He’s the kind of guy you feel chummy with the first time you meet him. Maybe it’s the big, energetic smile, the bright welcome in his eyes, or the unpretentious, unabashed enthusiasm he exudes for all things with wings. This is a guy who loves flight and people who fly.
Dan Johnson (www.bydanjohnson.com) has had vision all his life. Talking the talk (in that deep, clear radio-announcer voice) and walking the walk for 40 years, he has been a key contributor to the light-sport movement.
Recently, I Skyped the LAMA (Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association) president and asked him to reflect on LSA’s imminent five-year anniversary.
“July 20 is when an amazing thing happened,” he began. “The light-sport rule was released by the FAA.
“Oh yeah,” he continued with a laugh, “There was that moon thing, too.” The humor, of course, references the Apollo 11 landing on July 20, 1969.
Our chat lasted two hours: There are no short yacks with this guy. The sizeable, agile Johnson brain is so full of aviation history, experience, insight and savvy that we lesser mortals must merely bow down to receive our alms of wisdom.
We first met in the 1970s, beneath a wild and crazy hillside cable contraption right out of Zorba the Greek. He had noodled the idea as a tool for teaching hang gliding. It worked, too!
Dan was already no stranger to aviation. He describes an indelible DC-3 cockpit ride at age nine as “a pure cool thing: I got to experience at a young age what it meant to dance among the clouds.”
In 1966, his dad gave him a 10-hour flight course ($150 total, wet, including instructor!). Papa Johnson wanted Junior to fly right in life: What better way than in a plane? The seed sprouted wings, and after 10 hours, Junior went to Papa with hand outstretched.
“‘Flying’s really cool,’ I said. ‘How about more money?’
‘How about getting a job?’ said Dad.”
Life: what a concept.
“At college, my nickname became ‘the Phantom’, remembers Dan. “I went to classes and worked all my spare time to pay for flying lessons.”
Flying for the airlines was the goal. By 1972, Dan had earned several ratings and piled up 1,000 hours. When the fates dealt the airlines a deep depression, he cast about elsewhere for an aviation career. He remembers reading an article on hang gliders claiming flights of an hour’s duration, “Suddenly, I recognized a fresh opportunity. I never thought again about the airlines.”
In the ensuing years, Dan followed an entrepreneurial career path that delivered him unto his current standing as a multiskilled, influential player in the LSA industry. The short list of career moves includes manufacturing hang gliders and kitplanes, founding a hang gliding school, publishing the Whole Air Catalog and Whole Air Magazine, becoming a noted sport aircraft writer for leading magazines, building 5,000 hours of flight time, and helping run BRS—innovators of airframe emergency parachutes—for 18 years.
He’s currently president and chairman of the board of directors for LAMA, and membership secretary for ASTM International’s LSA F37 Executive Committee. When does this guy sleep?
Vision requires skills for implementation, and Dan Johnson wields a bunch of them, including the ability to get people mobilized and thinking long-term.
“LAMA and ASTM are pushing toward an international presence for one reason: The light-sport rule and ASTM certification standard opened the door to a single aircraft-certification system that could apply anywhere in the world.”
That’s a vision with a huge payoff.
“In my experience, nothing like this has happened in the entire history of aviation. Light-sport can do something no other aviation segment has ever been able to do: Build airplanes to a set of standards, then be certified in every country in the world where that standard is accepted!
“U.S. producers could sell to any country that accepts ASTM. China and India are both looking closely at ASTM and LSA. There are two million pilots worldwide. In 10 years, we could conceivably have that many in China and India alone!”
For the few decrying ASTM standards as inferior to the FAA’s exhaustive type-certification process, he counters with this: “Industry consensus standards are just as vigorous as type certification. I was principal author of the ASTM standard for light-sport-airframe parachutes, and I can tell you firsthand that we started with the FAA’s special conditions governing airframe parachutes on type-certificated aircraft, and I could defend in a court of law that the LSA standard is stronger than what the FAA requires.”
Dan’s life-quality wings also climb from his abiding sense of aviation family. His communal concept of “let’s work together” marketing led to the LSA Mall at several air shows. He convinced many top LSA makers that displaying their aircraft side by side at air shows like cars at an auto mall was a good idea: “It’s working because it’s better for the consumer. When consumers find you all in one place, that’s better for LSA sales.”
His Three Musketeers ethos goes beyond marketing, though: “We all share this love and passion for flying. It gives us a common identity. I’ve liked just about everybody I’ve ever met in aviation. I can’t think of another element of my life I could say that about.
“Pilots like to be considered more capable than the average person, yet we want more people involved in aviation. Nonetheless, our numbers have shrunk from 830,000 pilots in 1966 to less than 600,000 today. In the same time, the U.S. population grew by 100 million! We’ve done something egregiously wrong.
“To grow pilot ranks to a million people in the United States doesn’t seem particularly challenging, so I think we haven’t told our story correctly. We’ve allowed it to remain too exclusionary because, well, maybe we like it like that.”
How exactly to grow GA continues to vex many a big thinker, so we’ll leave that topic for a future two-hour Skype session.
One final question: What do you love about flying?
“After all these years, the biggest reason I go up in the air is that I just like the view up there. You can’t see this planet in quite this way by any other means. I marvel at this beautiful country, at the whole planet. Flying allows me to see it with a clearer picture of where things are and how they fit together.”
That’s a decent metaphor for vision itself: By seeing where things work and where they don’t, we also learn how we might make things better. So keep flying, Dan!