerie glow around the airplane, we could see what seemed to be a faint ribbon of light stretching out in front of us. Ralph gently descended to try to get better orientation and as the string of lights became more lucid, Ralph realized from his knowledge of when the snowstorm was first encountered, the airspeed, and the harried timeline in which things had happened, that the lights were from traffic on U.S. Highway 85 from Cheyenne to Denver and we were somewhere south of Greeley, Colorado.

As he descended further, he was able to stabilize the aircraft with ground and yard lights giving us an actual horizon and we started looking for anything that might give us a better orientation of an exact location. Off to the left, at about one o’clock, the rotating green beacon of the Greeley airport came into view, then the glow of the runway lights. The lights of the town and surrounding countryside seemed to make the sky come alive and he made two right turns, a final approach, and was able to land safely.

By now, the storm had intensified, so we secured the Bonanza on the tarmac, found a pay phone, called for a taxi, which took us to the train station, and rode quietly home reflecting on the sequence of events which put us in such jeopardy. Needless to say, the reality of what had happened finally sunk in and the realization of what Ralph had accomplished kept me alone in my thoughts for the entire trip home.

As a result of this experience, Ralph analyzed the entire episode and was instrumental in requiring new FAA regulations for dual backups of both electrical and vacuum systems in aircraft.

As for me, I have often reflected on the cool, calm demeanor of Ralph, the sensitive handling and logical approach to the problem at hand, and the ability to understand the fundamentals and design of aircraft, instrumentation, and flying and have come to realize that he was an extremely fine mentor of skills, not only in aviation, but in learning, use of that knowledge, and sharing and teaching of values that I now put to use in my daily life….”

Kent Westedt   01-15-2005

Later the FAA implemented AD notes to correct this potential disastrous situation.

Johnson flew the PV-2’s (he had a fleet of 22 of them) until well into his mid 80’s. Finally, he retired to Arizona where, as of this writing, he is 100 years young, doesn’t wear glasses, and drives at night. Likely, he can still fly rings around us all! In fact, when he was just 97 he flew “Puff the Magic Dragon” an AC-47 Gunship as though he had been actively flying it since the days in the mid 1930’s when he was one of the DC-3’s original test pilots.

Johnson donated one of his PV-2’s to the Pima Air Museum and his Martin 404 to Save a Connie Foundation. The Harpoon is presently displayed at the Pima Air & Space museum. The Martin 404, which will be flying with it’s original TWA paint scheme, is currently going through restoration.

Johnson has been awarded the Elder Statesman of Aviation award by the National Aeronautic Association, Wyoming Aviation Hall of Fame, Laura Tabor Barbour Flight Safety Award, OX-5 Aviation Hall of Fame, The Phoenix 5 special award for aviation contributions, AirlinePilots Association distinguished aviator award, National Aeronautic Association Special Award for contributions to aviation safety, and was enshrined into the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame April 8, 2006.

Johnson received a special letter of congratulations from Vice President Richard Cheney. Both the governor of Arizona and the governor of Wyoming proclaimed June 26th as the Captain Ralph S. Johnson Day. 98 friends and family attended a special tribute to Johnson at Anzio Landing located at Falcon Field, Mesa, Arizona on June 24th. Appropriately, one of Johnson’s Lockheed PV-2’s was parked outside in full view of all attendees.

In May 2008, just a month shy of his 102nd birthday, Purdue University flew Johnson to West Lafayette, Indiana where they honored him with a Doctorate in Aeronautical Engineering. This was in recognition for his lifetime contributions to aviation and aviation safety.   It was not an “honorary degree!”

I concur with Kent Westedt. Ralph Johnson is a mentor’s mentor!

Ruth passed away in September 2009 at age 97.



“Gone West” January 12, 2010, Ralph had spent one hundred and three years making our world a better place.

Ruth and Ralph were together 72 years!

Their son, Alan, is a Federal District Court judge in Wyoming. Son, Steve, is a distinguished fellow with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC and is himself a former USAF pilot.  A daughter, Janet Rowe lost a battle with cancer a few years ago.

They left 6 grand children and 3 great grandchildren.

Flight is freedom in its purest form,
To dance with the clouds which follow a storm;

To roll and glide, to wheel and spin, To feel the joy that swells within;

To leave the earth with its troubles and fly, And know the warmth of a clear spring sky;

Then back to earth at the end of a day, Released from the tensions which melted away.

Should my end come while I am in flight, Whether brightest day or darkest night;

Spare me your pity and shrug off the pain, Secure in the knowledge that I’d do it again;

For each of us is created to die, And within me I know,
I was born to fly. “Fait pour Valour”

Gary Claud Stokor


Internet – Early Birds, Boeing, etc.


Captain Ralph S. Johnson; Captain Elrey Jeppesen; W. D. Pic Walker; Kent Westedt

Westedt’s report on harrowing flight Interview w/Alan Johnson

Stephen Johnson

Necomen Society

1995 Speech by Billy Walker

More on Ralph...

Regrettably, I left out some great anecdotes from Ralph’s flying career;

1. He flew the last Boeing 40B United had. Possibly, the last 40B period! He was landing at Cheyenne when a tractor pulled out onto the runway. The driver dove off in time, but the left gear struck the tractor seat. The gear and airplane were forever separated.

United asked Ralph to circle until the Boeing 247 and it’s passengers had departed before landing. Ralph successfully landed on one wheel. However, on inspection it was discovered that the aircraft was too damaged from the impact with the tractor to repair and was scrapped!

2. He an co-pilot Woody Woodruff were flying a B-17 to Detroit when they learned that an ice storm had closed the field. A fast moving cold- front eliminated any feasible alternate. With the runway iced over solid, there was of course no braking. Ralph adroitly used asymmetrical power and locking the brakes on the opposite side, swung the aircraft around 180 degrees and was then sliding backwards down the runway. He simply added power to bring the bomber to a stop.

This feat had been done numerous times on frozen lakes. I know of no one accomplishing this piece of amazing airmanship on a strip of concrete 3400 feet long and 50 feet wide!

3. The most amazing feat of airmanship, in my view, is the loss of all electrical and vacuum Bonanza story spelled out by Kent Westedt in the earlier story.

The following came from Ralph’s acceptance speech at Purdue University.

Only one man can say he was accidentally bumped from the sky by Charles Lindbergh

Only one man can say he was accidentally bumped from the sky by Charles Lindbergh. It was in 1925 before Lindbergh became Lucky Lindy, first person to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean�back when he was just a goofy flight-school cadet in Texas. Lindbergh’s account of the mishap has been published in biographies, aviation magazines, school textbooks and newspapers. Yet the man Lindbergh knocked from the air has never told his story for the record.

So, meet retired Col. Charles Dawson McAllister. He turned 100 in October, 1995, and he has lived in Orlando FL for nearly 50 years. He is a walking, talking piece of history. He and Lindbergh were the first people ever to survive a mid-air plane collision. They were the 12th and 13th people to save their lives with parachutes, becoming official members of the Caterpillar Club, so named because the parachutes were made of silk. He is also a story-teller with an amazing recall. As he sits in his Orlando home leather shoes shining like a mirror, trousers creased sharp as a blade he remembers events of past 90 years as though the occurred yesterday.

He was associated with Lindbergh three times over the decades, the first time in flight school. He met Lindbergh again in World War II and in 1954 in Orlando FL. His collision with Lindbergh has its roots in Logansport IN where McAllister grew up and fell in love with flight. “I saw my first plane when I was 14 years old in the summer of 1910,” he said. The images of that evening would stay with him to this day.

“The sun was just going down behind a slow rise in the west, a big, red sun sitting on the horizon,” he said. The pilot took off, barely getting the plane off the ground.

“He went just over the horizon right into that setting sun,” McAllister said, still marveling at the sight. The seeds were sewn. He would become a flier. First, though, he joined the army during World War I and became a lieutenant. When the war ended, he finished college at Purdue University, graduating in 1920. That summer he moved to Winter Garden, an orange growing center west of Orlando, and worked for a citrus company now known as Roper Growers Cooperative. McAllister’s sister had married into the Roper family.

Citrus had no appeal for McAllister. When he had the chance to join the regular army as a career officer, he did. He became a lieutenant in a field artillery unit in Washington. In February, 1924, the seeds of that 1910 Indiana night germinated, and McAllister was accepted into Army flying school at Brooks Field in Texas. So was Lindbergh.

“Actually, he came down to Brooks Field in an old ram-shackled plane, put together with bailing wire,” McAllister said. The plane was so decrepit a corporal ordered it off the field, historical records show.

McAllister and Lindbergh were in the first class to receive parachutes. They needed them.

On March 26, 1925, McAllister, 29 and Lindbergh, 22, were paired for a three-plane training run. Their instructor was the enemy. Lindbergh was the left-wing and McAllister the right, both behind a leader.

Lindbergh wrote in his account that after the leader pulled up, he kept diving at the target. When he pulled up, he hit the bottom of McAllister’s plane. Lindbergh saw McAllister get ready to jump and then bailed out himself. McAllister remembers the crash a bit differently. He said he planned to watch Lindbergh, who had the habit of ignoring the instructor and doing as he pleased. “But I took my eyes off Lindbergh,” he said, and when he looked back, Lindbergh was underneath. “I yanked back and tried to avoid him. The planes locked together, so we just jumped out.” They floated earthward and into the record-books, and the two men met on the ground.

What did Lindbergh say? “He didn’t say anything. I did all the talking,” McAllister said. Within an hour, both were back in the air. Nine days later they graduated from flight school.

The next time the two met, Lindbergh was the world-famous flier who had crossed the Atlantic in May 1927 and the grieving father whose son had been kidnaped and killed in 1932.

World War II had begun. Henry Ford had asked Lindbergh to help design a factory for building B-24 bombers in Detroit. Lindbergh went cross-country to learn about the bomber, and on April 16, 1942, he ended up in Albuquerque, NM, to see McAllister, who ran the nation’s only B-24 training program.

“He had matured a lot,” McAllister said. But he remembers Lindbergh as having little time for pleasantries.

“He was a non-drinker, was a very naive sort of fellow. There were a lot of things he wasn’t interested in and didn’t want to learn,” McAllister said. They met in a hotel, did not mention their collision, and talked about the bombers.

Lindbergh had fonder memories of their meeting. In The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindbergh, published in 1970 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, he wrote: “Breakfast with Colonel [C.D.] McAllister at 7:30, (I received a note of invitation from him when I arrived at the hotel last night.) McAllister and I collided our SE-5s while we were attacking an observation plane during maneuvers at Kelley Field in 1925. We both had to jump but landed without injury. McAllister, who was a student officer at the time was a bit stuffy about it and claimed I ran into him. I didn’t think so, and thought he was out of place in the three ship formation we were flying. However it hadn’t occurred to me to question who was at fault. We had been doing a dangerous type of flying, and our C.O. and instructors took it as a matter of course.

“Since I was a cadet in 1925 and McAllister an officer, I had no opportunity of getting to know him well. But this morning I found him to be an interesting and pleasant friend. If he ever held any resentment toward me, as I was told was the case, there was certainly no trace of it remaining. And all during the day he went out of his way to be as considerate and helpful as possible.”

The last time the men met was in April, 1954, when Lindbergh visited Orlando to scout for a potential site near Wekiva Springs for the US Air Force Academy. Because McAllister knew Lindbergh, officials prevailed on the then-retired colonel to accompany Lindbergh around the city. A photograph of the two was published in the Orlando Sentinel. “Every state in the union, I guess, wanted the Air Force Academy,” McAllister said. But despite his efforts, the academy was awarded to Colorado, where it is today.

McAllister flew 6,200 hours for the Army before he retired, and he flew 5,000 hours in his own planes. His best flying memory was in 1960 when he was 64 and flew 19,000 miles to the southern tip of South America. The trip took three weeks. “I think in some respects it was the premiere flying of my career,” he said.

He has one wish as he approaches the century mark. He is a member of the Order of Daedalians, a society of pilots of heavier-than-air craft no blimps or balloons. The title founder-member is reserved for men who won their wings and military commissions before the World War I armistice on November 11, 1918. McAllister would like to find an unknowing pilot who is eligible.

While he waits to find one, McAllister will tell his stories and play his two rounds of golf a week. It’s ironic, but his favorite plane of the 130 that he has piloted is the very model he was flying when Lindbergh collided with him in 1925, as SE-5.

Like McAllister, they aren’t making them that way any more.


An Aviation Pioneer (R.S. Johnson)

Air Line Pilot, August 1995, page 36

Capt. Ralph S. Johnson, an innovator and best remembered for his work on the stabilized approach was . . .

By Capt. Billy Walker (FAL, Ret.)

Every airline, military, and corporate flight training department has a common procedure that, not too long ago, was unique. Now, most flight training procedures require that aircraft be “stabilized” by 1,000 feet on approach. This procedure has not always been the norm, and approach/landing incidents and accidents were many, albeit avoidable. Only in the past two decades have operators worldwide universally adopted the stabilized-approach technique.

One pioneer aviator became convinced that standardized procedures using the stabilized approach were essential in overcoming the catastrophic results of the various individual techniques in use in the 1930s.

He did not have an “easy sale.” Just getting his fellow pioneer captains to accept the copilots who were required on the newer multiengine transports was difficult enough. Early-day pilots were typically loners who, after a few brief hours of instruction, were suddenly “pros” and soon very set in their solo ways. Human nature, being what it is, caused a lot of resistance to any changes from the early-day, open-cockpit, devil-may-care style.

Accidents were commonplace in the 1930s. Aircraft were prone to come apart in the air and suffer engine failure, and pilots could easily be trapped in weather they were ill-equipped to handle because they had no instrumentation, no radios, and no traffic- or weather-avoidance systems.

Certainly, most of the early-day single pilots who became captains of crews fit this stereotypical profile. Several early flight managers, such as Otis Kline, Al Litzenberger, Dan Beard, and ALPA’s founding president Dave Behncke, saw the need to modernize the pilots’ attitude along with the equipment they were flying.

Seemingly overnight, air transportation leapt from fabric and wires to all-metal, all-weather aircraft. Design engineers were producing technological changes at a rate the pilots could not keep pace with. While the pilots could fly the newer aircraft, they were ill-equipped to fly them safely, hence the high accident rate. Kline recognized this problem early on at United, where he was in charge of operations. He made sure modern training techniques and procedures were developed.

One man, in particular, brought forth many of the early innovations and inventions to the Klines of airline management teams, and the first light of the rising sun of safe flying techniques broke over the horizon.

The man was Capt. Ralph S. Johnson, chief UAL test pilot and ALPA member 753-4.

Capt. Johnson’s career had three phases: Army Air Corps from 1929 to 1932, airline from 1933 to 1947, and general aviation since 1947. He left his mark everywhere he went, making the aviation world a better place through his talent and efforts.

Capt. Johnson was among the first to push for prescribed duties for first officers, along with written flight procedures using the “crew concept.” He personally developed, or was involved with, propeller deicing, pulsating wing-deicing boots, heated wing leading edges, hooded approach light system (later developed as VASI), fuel/oil shut-off systems in case of engine fire, the fireproof firewall, a scroll-type checklist, strobe lights, and crew coordination (now called crew resource management). In 1941, he instituted “all-weather flight methods,” which encompassed all-weather flying techniques and the “stabilized glidepath approach.”

The 1940-41 test flying of Capt. Johnson and F/O Roe Nemmers, aided by film photographer Bob Shelly, produced documented proof that the stabilized approach was “the only way to fly.”

Capt. Johnson’s stabilized approach has saved more lives than any other aeronautical innovation developed since the Wright brothers and is still saving lives in the modern age of swept-wing jets.

Only in recent years have we learned of the problems swept-wing aircraft have in dealing with windshear. Of course, on the landing approach, having the aircraft stabilized with engines “spooled up” improves crews’ reaction times to deal with the onset of wind­shear.

In Capt. Johnson’s era, propeller-driven aircraft with straight wings did not have the same problems found in today’s modern jet transports. All of which makes how perceptive he was, more than a half century ago, even more phenomenal.

Most flight operation procedures around the world today use Capt. Johnson’s stabilized approach. Most flight operations procedurally require, or at least recommend, that pilots execute a go-around if the aircraft is not stabilized by 1,000 to 500 feet above the touchdown zone.

Chick Stevens, former director of training at Frontier Airlines, was a champion of Capt. Johnson’s stabilized approach and fought hard to overcome the resistance of pilots who were stubbornly resolved to adhere to nonstandard individual techniques. The result was that FAL, at the time of its demise, had the best safety record in the history of civil aviation based on the number of takeoffs and landings. This enviable record can be largely attributed to the stabilized approach.

Certainly, other airlines that use this safe procedure enjoy a successful safety record, thanks to Capt. Johnson’s early efforts.

Elrey “Jepp” Jeppesen paid trib­ute to Capt. John­son’s early contributions in his 1991 letter to the National Aero­nautic Association (NAA). Another pioneer aviator, “Pic” Walker, called Capt. John­son “the best of the best.”

Ralph John­son, who could get things out of the aircraft that the engineers often  thought impossible, was born in Indiana in 1906. At 89 years of age, he is still able to deftly handle the controls. He flew his Lock­heed PV2 Harpoon aircraft until well past the age of 80. Capt. Johnson has donated one of his PV2s to the Pima Air Museum in Tucson, Ariz.

Capt. Johnson recently demonstrated his ability to fly a beautiful stabilized approach in the A320 simulator. Appearing 20 years younger than his 89 years, Capt. Johnson is active as a member of the Board of Governors of the Arizona Wing of the OX-5 Aviation Pioneers, the Retired United Pilots Association, and Rotary. ALPA, UAL, and NAA honored him at a special ceremony at UAL’s Denver Flight Training Center in 1991. NAA later named Capt. Johnson an Elder Statesman of Aviation at a ceremony held in Washington, D.C., in October 1991.

Today, many people are confused about what makes a “hero.” With the adulation of sports figures, many who exhibit poor social values, and with the overuse of the word hero, maybe we need a new word that credits true heroes, like Capt. Johnson, for the legacy they have left to those of us who claim a part of this wonderful world of aviation.

Capt. Billy Walker, a retired Frontier pilot, served as Master Executive Chairman of the pilot group from 1982 to 1986.




Caption: ABOVE Top: Capt. Ralph Johnson, Chief Test Pilot, UAL, 1935–1947. ABOVE: Capt. Johnson with family and the Walker Bunch in Cheyenne.  Bottom photo at Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona with the PV-2 “Harpoon” Ralph donated.  Ralph was inducted into both the Wyoming AND Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame.  He received the Laura Tabor-Barbor Award and the Elder Statesman Award.  Both the NAA and ALPA recognized Ralph for his considerable contributions to aviation safety.

Note:  The following repeats much of the aforementioned.  This is what Purdue University has on display at the new engineering building along with Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan displays:

Matthew Meyer, Michael G. Smith, and Tracy B. Grimm authored the following:

Purdue University has enjoyed a rich and vibrant association with aviation, ranging from the work of Amelia Earhart to the achievements of Neil Armstrong. Through their dedication, its graduates have become the engineers, the aviators, and the astronauts who have helped to make American history. One such graduate who worked tirelessly to improve aviation was Ralph S. Johnson. A native of Goodland, Indiana, Johnson graduated from Purdue with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1930, and he returned in 2008 to receive a doctorate in aeronautical engineering.

From the time he left Purdue to the time he returned, Johnson helped to transform aviation from a primitive, informal venture to a standardized, efficient mode of transportation. Johnson’s contributions are numerous, including a method of deicing planes, a checklist that standardized cockpit procedures, and a technique of landing that is still used today—the stabilized approach. In addition to using numerous monographs and periodicals, this article also makes use of Ralph Johnson’s extensive personal papers located in the Purdue Archives. The papers highlight Johnson’s tenure as chief test pilot for United Airlines from 1935 to 1947, and show the challenges that he and his fellow engineers faced as the airline industry worked to create more legitimate modes of travel. Although largely forgotten as an aviation pioneer, Johnson’s papers help to cement his status as an important guru in the development of the airline industry, and it is this article’s goal to bring Johnson the recognition he deserves as someone who dedicated his career to the task of modernizing airplanes and the airlines.

Meyer, M. (2015). Happy landings: The aviation life of Purdue University’s Ralph S. Johnson. Journal of Purdue Undergraduate Research, 5, 64–71. http://dx.doi.org /10.5703/jpur.05.1.08


Ralph S. Johnson, Air Transport Command, United Airlines, heated wing, deicing boots, stabilized landing approach, ight deck coordinator, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, Cheyenne, Goodland, Purdue University




The Aviation Life of Purdue University’s Ralph S. Johnson

Matthew Meyer, Liberal Arts


The 1920s and 1930s were an exciting and transformative time for aviation, as it became part of the public consciousness and its stakeholders developed new technological innovations. The media were fascinated by the achievements of pilots like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, and they followed their every move. Along with reading about the latest death-defying stunts, the country was bombarded with images of their heroes advertising the latest products and given the chance to read about their exploits and their lives. From dazzling air races to impressive around-the-world journeys, the nation developed an insatiable appetite for flying. But even though being a pilot appeared to be a glorious occupation, the reality was far from it. Pilots dealt with primitive technologies such as Morse code radios, which could only be used on the ground, and treacherous flying conditions, like flying through thunderstorms instead of over them. As R. G. Grant writes, “The excitement surrounding these fights was above all fueled by risks” (2007, p. 122). While these risks created a fascination with flying, they hindered air travel becoming a viable mode of transportation.

These risks were an important reason why many pilots began the task of making aviation a safer and more efficient form of transportation. Planes were becoming faster, heavier, and more technically advanced, and it became the responsibility of the rising number of aeronautical engineers to standardize industry practices and establish an organized airline industry. As a result, the 1930s were a time when “the art of flying had grown up and become complex” (Vincenti, 1990, p. 73). The airlines were able to create a dependable mode of travel that took the public’s safety seriously. They adapted to the ever-changing technology by utilizing the new rules and guidelines that ensured precise, reliable operations.

Into this rapidly evolving world arrived Ralph S. Johnson, a pilot’s pilot who had the foresight to realize that aviation was a constantly changing industry that always had room for improvement. Through his work, Johnson established himself as an early aeronautical engineer by being “interested in all possible new developments which could be used as aids in this business” (Addams, 1935). During the time between his graduation from Purdue University in 1930 to his retirement as chief test pilot for United Airlines in 1947, Johnson worked on numerous projects, either in conjunction with others or that he devised himself. These ranged from working on deicing systems to developing the standard landing procedure that is still used by pilots today. Johnson was active at a time when transporting passengers became a serious venture, and his contributions helped ensure that the burgeoning airline industry became a well-organized mode of conveyance. As Johnson wrote in his memoirs, “Nothing was reliable then. That’s what interested me most in aviation, so I dedicated my life to trying to eliminate unfortunate variables related to aviation, and trying to improve every facet of flying” (2005, p. 25). Although Johnson is forgotten in mainstream histories, this article will highlight his many innovations and bring him the recognition he deserves.

Figure 1 (above). Ralph S. Johnson in United uniform (Ralph S. Johnson Papers, Folder 2, Box 3; photo courtesy of Purdue University Libraries Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections).


Ralph Samuel Johnson was born on June 26, 1906, in the small, rural community of Goodland, Indiana, and spent his youth on a 177-acre farm. Growing up on a farm meant hard work, and like his siblings, Johnson did his part to keep it going. Before going to school, it was Johnson’s duty to get up at 5 a.m. and complete his chores. Farm life also meant that Johnson had the opportunity to hone his mechanical skills, and the affinity he showed for this became a hallmark of his career. For example, he repaired farm machinery and built a car for his mother by attaching a body built of wood and sheet metal to an existing Ford chassis (Johnson, 2005). In 1924, Johnson graduated from Goodland High School and enrolled at Purdue University. To help pay for his education, he took time off occasionally and worked at the Ford plant located in Reynolds, Indiana. Because of this, it was not until 1930 that he finally graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, majoring in aeronautics, which did yet not have its own degree program. Johnson’s education at Purdue established him as one of the first aeronautical engineers and inspired him with a love of the airplane as the perfect symbol and machine of “Modern Industrial Progress,” a theme set forth in the 1929 Debris (p. 6), the only Purdue yearbook he kept in his archives.

Following graduation, Johnson joined some fellow graduates and took the physical for the air corps. His rugged farm upbringing paid off, as he passed the tests and spent four years in the military, becoming the personal pilot for the commander of the 8th U.S. Air Corps. Johnson intended to stay longer, but because of the ongoing Great Depression, the military was forced to make cuts in order to save money. At a time when the world was fascinated by the exploits of Lindbergh and Earhart, Johnson was more interested in using his engineering skills to improve aviation and eliminate the dangers that came with it. As he wrote in his memoirs, “My interest in aviation . . . had nothing to do with Lindbergh’s flight” (2005, pp. 21‒22). Instead, Johnson dedicated his career to eschewing the glamour of aviation in order to improve upon the relation- ship between airplanes and the pilots who flew them.

Upon leaving the air corps, Johnson looked for work with the airlines, thinking it would provide a stable source of income at a time when finding a steady job was a difficult task. He started working for the Ball brothers, famous for their glass jars, flying passengers from Lake Wawasee, Indiana, to the Chicago World’s Fair. In 1934, Johnson became a pilot for National Air Transport (NAT), flying Ford Tri-Motors, the most popular all-metal airliner of the era, between Chicago and New York City. In 1935, he was named chief test pilot for the newly created United Airlines, formed from the merger of NAT and Boeing Air Transport (Spenser, 2008). As chief test pilot, Johnson’s responsibilities included the development of new engines, instruments, radios, navigational systems, brakes, deicers, flying techniques, and airframes (Johnson, 2005). His role as chief test pilot allowed him to oversee and contribute to the latest innovations that turned the airlines from simple government contracted mail carriers to the pro table enterprises they are today.

The modern airlines trace their roots to the Air Mail Act of 1925, which struck a government contract with private companies to carry the mail (Spenser, 2008). To increase revenue, the airlines began carrying passengers, and with the passage of the McNary-Watres Act of 1930, the government changed its payment method as a way to encourage the airlines to carry only passengers. Some airlines were flying more flights than needed, on little-used routes, costing the government more money than it was willing to spend (News release, 1934). With passengers as their sole source of income, the airlines were tasked with making
air travel a safe and efficient mode of transportation. As Roger E. Bilstein writes, the 1930s were “an era generally characterized as one of design revolution” (2001, p. 55). The growing number of aeronautical engineers like Johnson worked to make this dream a reality, and the dedication he and his fellow engineers showed was a factor in “assisting in the design of planes that elevated aviation and air travel to a reliable, economical and mature technology” (Bilstein, 2001, p. 39).

The design revolution of the 1930s introduced numerous technological innovations that transformed planes into modern, complex machines. The planes had come a long way from the boxy, slow Ford Tri-Motors of Johnson’s early years. Now the airlines were equipped with planes like the sleek, 21-passenger Douglas DC-3, which featured the latest technological advances of the day, such as retractable landing gear. In 1940, Boeing introduced its 33-passenger 307 Stratoliner, the first pressurized airliner to enter service (Grant, 2007). With the 307, passengers were now able to y over, not through, thunderstorms. In 1942, Douglas introduced the even bigger DC-4, which could carry up to 80 passengers. With planes becoming bigger and more technologically advanced, Johnson worked to introduce new operating procedures that adapted with the changing technologies.


A crucial safety aspect during the 1930s was the battle against ice build-up, which was one of the most dangerous hazards to an airplane. Large amounts of ice created potentially disastrous effects, including an increase in drag, loss of lift, change in pitch, and utter of the control surfaces (Rodert, 1944). The most common method for removing ice was to attach boots, which were pneumatic rubber encasings, to the leading edge of the wings. These boots were inflated with air, which broke away any ice that built up along the front of the wings when airborne. While they provided a quick, easy method of removing ice, they were far from perfect. If ice accumulated farther back on the wings, then the effectiveness of the boots was reduced significantly since they only worked on the leading edge. In addition, boots created unnecessary drag when inflated. Tests performed in 1938 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) showed that inflated boots increased drag by 100%, slowing the plane down (Leary, 2003).

In 1934, Johnson proposed a design for a deicing system that was both aerodynamic and easy to use (Figure 2). Instead of using external attachments that caused drag, Johnson’s design called for outside air to be brought in through the leading edge, heated by engine exhaust, and then passed through and out the wing to heat the entire surface. At the time, it was thought that using just exhaust would provide insufficient heat, so Johnson’s design called for additional fuel to be injected into the exhaust, which would heat it further. However, the extra fuel added unnecessary weight to the airplane, resulting in the design being deemed impractical (Lott, 1934). Even though his idea was rejected, the deicer

that NACA settled on was remarkably similar to Johnson’s; the only difference was that there was no extra fuel used
to increase the temperature. Compared to the boots, heated wings were seen as a more practical deicer since they were lightweight and housed within the airframe. Johnson served as a test pilot for the heated wing trials in 1941 (Kelly, 1941), and by 1942, a NACA subcommittee determined that heated wings were the best method available and recommended that NACA continue research into their use (Resolution, 1942).


Even though Johnson was busy working on deicing systems, he still was able to find time to work on his own projects. Johnson was aware that as the airlines introduced new safety features, the number of passengers would increase. In 1926, one year after the passage of the Air Mail Act, only 5,800 people had own in an airplane. By 1938, this number was over one million (Norberg, 2003; United Airlines, n.d.). Johnson developed new promising techniques that adapted to the rising number of planes and passengers. One area in need of improvement was the landing procedure, and it was through his work with landings that Johnson earned the most recognition.

Figure 2. Johnson’s proposed deicer from 1934, which used heat to remove ice (Ralph S. Johnson Papers, Folder 2, Box 14; photo courtesy of Purdue University Libraries Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections).

At the time, the accepted procedure for landing was to glide the plane in and stall it just before it made contact with the runway (Figure 3). This required a delicate touch from the pilot, as the difference between a smooth landing and a rough landing was a matter of inches. Even though it was in widespread use, this method of landing was ill- suited to the new generation of airliners that were entering service. Not only were planes like the DC-4 bigger; they were now equipped with tri-cycle landing gear, meaning they sat level with the ground. Tri-cycle gear also meant that planes were easier to land on two wheels, unlike their tail-dragging counterparts, such as the DC-3 (Johnson, 1948). With these circumstances in mind, Johnson introduced the stabilized approach in his 1939 training lm, “All Weather Flight Methods” (Johnson, 2005).

Unlike the glide and stall method, the stabilized approach required the pilot to y the airplane down to the runway in a controlled descent by keeping it under constant power, helping to control its rate of descent (Figure 4). Being under constant power also helped if pilots had to abort

the landing and try again; they could simply apply power and go back around. The new method also allowed pilots to ne-tune their approach, as they could now choose where they made contact with the runway, compensate for the wind, and correct for any errors (Johnson, 1944a). The stabilized approach also became important in the post-World War II era, as airlines began using jets, which could not be glided in at all and had to be under constant power. Johnson’s work with landing procedures helped reduce the inherent dangers of landing, and he continued

Figure 3. The glide and stall method of landing. The plane is own in a seesaw method to lose altitude (Ralph S. Johnson Papers, Folder 3, Box 15; photo courtesy of Purdue University Libraries Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections).

Figure 4. The stabilized approach introduced by Johnson in 1939. The plane is own in under constant power to lose altitude (Ralph S. Johnson Papers, Box 3, Folder 15; photo courtesy of Purdue University Libraries Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections).

to re ne both landing and takeoff techniques over the next couple of years. By realizing that the airlines would continue to develop and prosper, Johnson helped standardize both landing and takeoff procedures as a way to prevent accidents and adjust to the increasing number of planes that would be in the air. Johnson’s efforts to make land- ings safer and more ef cient led the National Aeronautics Association to bestow its Elder Statesman of Aviation Award upon him in 1991, calling him the “father of the stabilized approach” (Norberg, 2003, p. 152).

World WarII and The Cordinator

As the 1930s closed and the 1940s began, the airline industry had become a modern, competent form of transportation. The number of passengers continued to climb as airliners became bigger and more technologically advanced. However, with the outbreak of World War II, airlines were called to duty to perform a major—yet for- gotten—role in the American war effort. This role was the Air Transport Command (ATC), and like his fellow pilots, Johnson played his part. The work of the ATC allowed the airlines to apply what they learned in the 1930s and change “intercontinental air travel from a state of high-risk adven- ture to a matter of daily routine” (Bilstein, 2003, p. 33).

The ATC was formed in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized the United States War Department to bring the airlines under its control (Larsen, 1945). The attack on Pearl Harbor caught the United States unprepared in many regards, and air transport was one of them. The military lacked a true transport plane and was forced to rely on converted bombers and passenger planes. These planes had limited cargo space and capacity, which hindered their ability to move goods in a timely fashion (Cave,

1945). By July of 1942, the ATC appeared in an of cial capacity, with the responsibility to ferry planes to Allied- controlled areas, transport personnel and supplies within the United States and Allied-controlled areas, return sick and wounded from the front, and train both transport pilots and maintenance personnel (Palmer, 1947). Like the other airlines, United contributed by ying transport missions across the Paci c Ocean from its San Francisco termi-

nal and modifying planes at its maintenance facility in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Because different climates required different settings for the airplanes, it was easier to bring planes to modi cation centers like Cheyenne because this allowed the factories to work without having to worry about minor details that slowed production (Cave, 1945).

Johnson split his time between ying across the Paci c and working at Cheyenne. Among the planes modi ed was the Boeing B-17 (Figure 5), and by the end of the war, United worked on 5,736 B-17s at its Cheyenne base. The modi cations performed ranged from the installation of gun turrets (Johnson, 2005) to changing where the inter- com control button was located for the gunners. Instead

of having to take their hands off of their guns to operate the intercom, gunners could now press a button that was mounted directly on the weapon (Cleveland, 1946). It was while working with the B-17 that Johnson executed a maneuver that helped to cement his reputation as a pilot’s pilot. Upon approaching Minneapolis in 1943, he was informed that the runway was frozen over. Realizing the plane needed to be there, Johnson decided that he would have to land despite the icy runway. As the plane made contact with the ground, he increased power to one of the outboard engines, causing the plane to slowly spin around. Once the plane had spun around 180 degrees, he applied power to all four engines, bringing it to a stop. By doing this, Johnson performed what he later called “a little trick” and successfully landed a B-17 backward (He landed a B-17 backward, 1965).

Figure 5. Boeing B-17. Johnson worked on these at Cheyenne and landed one backward in 1943 (Ralph S. Johnson Papers, Box 3, Folder 5; photo courtesy of Purdue University Libraries Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections).


Journal of Purdue undergraduate research: volume 5, fall 2015


After spending so much time working to fly planes safely at Cheyenne, Johnson turned his attention to an area of the plane that was quickly becoming a technologically daunting array of buttons and switches: the cockpit. In 1944, Johnson introduced the flight deck coordinator, creating a device that took into account the advancing technology of planes and reflecting the airlines’ desire to create a standardized system (Figure 6). The coordinator took the different phases of flight and listed them in one long checklist. Each phase was then broken down further by listing the information that pertained to whatever phase on which the crew was working. Once they were furnished with one phase, they simply scrolled down to the next one and continued their work. The coordinator split duties evenly among the crew and reduced the mental strain of trying to remember all of the specific procedures and settings (Johnson, 1944b). As postwar airliners became bigger and more advanced, Johnson’s flight deck coordinator became a welcome addition to the cockpit as it helped the crew responsibly handle the flood of new procedures and settings.

With the end of the war, the ATC was able to take stock of its accomplishments. Altogether, the airlines ew a grand total of eight billion passenger miles and 850 million “ton miles” of cargo for the Army and Navy (Cleveland, 1946, p. 4). United ew a total of 21 million miles while carry- ing 200,000 tons of men and supplies. In addition, United trained over 6,000 Army and Navy personnel combined. By the time the war ended, Johnson had logged over 2,000 hours flying transports (Cleveland, 1946). The incredible numbers posted by the ATC would not have been possible had aeronautical engineers like Johnson not spent the

previous decade standardizing their methods to achieve the best results. At its peak, an ATC transport was crossing the Atlantic Ocean every 13 minutes (Bilstein, 2003). This precision showed how far the airlines had come and how they were ready to apply their newly gained experiences to the postwar flight consumers.


Johnson stayed with United until his retirement in 1947; afterward, however, he stayed just as busy, being elected to the Wyoming House of Representatives in the 1950s, and starting his own company that fought forest res and conducted aerial surveys for mining companies. Through- out the 1960s and 1970s, Johnson continued to put his engineering degree to use as he was awarded ve patents, including one for aerial chemical dispensers (Wyoming Inventors Database, 2013). In 2008, just shy of his 102nd birthday, Johnson returned to Purdue to receive an doctorate in aeronautical engineering for the “indelible mark he has made on the history of flight during a career that has spanned every facet of military, commercial, and civil aviation from the early 1930s to the end of the 20th century” (Nomination, 2007, p. 5). Johnson passed away on January 12, 2010, at the age of 103.

Over the course of his life, one that mirrored the past one hundred years of aviation, Johnson witnessed both the airlines and airplanes evolve from novel concepts to practical, advanced organizations and machines. Johnson applied an engineer’s mindset to become a well-respected figure in the airline industry by seeing aviation’s possibilities and turning them into practical applications. Because this was an incredibly demanding task, Johnson earned a reputation as one who could get the job done in a timely and safe fashion. Through his work, Johnson developed systematic innovations that turned complex duties into simple routines and turned the airlines into the standardized, effcient means of transportation that they are today.


I would like to thank Professor Michael G. Smith for his guidance and the enthusiasm he displayed toward this article; Tracy B. Grimm for helping me in the archives; and my wonderful friends and family for giving me motivation as I wrote the original 25-page paper from which this article originated.

Perdue University interview in 2007:

I just spent a very delightful afternoon with my mentor.  I thought you might like the treat of hearing Ralph’s voice again.  And, to read his oral-history done by y Sammie Morris and Judy Schumaker on February 20, 2007.
The MP3 recording is awkward.  However, it brightened my day just hearing his voice.



Addams, W. J. (1935, February 12). Letter of recommendation for Ralph S. Johnson as airline pilot. Box 2, Folder 17. MSA 25 Ralph S. Johnson Papers. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN.

Bilstein, R. E. (2001). The enterprise of ight: The American aviation and aerospace industry. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Bilstein, R. E. (2003). The technology of ight: Three sides of a coin. In R. D. Lau- nius & J. R. Daly Bednarek (Eds.), Reconsidering a century of ight. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.

Cave, H. B. (1945). Wings across the world: The story of the Air Transport Com- mand. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.

Cleveland, R. M. (1946). Air transport at war. New York and London: Harper & Brothers.

Debris. (1929). Box 6, Item 1. MSA 25 Ralph S. Johnson Papers. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN.

Grant, R. G. (2007). Flight: The complete history. New York: DK Publishing.

He landed a B-17 backward. (1965, May 5). Cheyenne State Tribune. Box 11, Item 6. MSA 25 Ralph S. Johnson Papers. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN.

Johnson, R. S. (1944a). Power controlled landings. Box 3, Folder 3. MSA 25 Ralph S. Johnson Papers. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN.

Johnson, R. S. (1944b). Coordination of ight deck duties on large airplanes. Box 3, Folder 4. MSA 25 Ralph S. Johnson Papers. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN.

Johnson, R. S. (1948). Get better landings with all weather roll ons. Air Transport. Box 1, Folder 2. MSA 25 Ralph S. Johnson Papers. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN.

Johnson, R. S. (2005). The best of times: Memoirs of Ralph S. Johnson. Box 1, Folder 5. MSA 25 Ralph S. Johnson Papers. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN.

Kelly, R. D. (1941, September 23). Letter from R. D. Kelly to E. U. Fairbanks. Box
2, Folder 50. MSA 25 Ralph S. Johnson Papers. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN.

Larsen, A. (1945). The Air Transport Command. Minnesota History, 26(1), 1‒18.

Leary, W. M. (2003). A perennial challenge to aviation safety: Battling the menace of ice. In R. D. Launius & J. R. Daly Bednarek (Eds.), Reconsidering a century of flight. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.

Lott, E. P. (1934, April 19). Letter from E.P. Lott to Ralph S. Johnson. Box 2, Folder 14. MSA 25 Ralph S. Johnson Papers. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN.

News release from Post Of ce Department in regards to air mail contracts. (1934, May). Box 2, Folder 13. MSA 25 Ralph S. Johnson Papers. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN.

Nomination for doctorate of engineering. (2007). Box 1, Folder 3. MSA 25 Ralph S. Johnson Papers. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN.

Norberg, J. (2003). Wings of their dreams: Purdue in flight. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University.

Palmer, P. S. (1947). Manpower control in the air transport command. Public Administration Review, 7(3), 184‒192. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/972714

Resolution of meeting. (1942, May 13). Box 2, Folder 51. MSA 25 Ralph S. Johnson Papers. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN.

Rodert, L. A. (1944, April). Recent trends in airplane ice prevention technique. Box
2, Folder 51. MSA 25 Ralph S. Johnson Papers. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN.

Spenser, J. (2008). The airplane: How ideas gave us wings. New York: Harper Col- lins.

United Airlines. (n.d.). U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. Retrieved from http://centennialof ight.net/essay/Commercial_Aviation/UnitedAirlines/Tran16.htm


Vincenti, W. G. (1990). What engineers know and how they know it. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wyoming Inventors Database. (2013). Retrieved from http://will.state.wy.us/inventors/index.html

happy landings



  1. Thank you for checking into my website. I’m glad you liked my story about Captain Johnson!
    Even today he is saving lives with the inventions and innovations he developed during his 103 years on Earth. Extraordinary fellow!

  2. Hello Billy, Thank you for the wonderful memories; you’re a fabulous writer / historian!

    My father & mother, ‘Woody’ and Imogene Woodruff, loved your mom and dad and often spoke of them In Legendary Terms, along with the amazing Ralph Johnson!. After reading some of your memories, I can sure see why!
    We met one evening when our families were all together in Cheyenne a long, long time ago.
    I hope you are well and wish you a Happy and prosperous New Year! Thanks again, Barry Woodruff

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