HARRELLS — When Jimmy Johnson tells about his half century as an active private airplane pilot, his tale in many ways parallels advances in aviation. And, being possessed of an excellent ability to recall details, Johnson, 86, also relates much of the history of people and places linked to flying — and about Sampson County, whether aviation-related or not. Thrown in are some allusions to Duplin County, especially Wallace’s airport.
Johnson was born May 8, 1932, at James Walker Memorial Hospital in Wilmington, when the Johnson family, father Eugene “Gene” Johnson and mother Inez Highsmith Johnson, was living on a farm near the Harrells community, then commonly referred to as Harrells Store. Johnson had one brother, Billy, and one sister, Reva Johnson Wells. Both are deceased.
Johnson graduated from Franklin High School (located where Harrells Christian Academy is today) in 1951 and from Wake Forest College in 1955, with a Bachelor of Arts in General Science. According to a 1972 newspaper article, he later did graduate work in agricultural economics at N. C. State and East Carolina universities. Drafted into the Army in 1956. Johnson served two years, including occupation duty in South Korea, about 15 miles from Seoul. He was a member of the Army Medical Corps and served as a medic in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.) unit.
As to his early interest in flying, Johnson says his older brother, Billy, flew when he, Billy, was in college, and he admired his brother and what he was doing. “We flew together a lot,” Johnson remembers.
Johnson continues his narrative: “I had a habit of driving real fast, so one day my Daddy said to me, ‘You’ve got a lot of speed in your system, so …. We’re going to the airport,’” to see about the boy learning to fly.
“Harrells Store had no landing field. The Wallace airport didn’t have an instructor at the time, so we went to the Clinton airport,” Johnson said.
“The airport in Clinton was right behind where the Sandpiper Restaurant is now,” Johnson said, with the runway running parallel to North N. C. 701.
The Clinton airport was operated by R.A. Naylor, who acted as an instructor. Johnson took his first airplane ride in Naylor’s trainer, an Aronca, with tandem seats, one behind the other, with two control panels.
“We were up for about 30 minutes,” Johnson remembers. “I liked it.”
Naylor and Gene Johnson, who were acquainted, struck a deal. Since Johnson was paying cash, Naylor knocked five dollars off the regular cost of $65 dollars, for eight hours of instruction. Nowadays, Johnson guesses, it would cost $6,000 to train and solo.
As Johnson remembers it, he soloed after about six hours of instruction.
About six to eight months later, Jimmy Johnson, age 17, had his private pilot’s license, after “privatizing” training from Naylor. Privatizing training and licensing included ground training and flying.
After getting his license, Johnson rented planes and flew as often as he could, while still doing his farm chores and his school homework.
Still 17, Johnson saw an advertisement in The Wallace Enterprise announcing that an airplane at the Wallace airport was for sale. He drove to the airport, looked it over, liked it, and talked to the owner, Roy Cavenaugh, who owned an automobile dealership in Wallace.
The plane was a 1946 Taylorcraft model. It had two seats, side by side. It owned 65 horsepower and could cruise at from 80-90 miles per hour. One engine. One propeller.
It had no radio. Neither did most other airplanes at the time, Johnson said. As he remembers, at one time R.A. Naylor owned the only plane based at the Clinton Airport equipped with a radio.
About the ride with Cavenaugh, Johnson said, “We went up in it, and I wanted it … . It (having an airplane) was better than having a car.”
It was red and black. “It smelled new,” Johnson said.
Cavenaugh’s asking price was $650. Yes, Johnson told Cavenaugh, he had $650, most of it earned working in tobacco. But, being 17, it would have to be put in his father’s name. “I told Mr. Cavenaugh, ‘No, I don’t think that will work,’ meaning that he didn’t think his father would permit that.
But, Johnson said, he thought his older brother Billy would agree to the plane being registered in his name. “I couldn’t telephone Billy to ask him, because there were no telephones in Harrells,” Johnson explained, this being 1949. But when the two met, they struck a deal which allowed Billy to own one-half interest in the airplane.
Not long after the purchase, a runway and a hangar were built in a field on the Johnson farm, making it more convenient and less expensive than keeping the plane in Clinton. That runway was used until, years later, Johnson traded for a Mooney airplane, which was too fast for the runway. Years later, the farm airport was converted back to farming acreage.
Just because a boy owns an airplane doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want a car.
So it was that, while his son’s airplane probably still smelled new, Johnson’s father, having decided to buy his son a car, took him to the Dodge-Plymouth dealership in Clinton. He showed the boy a bright yellow 1950 Dodge roadster, and indicated that it could be his.
It was beautiful, but the boy didn’t want that car.
So the pair went to the Oldsmobile dealership, also in Clinton, where a blue 1950 Oldsmobile convertible was purchased.
Still in high school, the boy Jimmy Johnson owned, among other items, an airplane, an automobile, and a plot of tobacco on his daddy’s farm. Soon, instead of coming home on weekends by car from college, he would be flying home.
Tobacco markets and USDA
Johnson’s first job out of college was working at tobacco markets, first at an auction warehouse in Whiteville.
(That is, until, in 1956, when the U.S. Defense Department decided the Army wanted him, at least for a couple of years.)
Home from the military, for several years Johnson farmed with his father and brother.
Johnson used his GI Bill to get his commercial license and instrument rating. Most of the training was at New Hanover County’s Bluethenthal Field, forerunner of today’s Wilmington International Airport. Bluethenthal Field was named after ace aviator Arthur Bluethenthal, the first Wilmingtonian killed in World War I.
Still farming part time, Johnson went to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, specifically the Farmers Home Administration. In total, his USDA service amounted to 25 years, including a stint as FHA state director. In his work for the government, Johnson often used his own plane, which allowed him more work flexibility. As state director, having a plane, Johnson said, meant “I could touch more bases.”
While he was working for USDA Johnson was designated in July 1972 by the Raleigh News and Observer as “The Tar Heel of the Week.” The program, still active, profiles each week a person the newspaper considers an outstanding North Carolinian.
The July 30 1972 feature article’s content was reflected in the headline: “Helping to Pump New Life Into Rural North Carolina.”
Among Johnson’s achievements listed: named Sampson County’s outstanding young farmer in 1965; chairman of the N.C. Federation of Young Republicans in 1962: Third Congressional District chairman for four years; cited by FHA national administrator James V. Smith for “positive and aggressive leadership in formulating and implementing the total Farmers Home Administration program in North Carolina;” and vice chairman of the N.C. Rural Development Committee. Johnson has served as a member of several agriculture-related organizations.
The article noted that Johnson “pilots his own plane, a single-engine Mooney, and travels about 2,000 miles a month in North Carolina. He supervises 365 Farmers Home employees in 75 county offices and the state office in Raleigh.”
Johnson retired in 1994 from USDA.
He now calls himself a “retired” farmer.
Flooding from Hurricane Floyd in 1999 damaged the Mooney, as it did other planes parked at Wallace’s Henderson Field.
“All the planes there were under water,” Johnson said. “My plane had a lot of damage.” However, it was repaired and made air worthy, and he flew it for two years after Floyd but, said, Johnson, “I never did feel I could count on it.” He sold it.
New York and more
Johnson talks about the flight to New York City.
“In 1951 I flew to New York City. I had decided I wanted to go hear Charlie Parker perform at “Birdland,” a jazz club. I got Herbert Cannady to go with me. Herbert ran the grocery at Harrells Store.”
The plane was the 1946 Taylorcraft mentioned earlier. Johnson had some trouble finding a passenger.
“I just wanted someone to go with me,” Johnson said. However, several people he asked pleaded sickness or too busy, and so forth. Laughing, Johnson says, “Remember, back then, flying wasn’t very common. Some people were simply afraid to fly. Or maybe they just didn’t want to fly with me, so young.”
But, Herbert Cannady was game. “When I asked him about going, all he said was, “Let me see if I can get somebody to mind the store.”
“Herbert told me that he knew the New York Harbor area like the back of his hand. He had served in the Coast Guard, and one of his duty posts was in the harbor. He had run a Coast Guard “cutter” there. He said he never got seasick there, so, in Cannady’s way of thinking, flying would be no problem.
Asked if he filed a flight plan, Johnson replied, “Well, sure I did! I got a map and a straight edge and drew a line from Harrells to Washington, and then to New York.”
The plane had no radio.
Aboard the Taylorcraft, Johnson kept about half dozen airsick bags, which were to play an important role on the trip to New York.
“Herbert got sick before we got to Delway,” Johnson said. By the time the plane landed in Hampton, Virginia, all the airsick bags –— half dozen or so –- were full. Cannady bought a Pepsi and crackers, to try to settle his stomach. Seasick bags were resupplied, the plane took off for New York. Johnson thinks he stopped a couple more times, and the routine was repeated, more soft drinks, more crackers, new airsick bags.
On his trip north, Johnson said, he was guided by certain landmarks. In the New York City area it was the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. He found the former easily, but flew around two or three times before he located the Empire State Building, then located the landing strip.
Shortly after landing in New York, Johnson said, he received a telephone call. He was told that the call was from some official and was important.
“I wondered who could be calling me way up there,” Johnson remembers, and so answered somewhat timidly.
The call, he learned, was from LaGuardia Airport, and the conversation went something like this:
The caller identified himself and said he was calling from LaGuardia. He asked, “Are you the pilot of the little red and black plan that’s been flying around here?”
LaGuardia caller: “When you leave, try not to fly in LaGuardia’s flight pattern.” Johnson said the man at LaGuardia didn’t say that as an explicit warning, but Johnson said he took it that way, and he was going to make darn sure he didn’t violate LaGuardia’s air space.
Johnson recalls that in his early flying days the Wallace airport ran parallel to U.S. 117 north, east of it. The terminal was located back of Worsley’s Oil Company and the Ford dealership.
Johnson will tell you that it is safer to fly than to ride in an automobile.
Noting that flying time is commonly measured in hours, not miles, Johnson estimated he has flown 4,000 hours. He has had some unplanned landings.
Asked to classify his “forced landings” not as “crash landings” but as “memorable events,” Johnson said one incident occurred near Wallace, when, coming in for a landing, he hit a power line, but landed safely. The landing wheel was bent backward. Francis Johnson, from the Allis-Chalmers dealership in Wallace, came out and fixed it good enough to get the plane to the Clinton airport.
“It wasn’t a crash,” Johnson said. “Back then, I was flying all the time,” Johnson says.
Another time, Johnson was flying from Florida and was on the Myrtle Beach-to- Harrells leg when he saw a thunderstorm moving west to east. He tried to get around it, but soon realized that if he didn’t land, he would be over the ocean. He wound up landing at the Army Air Corps airport at Fort Fisher.
Another memorable event occurred when his engine quit, for what he thought was a lack of gasoline, even though after a post-landing check, it was found that 12 gallons remained in the tank. After landing the plane was hung up on a tree. On the ground, Johnson, uninjured, took off running, fearing an explosion.
Over the years, Johnson has changed planes several times, and “always traded up,” he says, meaning for faster and//or larger planes. He has bought several used airplanes, but never a new one.
The fastest plane he owned was his last one. It was a M-20A Mooney four-seater. It had a retractable landing gear and could cruise at about 170 miles per hour.
During those over 50 years of flying his cruises included “all over the eastern United States,” the Bahamas and the Caribbean. He has flown across Canada, including Montreal and Toronto.
He once planned to fly across the continental United States, but never did.
He still owns a farm, but daily operations are in the hands of a manager.
Johnson married Sue Oswald, of Wallace, in 1959. She died a few years ago. The union produced three girls. They are Margaret Highsmith Johnson, Eugenia Lee Johnson, and Jamie Sue Johnson Moore. There are two grandchildren.
These days Johnson lives near Harrells but spends much time at his Wrightsville Beach place.
Johnson’s father served in several Sampson County government capacities, including on the Sampson County Board of Commissioners (12 years as chairman); the Sampson County Board of Education; and the Sampson County Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees, now Sampson Regional Medical Center. Johnson was a trustee when the hospital was built in the early 1950s.
Although his father was elected to several political offices, Johnson’s first, and only, try at public office was unsuccessful.
Well, first he won, then he lost.
“I ran for the North Carolina House of Representatives, for the Sampson County district, in 1962” Johnson explains. He ran as a Republican, and, he said, worked hard to win. On election night it appeared he had won.
“Everybody was celebrating, congratulating each other, and the like,” Johnson recalls. People, including lobbyists, were already asking for favors. “We were all having a good time,” having just won an election.
Then, after the vote canvass, he was declared the loser.
“So,” Johnson concludes, laughing, “Instead of winning by 216 votes, I lost by 87.”
Though he never ran again, Johnson remained a strong supporter of the Republican Party. Johnson says he led the revival of the Young Republican Club in Sampson County.
He attended the 1968 and 1972 Republican National Conventions. He said he got to know Richard Nixon well, having met him several times during the years when Nixon was traveling widely, drumming up support for a possible 1968 run for the presidency.
“I’m still a pilot,” Johnson claims, “but I do not fly. I have no airplane… . I’m still a farmer, but do not do any farming.”
L. E. Brown, Jr. is based in Magnolia. Contact him at [email protected] or leave a message at The Sampson Independent.