An airport was the perfect place for Paul Johns to celebrate his 100th birthday.
The Iola resident spent 66 years flying airplanes.
More than 200 of his friends, relatives and fellow aviators gathered Friday, Oct. 11, to help Johns celebrate his birthday at the Central County Airport in Ogdensburg. They came from as far awayEngland, Hawaii and Florida.
“I know practically everybody here,” Johns said.
Guests included a niece he hadn’t seen for 15 years, fellow pilots he has known for over 50 years, and an airplane he once flew.
There were a total of 51 airplanes and 203 people at the airport.
“I’m just blown away,” said his daughter, Sandy Ruffolo, of Iola. “There’s so many people who came that I never would have expected.”
“I met him 20 years ago and we got to be good friends,” said Bill Brennand, of Oshkosh, a legendary air racer. “I’m only 89.”
Another of the guests was his friend Glenn Christensen, of Racine.
“He rode co-pilot a few times for me,” Johns said.
“We had that one ice storm – remember?” Christensen said. “That was not good.”
Johns is noted for giving advice to his fellow aviators, according to his friend Roger Blocks, of Racine.
“Paul saved my life,” he said.
In the early 1990s, Blocks was flying into a storm when he remembered the words of his friend.
“He told me I was flying too much and ‘you’re going to fly into a winter warm front,” which is the most dangerous thing for a pilot,” Blocks said. “Johns told me ‘don’t delay – get out in a hurry. You can do a 180 and get out of the storm real quick.’ So that’s what I did.”
“Three people died in that storm and they were in much bigger, fancier planes than mine,” he said.
An aviator at heart
Johns started his aviator career in 1929 when he soloed in a glider at the age of 15. Within two years he was a working pilot.
He joined the Naval Reserve and acquired radio and aircraft engine maintenance licenses. He ran a Link trainer for the U.S. Navy and later for United Air Lines.
What he really wanted to be was a line pilot.
In 1939, he took a step in that direction when Pan American hired him to set up an instrument training program for pilots ferrying aircraft to Europe via South America. He finally achieved his dream as he flew DC-3s in the Caribbean and South America.
In 1944, he was transferred to Pan Am’s Pacific fleet, piloting PB2Y3 flying boats and the Boeing 314 Clipper. As a senior pilot and as a navigator who mastered celestial navigation, he completed 220 flights on the longest over-the-water route flown by any airline.
He returned to his home in Racine to become a pilot for J.J. Case and Walker Manufacturing. After retiring as a corporate pilot at age 60, he transferred to Walker’s research department.
At age 75, Johns spent a year building a Kitfox aircraft. He flew until 1995, when he grounded himself.
He was honored by his fellow aviators when he was inducted into the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame in 2009.
Johns is a regular at the Central County Airport, where he continues to offer advice to his fellow pilots.