Jon Johanson: Dialogue with an Adventist record-breaking aviator from Australia

July 26, 1995. Oshkosh, Wisconsin, U.S.A. Jon Johanson taxied his self-built RV-4, parked it under the wing of a giant Quantas 747, and stepped off to a hero’s welcome. He had just flown solo from Adelaide, Australia, the farthest anyone had ever come in such a plane to the world’s premier light-plane air show. Jon’s lifetime dream had now propelled him into the record books of aviation history.

But getting there wasn’t easy. His early school days had been tough. He grew up with low self-esteem and self-doubt. “You’ll never do any good,” his teacher once admonished him. Jon admits that he found studies difficult, but his heart was set on flying.

Jon grew up in Horsham, a rural town in eastern Victoria, Australia. After completing high school, he finished a carpentry apprenticeship. About the same time, he spent every dollar he could spare on the most consuming passion of his life: learning to fly. But he also wanted a profession and chose nursing. On the day he left home to Sydney to begin nursing training, he received his unrestricted private pilot’s license.

After graduating as a nurse, Jon worked as a volunteer in Southeast Asia, then returned to Australia to obtain his midwifery certificate. He also improved his flying qualifications. A short time later, he went to Darwin, in Australia’s far north, to work as a pilot and nurse. It was during this time that his dream to fly to Oshkosh in his own self-built plane began to materialize. He devoted every possible resource for two-and-a-half years to the fulfillment of that dream.

When he landed at Oshkosh to a tumultuous reception from 200,000 people, his journey had taken more than three weeks. He returned home via Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, setting a record for circumnavigation of the globe for his class of plane.

Nursing and flying. Do they go together?

I love them both. Nursing has provided me with a steady income that helped me with my flying interests. It gives me an opportunity to be close to people in suffering. For instance, while doing some maintenance on my plane at Oshkosh, I saw a man collapse nearby with an apparent heart attack. My nursing training allowed me to come to his rescue. I applied CPR until paramedics could arrive. As for flying, I always loved it, although I never thought I’d be able to do it. I didn’t think I was smart enough or good enough. From my early days, I had this problem of low self-image.

How come?

Schooling didn’t help much. I had this strange feeling that I was a failure. English was a special problem. I couldn’t spell and didn’t think it was important. As long as one could read, why bother about spelling? And then there were teachers constantly telling me that I was a problem. May be I was, but their telling me reinforced that image. When I left high school, I came out believing that I wouldn’t amount to anything. As far as flying, I never thought I’d even get a license. And to have thought of it as a career, no way.

But things have changed, have they not?

My flying lessons helped. You can’t fly without that confidence that you can go up in the air and come down safely. You take control of a machine. If you can do that, you can take control of your life. And what’s more, you are not alone in making out in life. As a Christian, I believe God has made it possible for us to achieve. So I have learned to live with what people say and go beyond it. Whenever I visit schools I tell the children, “When people put you down, don’t get discouraged. Try to analyze what they say, pick what is worthwhile, discard the rest, and keep plodding. Never quit.”

Can you recall any particular incident that challenged you in this way?

Once while I was working as a midwife, a female colleague said to me, “You men are useless. You can’t even knit!” I reacted instantly. The next day I showed up with wool and needles and started knitting. When I finished my first jumper, the penny dropped. I thought, Hang on, I can’t believe I can do this! It showed me that I could do whatever I wanted to.

I still have trouble, though. I still don’t have a lot of faith in myself. But I turn it to my advantage. On my business card I have the slogan, “Once started, too thick to quit.”

You have spoken about your faith in God. You have established flying records around the world. When you are navigating your plane, do you have time to think about God?

I’m a fourth-generation Seventh-day Adventist. In a conventional sense, I’m not a “good one.” But for me, God is either everything in life—or nothing. I choose to accept God and His leading or I don’t. I could not have done what I’ve done—flying around the world—without divine intervention. I remember the vivid feelings I had flying from Hawaii to California for 15-plus hours. I saw the sun set and the sun rise. These are moments when you can’t help but think about God and life and Creation. All through the night I felt something quite tangible, as if I was carried by Him. To someone who doesn’t know God, that sounds silly. But to me, God is real and personal. Hundreds of people were praying for me. I felt carried by the power of prayer.

Tell us a little more about this global record flight.

This was a long-standing dream. I bought a RV-4 aircraft kit from a company in Portland, Oregon. The kit is no more than a set of plans and many pieces of aluminum and boxes with 13,000 rivets. It took three years to build the plane in a rented workshop, using whatever time I could spare after doing night duty as a nurse. But the plane was not fit for long-distance flying, such as going to Oshkosh. It needed modifications, and it had to meet various specifications. My first long flight over water was in February 1995, from Adelaide, Australia, to Auckland, New Zealand. The trip took 14 hours.

Then came the big dream to reach Oshkosh. On July 3, I took off from Brisbane, headed east across the Pacific, with stops at Fiji, Western Samoa, Christmas Island, Hawaii, and California. Finally it was Oshkosh to a thunderous welcome. Never before had anyone flown a home-built plane so far to be at Oshkosh. From there our flight continued to Maine in northeast U.S., to Spain, London, the Middle East, India, Singapore, and back home to Darwin. The entire voyage took 71 days and 19 hours.

Do you still have dreams?

There are other things I’d like to do. One day I’ll build another aircraft—just because I want to do it. But one step at a time... My main goal is to share with others, particularly with children—to show them that everyone is precious in God’s sight and that God enables all to achieve, even a person like me who as a kid lacked self-worth. Whenever I get an opportunity, I tell young people that achievement is within their reach. They can and must turn every disadvantage to their advantage.

Do you see yourself as having achieved your potential?

No, far from it. To have achieved something that is perceived to be as big as what I’ve done is exciting in one sense, but in the broader sense, all the awards and accolades I’ve been given mean little, because they’re accolades from people. In the long run they don’t count. That’s not to say I’m not appreciative. I am, but there’s so much more to life. What I’ve chosen to do has brought this sort of success. But if someone has worked hard to get where they’ve gotten, then they’ve achieved just as much or more than I have.

Besides the great success, do you recall anything special about this trip of flying around the world?

I had several sponsors, both individuals and corporate bodies, and I am very thankful to them. I acknowledged these sponsors by stickers on the plane. But two decals of fish I had stuck on the plane attracted more attention than any other. People asked me about them. I told them the fish represent my great Sponsor. You know, fish is a symbol used by the early Christian church to denote their faith in Jesus. I wanted to express publicly that I am a Christian. My faith means a lot to me.

You wear “Christian” heart on your sleeve, Jon?

I teach flying to students from all over the world. I overheard one student, a Muslim from Oman, say something that made me realize what I do. He said, “Jon teaches us more than just aerodynamics. He teaches us about life.” I’d never realized it was like that before. What I consider to be important in my life shows. And that’s a little frightening sometimes.

Interviewed by Lee Dunstan. Lee Dunstan is an editor at Signs Publishing Company, Warburton, Victoria, Australia. Jon Johanson’s address: 53 Winns Road; Coramandel Valley; South Australia 5051; Australia.