From SeattlePI: Helena woman named "master pilot" by FAA
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Many people know Patricia Johnson as an educator. She taught physics and earth science in Helena for 27 years, and now she administers school grants at the Office of Public Instruction.
fellow pilots, Johnson is a lifelong student and aviation advocate. To
air traffic controllers, she is N5812R — the registration number printed
in bold letters along the side of her 1966 Cessna 172 plane, which Pat
may not be your typical flying ace. She doesn't perform aerobatics
shows, fly fighter jets or take off in treacherous conditions. Flying
for her is a hobby and an escape. She's had many adventures over a
lifetime of flying, but notes that she's done most things only once.
But Johnson's flying experiences are singular in other ways as well.
She was the only woman in the student flying club at the old Montana State College in Bozeman, where she first took a seat inside a cockpit 51 years ago.
this year, she joined another, much more selective club, as she became
the 42nd person in Montana, and the first woman, to earn the prestigious
Wright Brothers "Master Pilot Award" by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Master Pilot designation recognizes at least 50 consecutive years of
aviation expertise and safe flying practices. Johnson's flying record is
as spotless as "Romeo's" gleaming nose cone.
and flying have never really been separate in Johnson's life. Airplanes
often figured as examples in her physics classes, and earth science
students learned about geology through photographs taken during her
journeys above the continent.
says she didn't deliberately try to bring aeronautics into her
classrooms, but as the stuff of her imagination, it certainly made its
way inside. She once brought an engine into a school basement, and
students at C.R. Anderson helped her replace the fabric covering over the wings of her 1948 Aeronca Champion.
years later, Johnson ran into a former student working at a bank. "I'm
taking flying lessons," she told Johnson, "Remember when you showed us
how you were re-covering your wings?"
Johnson has taught aerospace education workshops at Carroll College
for teachers, and has received several national awards for her efforts,
including the Scott Crossfield National Aerospace Education Teacher of
1984, she was selected as the Montana candidate for the NASA Teacher in
Space program, for which more than 11,000 teachers applied nationwide.
(Its inaugural winner, teacher Christa McAuliffe, died in the 1986 Challenger Shuttle disaster).
Brent Vetter, co-owner of Vetter Aviation where Johnson keeps her Cessna, said he appreciates her work as a kind of ambassador for aviation.
promoted it throughout her life," he said. "I find that to be
refreshing." Vetter said airports can be intimidating places for
novices, which often keeps them from taking to the air.
While she's been a leader in aerospace education and outreach, Johnson herself has always been a careful student of aviation.
very conscientious," Vetter said. He first met Johnson in the 1970s,
when she sought help learning to fly a plane with a tail wheel.
"Recently she just went through a ground school that I taught." Johnson
didn't need to, he said, but she wanted to catch up on the latest
changes in navigation.
trying to be as good a pilot as possible, and I admire her for that.
She's strived to always stay abreast of the latest developments," Vetter
Johnson points out the instruments in the cockpit of "Romeo" are all
original to the 47-year-old machine — as are the chrome ashtrays in the
true student, Johnson said she always asks for advice from others,
especially the local pilots where she's traveling. "Safety is very
important. I'm a fair-weather pilot," she said. "You can't be macho, you
can't say 'I know it all,' because you don't."
cautious hasn't prevented her from having grand adventures. Johnson has
flown through the Grand Canyon and taken a lesson in aerobatics (two
more things she's done once). She also took a long trip through Canada
to the Arctic Circle, camping alongside the plane during many of her
these years as a leisure pilot, I have flown to some interesting places
and have met some fascinating people," she wrote in her application
letter for the Master Pilot Award, after being nominated by several
instructors and peers. "It has been a good life."
Despite her 51 years in the air, flying wasn't something Johnson had ever dreamed of.
father — I didn't know it — hated airplanes," she recalled during a
recent interview. "When we grew up, we had trucks and cars, and we had
rubber battleships that floated in the bathtub," she said, "and dolls —
we had lots of dolls — I hated dolls."
Not airplanes, though.
she first entered a plane in college — tepidly, upon the insistence of
an acquaintance — Johnson said she was shocked to learn that airplanes
had wheels. "I knew nothing," she laughed.
The two went for a flight over Bozeman in a tiny Cessna 120. "We got in and I liked it," she said, her eyes widening.
Johnson borrowed money from her sister to join the student flying co-op
in January 1962. She flew solo in April, and then participated in the National Intercollegiate Flying Association meet in Oklahoma that same year.
would get up in the plane when I was a student pilot, and I'd fly the
practice area and turn off the radio and be all alone," Johnson said. "I
know how crowded you are in college. I was free.
"Flying is for freedom of spirit. It takes you away from your ordinary cares and worries. It's just a nice serenity."
said she's grateful to have had so many years of "the pleasure of
flight," though she says she isn't any more deserving of the award than
the next pilot.
"It doesn't make me feel special, because I'm not. I'm just me, living my life," she said.
always been the only woman or the first woman or something like that,"
Johnson said, "because it's only more recently that the young girls are
doing all the things they're doing.
"I hope it encourages young women to fly. That's really what I hope."