Howard “Scrappy” Johnson served as a fighter pilot flying over 7,000 hours in fifteen different fighter planes during his career. A Tennessee-born only child, Colonel Johnson moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1933. While growing up in Kentucky, he earned his nickname “Scrappy” after dealing with an overly aggressive classmate at Sunday School. After attending the University of Louisville, he entered the US Army Air Corps in 1942. He earned both his wings and his reserve commission in 1943. During his first flying assignment at Laredo, Texas, Johnson trained World War II aircrew in the art of aerial gunnery. While flying fighter planes in mock engagements, Johnson prepared America’s B-17, B-24 and B-29 heavy bomber crews for combat.
Eager to make the transition from training to combat, Johnson, now a captain with a regular commission, volunteered to fly in the Korean War in 1950. At the controls of his P-51, he flew 87 combat missions. He flew sixty of these missions as the flight lead of his apt-named formation, “The Ferocious Four,” that, among others, included Chappie James. Following redeployment from Korea, he flew F-94s at Otis AFB. While stationed there, Johnson led a formation of fighters further north than any other aircraft to intercept and protect the base from Soviet reconnaissance flights.
In 1953, Major Johnson transferred to Hamilton AFB where he had the first opportunity to hear about the Air Force’s newest, fastest airplane, the F-104. In 1958, with only 30 hours of flight time in the Starfighter, he shattered the World’s Altitude Record zooming to 91,243 feet. In recognition of the record, Vice President Richard Nixon presented him with the Robert J. Collier trophy for aeronautical achievement. Johnson went on to win the West Coast Timer’s Trophy while receiving a promotion to lieutenant colonel. After three years as an advisor to the West German Air Force, Johnson commanded a squadron in the 479th Tactical Fighter Wing before deploying to Southeast Asia. In 1966, Colonel Johnson became the Deputy Commander for Operations of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, Korat, Thailand. A true warrior leader, he flew over 115 missions in North Vietnam and Laos in the F-105. The following year, Johnson founded and became the first president of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association. He then named Robin Olds, his good friend, as his successor.
Colonel Johnson retired in 1972 after receiving not only the Collier Trophy, but two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, seven Distinguished Flying Crosses, and eighteen Air Medals. Colonel Johnson, a Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame inductee, lives in South Florida and remains active in the River Rats organization.