Ray Johnson, Champion of Aerospace Education, Has Gone West

The life of Raymond J. Johnson was a life dedicated to aviation. His passion for the industry truly touched people around the globe as he worked in state aviation, the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the National Aeronautic Association (NAA), the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) and many other organizations. On April 7, 2020, Johnson passed away at the age of 94.

Raymond J. Johnson

The National Coalition for Aviation and Space Education (NCASE) was one of those organizations that had the privilege of sharing in his expertise, his knowledge, and his joy of service. Johnson was deeply involved with aviation education for much of his life and was a participant and contributor to NCASE.

“We were all saddened at the news that the Coalition’s longtime colleague, friend, confidant, and mentor had passed away,” said Rol Murrow, NCASE President. “He contributed so much to the world of aviation, especially to aviation education and the Civil Air Patrol, during his long career.  He provided wise counsel to so many of us over the years and will be greatly missed.”

Johnson was born in Duluth, Minnesota, married Lynn Johnson in 1949, and raised three sons, Scott, Bruce and Mark, and one daughter, Kathy. He joined the Minnesota Wing of Civil Air Patrol (CAP) in December 1945 following WWII service with the Army Air Corps and became active with the Minneapolis Squadron while attending the University of Minnesota. Johnson served 7 years as the Wing Director of Cadets and Aviation Education.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota with degrees in Business Administration and Industrial Engineering, Johnson spent a good deal of his career in Illinois, retiring as the Manager of the Chicago Office of the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Division of Aeronautics, a career position he held for 34 years (1958–1992). Among his responsibilities was the State’s interest in volunteer aviation organizations and the enhancement of aviation education activities.

In 1958 Johnson had been recruited to join the Illinois Wing of the CAP accepting the challenge in assisting the Wing Commander to reorganize the Headquarters and the formal establishment of a new “Bureau of Civil Air Patrol Affairs and Aviation Education” within the State’s aeronautics office.

In this capacity until 1993, Johnson worked with the Wing Commander and Staff to enhance the overall CAP program in Illinois, including the State’s aviation support of disaster relief and professional aviation education activities. In addition, the administration of the Illinois Aviation Forum and the Aviation Hall of Fame activities were included.

Within this framework under the guidance of Johnson, the successful creation of the Illinois Wing Flight Encampment was accomplished with the subsequent expansion to offer Power, Glider & Hot Air Balloon training. The focus was to create a statewide opportunity for cadets to have a hands-on flight and education experience leading to a FAA Solo Flight Certificate and the award of CAP Solo Wings.

Jim Bildilli, who worked with Johnson for 25 years at the Division and for several more after he retired, said Johnson was a Flight Safety Coordinator handling the 6 counties around Chicago and started a wonderful program which was eventually named after him, the Ray Johnson Civil Air Patrol (CAP) flight encampment, at Coles County Memorial Airport (MTO).

“He was the Illinois liaison to the CAP and attended nearly everything that the CAP did in Illinois and nationally,” said Bildilli. “Ray was a unique individual and totally dedicated to all things aviation.”

Following his retirement move to Prescott, AZ in 1994, Johnson continued an active role in both aviation and aviation education which has included Chairman, of the National Aeronautic Association’s Education Committee and NAA Delegate to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) including serving as President of the Aviation Education Commission and was a strong champion of the International Aviation Art Contest featuring delightful entries from children all over the world.   Ray was a proud member of the former Embry-Riddle Board of Visitors and a member of the Prescott Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Committee.

Johnson at Prescott Airport in Arizona.
Photo by Kim Stevens

“I had the opportunity to visit with Ray in Prescott,” said Kim Stevens, Vice President of NCASE. “Ray and I attended an aviation event at the Prescott Airport. We sat at a picnic table in one of the hangers and ate lunch together. I remember Ray sharing many fascinating stories about his life and the industry he loved.” 

Johnson held a Commercial Pilots Certificate with Airplane, Glider, and Hot Air Balloon ratings, and held a World Flight Record as well. His initial flight training was with the WWII Army Air Corps as a flight engineer in the B-29. Johnson has been recognized nationally as an author, editor, and consultant with non-profit organizations. He has previously held a leadership role with several organizations including positions as president or board member of the Balloon Federation of America, the Soaring Society of America, and the National Coalition for Aviation Education, now named NCASE.

Shelia Bauer, a contributing member of NCASE said she had the honor of knowing and working with Johnson throughout her entire career at the FAA. “I can’t think of Ray Johnson without thinking of Dr. Marvin Strickler, [often considered the Father of Aviation Education.] Our nation’s history in Aviation Education stems from the leadership of such men,” said Bauer. “I will remember Ray as an intelligent, gentle man, with a quiet stoic smile. We will all miss him dearly.”

Johnson was a recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the National Aeronautic Association’s Frank G. Brewer Trophy, the Nile Gold Medal and the Paul Tissandier Diploma from FAI.

In receiving the Brewer Trophy in 1994, Johnson was recognized “for nearly a half-century of leadership and innovation in aviation and aerospace education at all levels, kindergarten through university. His pioneering leadership has been demonstrated at the local community level, as well as state, regional, national and international levels. His work involved stimulating volunteers in Civil Air Patrol’s programs as well as educators at all grade levels and curricular areas.

Judy Rice, a past president of NCASE, said that Johnson was one of her finest mentors and personal friend before, during, and after her world flight. “He was the most gracious, passionate, aviation educator that I had the honor to work with.”

Betty P. Wilson, Public Relations and Education Manager for the Virginia Department of Aviation, said she was so sorry to hear about Johnson’s passing. “He was knowledgeable, helpful, and always interested in what was going on in aviation education. Because of his long and extensive experience, he was a great resource for a younger state aviation educator like me.”

There has been an echo heard around the world – he will truly be missed.