In this Interview with an Aviator, Kari Johnson, Director of Technical Publications at Jet Linx, recounts his 56-year career in aviation. From his military service in Vietnam to commercial flying in Japan, the Netherlands and Africa, this aviator’s story spans the globe – multiple times over. For many years Johnson lived at the speed of sound and rarely looked back to marvel at his career, in which he earned 14 air medals (including the Distinguished Flying Cross for “heroism and extraordinary achievement” in aerial flight). Johnson is a living, breathing testament to the romantic notion of the young, impassioned pilot. Since Johnson would never just tell you these things himself, we went ahead and did the asking for you.
Why did you choose to become a pilot?
I grew up across the street from an Eastern Airlines pilot and I thought his profession was wonderful, but I never imagined I would get into aviation. However, in 1963 I enlisted in the Marine Reserves to avoid being sent to Vietnam in the draft. It was a just a six-month commitment of active duty, then monthly weekends back home in Miami, FL. Little did I know, while completing boot camp, I was offered pilot training. I had never flown and figured it would be better than crawling in the mud under barbed wire and tracers. I didn’t realize the opportunity would shape me, my career, and my entire life.
What do you love most about aviation?
It’s an instant reward – you set out and complete a mission, and on the way you’re in the air. There’s a pause in the air that gives you time to see the world from a God-like view. It gives you time to dream and think. It’s a completely different vision of the world. It’s the whole experience of flying that I love.
You have a long and interesting aviation career, but what is one moment that sticks out to you?
After 56 years that is a tough question. Flying in Vietnam? Flat-hatting, at a low altitude over the Florida Everglades in a Cessna 182 with my daughters? Surveillance around Cuba? Joining the Tiger Moth Club in Red Hill and flying around England? I think my one favorite memory is flying the really large commercial planes – those that fit as many as 553 souls on board. It was those domestic flights from Narita to Osaka and the international ones that carried me 4,000 miles into the Pacific, and completing those missions safely, that felt really good. They were all very interesting challenges that I overcame.
What was the Tiger Moth Club in England?
I was a DC-10 Instructor for Eastern Airlines and we rented simulators in Gatwick, England. In my time off I found a beautiful grass airstrip and these Englishmen had maintained a Tiger Moth. The Tiger Moth was a pre- World War I aircraft – a bi-wing, tail dragger, no starter ,no motor, and you had to prop it to get it going. It was so foreign to me because I was in these simulators for the DC-10, and this Tiger Moth was so primitive and physically difficult to fly. But flying around castles and seeing the English countryside was wonderful. Even meeting all the Englishmen and training with them was amazing. Just the whole experience was remarkable.
EVERYONE IN AVIATION WANTS EVERYBODY ELSE TO ENJOY THE THRILLS AND REWARDS OF FLIGHT.Kari Johnson
Do you have a favorite flight route?
I enjoyed flying the G-IV on short hops for my boss, Robert Petersen, with other celebrities from Van Nuys Airport to places like Monterey. He owned four G-IVs.
Who was your mentor? What did he mean to you as a young pilot?
Colonel Thomas Murphee was my superior, and he just passed away at the age of 94 last July. He encouraged me to keep going when I was ready to give up. I’ve had more than one mentor, but Colonel Murphee was a good leader. I was a very young pilot in my squadron, I was like a babe in the woods, so he also helped in the way that other pilots managed me. There’s a lot of mentorship even here at Jet Linx. I’ve encouraged a few guys to get into the cockpit again, and that is also rewarding.
Throughout your career, what has been your favorite aircraft to fly?
That’s a hard question because I’ve flown about 20 aircraft types with different missions. I enjoyed transporting people safely to their destination. In Japan, a domestic JAL 747 used to carry as many as 553 people from Narita to Osaka hourly. With the larger planes come different challenges, and I enjoyed that.
Why did you choose to join the Marines?
Born during WWII when every citizen sacrificed, the decision to join the Marines was subliminal. I was influenced by WWII servicemen coming back and all of the patriotism surrounding them. My grandfather was a WWI Marine, and my mother worked with an attorney who had served as a Marine in the Pacific. He was a great coach and leader – she admired his bravery.
I joined the Marines when they were very unpopular during the Vietnam era. Everybody had long hair, and I had short hair, but I liked the Marines – ‘The few and the proud’ tagline appealed to me. I was looking to find out who I was and what I wanted in life. The unknown was the challenge, and the Corps delivered.
I don’t consider myself very brave or heroic. I was just young and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. If I had the choice, I would do it all over again. If you have to go to war, you want to do it with the Marines.
How long was your military career?
It was 24 years, but it would have been longer if I was able to continue flying. I was also lucky that Eastern Airlines allowed me to take so much time off to go do military exercises. My wife would meet me at the airport with my airline uniform, and I would change out of my military uniform and then hop on a scheduled flight.
What do you remember most about your military service?
More than being a squadron skipper, or Army jump school, NATO operations, or flight training, it was 12-weeks at Marine Corps boot camp. I was a young and reckless kid. The Drill instructors at Parris Island had ways to get our attention while introducing us to the skills needed to be the person we would become. It was the beginning of a new life for me. It changed everything. It was a crash course on being a responsible adult.
What is one memory that stands out above the rest?
When I was assigned to my first squadron, which was a reconnaissance squadron operating four different types of aircraft, all very complex airplanes. Right off the bat, I was able to get checked out to fly virtually all of them. I bet I barely had 300 hours of air experience, and suddenly I’m flying an airplane going 1,000 mph with a rocket engine.
What’s it like to fly faster than the speed of sound?
The speed of sound is about 600 mph, but to be honest you couldn’t really tell how fast you were going. The only difference I saw was on my instrument, which was telling me I was flying past Mach 1. The fastest I went was a little over Mach 2 (1,534 mph) in a Phantom. But going that fast is really just an indicator on a gauge.
How did it feel to fly surveillance missions in Cuba?
My main profession in the military was electronic surveillance. So, basically, my job was to figure out where other radars were, and also to use transmitters in active combat in order to jam the signals so that the enemy couldn’t launch SAM missiles to blow us out of the air. Several squadrons would launch out of Jamaica or Key West and fly five miles offshore – very close – and we would try to find radar signals emanating from the coast. At that time I was 22.
A year or two later, my missions in Vietnam were more active. We launched from Danang and would try to locate radar equipment, even bating them to equip their SAM guidance missiles so that we could detect the location of launch. As a young, immortal pilot at the age of 23, it was a game of chess and I loved that game.
What was it like to fly the RF-4B Phantom?
Fighter, bomber and in the RF-4B’s case, collecting all sorts of images for combat intelligence. It could accelerate past Mach 2, twice the speed of sound. It was smooth and solid machine like a rocket on rails. The afterburners that accelerated the aircraft appeared like a horizontal rocket lighting up the night sky.
We know you had a storied commercial aviation career – but where did it begin?
Leaving active duty in 1968, I was hired by Eastern Airlines founded by WWI ace, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. I had found life-time employment! Assigned as a second-officer on one of Boeing’s new 727. I flew with captains that had survived WWII, where airmen fatalities exceeded the Marines in the Pacific! In the 1960s, many new hire airline pilots only had 200 hours of flight experience; UAL even hired zero time pilots and was successful in doing so. By the time Eastern Airlines was out of business some 22 years later, I had flown in various seats, held check pilot or management positions in the B-727, DC-8s, DC-9s, DC- 10s, and the A-300 programs.
Why did you choose to begin flying commercial flights overseas?
Well, I was 48 and thought I had lifetime employment with Eastern Airlines. But then it went out of business, and I was not in a great position. I could have joined a U.S. Airline as a beginning pilot with beginning pay – even though I had 22 years of experience. My other option was to move overseas and step into a command seat. International salaries were also much higher than what was offered in the U.S. I was eventually hired to fly ex-EAL A-300s based in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was the best flying ever. For the next ten years, that same opportunity moved me to Japan Airlines, then USAfrica based in Dulles and finally, Eva Air living and flying in Taiwan. Flying overseas was so different. Everything was by the book, and they wanted 110% out of you. I was often impressed by the level of care and training for pilots abroad. It made me into a better pilot and aviator, and it also taught me about being an American.
What brought you back to flying in the U.S.?
In 2000, I had grown tired of hotels and differing timezones, so I looked into corporate aviation and was fortunate to be offered a job as Petersen Aviation’s Chief Pilot, based in Van Nuys, CA. Later I was the Director of Operations (DO). After three years, I joined TAG Aviation as chief pilot, then DO, which safely managed over a hundred private jets and successfully ran the charter company, AMI Jet Charter.
How did your career with Jet Linx begin, and what keeps you here?
In early 2008, Jamie Walker (Jet Linx President and CEO) offered me a position at Jet Linx, then a single location charter company with aspirations to grow to the size of my previous employer. I worked at a very large charter company before Jet Linx, but Walker had a great business plan and I knew it was going to be a great opportunity. But the real reason I stay here is because I just love aviation and the way Jet Linx embraces it. They are going to have to throw me out of here before I quit.
Why is Jet Linx and its culture a great fit for you?
Jet Linx was founded with a culture of doing the right thing. Some charter companies take short cuts in their operations. Are they breaking any FAA rules? No, but FAA’s rules are minimum standards, some written 20 years or more ago. You have to go above and beyond, and that’s what we do on a daily basis at Jet Linx.
What makes Jet Linx a safe operator? How do we support a strong safety culture?
We’re constantly analyzing risks and learning how to mitigate them. When we open up a new Base, we do a massive analysis on the risks and learn how to mitigate them. Each aircraft presents different risk factors, and each route presents the same. We are constantly referring to our risk matrix to determine if we should proceed or if we should take an alternate route. On top of this, we’re Wingman Certified, have a Platinum ARGUS rating, and are certified Stage III by IS-BAO. These acronyms and designations may not mean a lot to most people – but it means that we are operating at an extremely rare standard of safety.
With your many years in aviation, what is the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry?
I think without a doubt it has been the engineering and electronics. In the last 15 or 20 years, specifically with the TCAS (Terrain Collision Avoidance System), it has made aviation much safer. There has been a dramatic decrease in incidents and accidents. The statistics have plummeted with each new invention. At Jet Linx we even have real-time information about turbulence so that we can avoid it. The safety technology is by far the most impressive improvement to the industry in my opinion.