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The Year I Was Born

When I started flying gliders in 1965, Al Parker had only recently broken Dick Johnson's free distance record set in 1951, the year I was born. Throughout my first decade and a half in soaring I read and heard about Dick Johnson's exploits and adventures, from his frequent contest successes to articles about building or improving the RJ-5, the Adastra, and later glass gliders. Like many who didn't know the man, I marveled (doubtfully, I must admit) when he described inspecting the tail surfaces closely as he sailed over them when bailing out of a doomed Standard Austria in "Epitaph to an Austria" published in Soaring magazine (from memory, sometime in the late 1960s). It was only after reading many more of his analytical accounts over subsequent years and finally meeting him in the early 1980s that I understood how he could have managed that under such stress.

Watching him in my early contest years was an education. Unlike the other "hot" pilots during that time, JD did not usually hang around the start line until everyone else had left, then attempt to slash through the crowd using markers. Instead, he was often one of the first ones to start, adding credibility to the phrase often attributed to him: "Start early and pray for rain!" It often worked. I also got used to hearing his short, cryptic radio reports to his wife Alice, simply "Stars" or "Bright Stars" with no other detail. The man walked along his own path. And he walked quietly. The word "gentleman" has been used many times the past few days to describe Dick and that's how I remember him: quiet, polite, personable, approachable, helpful.

When I met him the first time, at a national contest, I was--like many others have reported--impressed that he already knew my name. And he remembered it. That gave me the courage to telephone him one night in 1986 after my close friend Robert Robertson had crashed under mysterious circumstances. I expressed my misgivings about the facile way the accident had been attributed to Robert's Ventus being over gross weight or aft of the center of gravity limit and explored some rough thoughts I had about what might really have happened. Dick listened quietly, asked a lot of questions, made a few thoughtful comments, and promised to look into it. I was delighted when, six months later, he published his results in "Tail Stall While Towing," finally explaining (at least to me) what might have happened to cause Robert's accident.

I spoke with him a few times after that. Though I was still a bit nervous about approaching or imposing on someone with such exalted status in our world of soaring, Dick always made me feel like he was glad I called. I'm sorry I didn't ever get to know him better or have more opportunities to interact with him. We mortals are fortunate in soaring to be able to fly with the great ones from time to time instead of just watching them on television like in most other sports. There are few who have accomplished and given so much over such a strikingly long "career" as this legendary figure did.

It would be presumptuous of me to assume that Dick's family will draw any comfort from his going out "with his boots on," flying his Ventus. But it does seem somehow appropriate that he died while doing what he loved most and my thoughts and prayers go out to them during this very difficult time.

Chip Bearden

Posted: 8/2/2008 By: Richard Johnson


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