Dakota Datebook

Dick Johnson, Test Pilot

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

One year ago today, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Johnson was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with full Air Force Military Honors.

Dick was born on September 21, 1917 near Cooperstown, the eighth of 10 children. His father died when he was only 8, and his mother raised the family on very modest means. His first love was flying, and when he was just a kid, he had a homemade airplane he powered with a Model T engine. As he matured, however, it looked like Dick was destined for baseball. In fact, he was actually in spring training with the Boston Red Sox when he decided in 1942 to fight in WWII.

As a fighter pilot in North Africa and Italy, Johnson logged 4500 hours in more than 35 aircraft, including the rocket-propelled Bell X-1, the world’s first supersonic aircraft. In all, he flew 180 missions, mostly in a P-47 Thunderbolt also known as the “Train Buster.”

After the war, Johnson decided that baseball couldn’t compete with flying, so he stayed in the Air Force. Then in 1948, news came back to Cooperstown that Johnson had broken the world’s absolute speed record by pushing an F86 Sabre jet fighter to a speed of 670.98 mph. He beat fellow pilot Chuck Yeager’s record for breaking the sound barrier the previous year. For his efforts, Johnson won the prestigious Thompson Trophy and the French Henri de la Vaulx medal.

As they say in Top Gun, Johnson felt the need for speed. In 1953, he left the military to become chief test pilot for General Dynamics in Ft. Worth, Texas. There, he tested and helped deploy the F-102, F-106, YF-102 and made the first flights in the variable sweep wing F-111. He also helped design the F-16, and in 1955, Johnson and five other pilots founded the internationally known Society of Experimental Test Pilots.

Johnson’s skill and courage have earned him world recognition and a host of medals and awards, including the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, 4 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Air Medals and many more. At the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Johnson’s name is etched on a wall bearing the names of world speed record holders.

Also on display is Johnson’s coveted Ivan C. Kincheloe Trophy, which he was awarded in 1967 as the Nation’s Best Test Pilot.

Through it all, Johnson remained modest and self-effacing. In fact, when he was dying of brain cancer a little over a year ago, he expressed a wish to be buried at Arlington Cemetery – but his family couldn’t prove he had gotten his awards, because he had thrown them away. Thankfully, Senator Dorgan was able to cut through the red tape to honor Johnson’s wish and his memory.

Many consider Dick Johnson to be the greatest test pilot in American history, but he hasn’t received his due here in North Dakota. Back in 1948, Cooperstown held a Dick Johnson Day during which Governor Aandahl presented him with diamond studded pilot’s wings. But other than that, he’s been overlooked. Many have lobbied for his induction into the Roughrider Hall of Fame, hoping the award would come while he was still living. But Johnson hasn’t even been inducted into the North Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame yet.

Who knows? Maybe that’s how he would’ve wanted it. But a fly-by would be nice. Or how ‘bout a nice sonic boom?

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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