Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Profiles In Vision: Dan Johnson

Deconstructing the heart and mind of a prime LSA trailblazer

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!


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