Pilot turns 103
Aviation pioneer first flew solo in 1929
By Norma Jean Fochs
Any given Friday, those in the Iola area may find themselves looking skyward and checking their calendar to see if it is time once again for EAA.
Most of the year those planes are headed in moderate numbers to the Central County Airport, a potato field turned sod-airport just outside of Iola, for a weekly member’s lunch.
On Friday, Oct. 14, that number ramped up to 57 planes and two military Blackhawk helicopters as more than 215 people flew (or drove) into the airport to help aviation pioneer Paul Johns celebrate his 103rd birthday.
Johns, a resident of Butternut Ridge Independent Living Apartments in Iola, is something of an aviation celebrity.
According to his Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame biography, he began his 66 years as a pilot in 1929 when he soloed in a glider at age 15. Two years later, he soloed in a Curtiss Junior. In another year, Johns held a limited commercial certificate and was working at the airport that would become Glenview Naval Air Station.
He joined the U.S. Naval Reserve and acquired radio repair and aircraft mechanic certifications. He then began instructing pilots in the Link trainer, first for the Navy and later for United Airlines.
During this whole time he never lost sight of his goal to become a line pilot for an airline. He took a step in that direction in 1939 when Pan American hired him to establish an instrument training program for pilots ferrying aircraft to Europe via South America. Once the training program was up and running he became a line pilot flying DC-3s to the Caribbean and South America.
In 1944, he transferred to Pan Am’s Pacific fleet, flying the PB2Y3 flying boat and the fabled Boeing 314 Clipper. As a senior pilot and master navigator, Johns completed 220 flights on the longest overwater route flown by any airline.
A growing family brought Johns home to Racine in the late 1940s where he became a pilot for JI Case and Walker Manufacturing. Twenty years passed and facing retirement as a corporate pilot, Johns transferred to Walker’s research department.
At age 75, he decided to build his own plane, the Kitfox. He completed the aircraft in 12 months. He flew the airplane until 1995, when he grounded himself after 66 years of flying.
For his 100th birthday party (held three years ago at the same airport) his former co-pilot came all the way from Florida, explained Bill Kinsman, retired president of the Central County Airport Association who puts on the weekly lunches.
In a village best known for old cars, one may wonder just how an aviation celebrity landed here.
“Paul reluctantly decided to give the area a try when his daughter and son-in-law retired here. So he bought a small house and moved from Racine to Iola,” Kinsman said. “With his natural love for all things aviation he instantly hit it off with members at the Central County Airport and has never looked back.”