Death of a Minnesota flying legend

Glenn Chatfield. Used with permission

The little airport in Silver Bay is gone now and now Wayne Johnson, the force behind its creation, is too.

Johnson, 97, died on Tuesday, the Lake County News Chronicle reports.

He’s probably one of the last Flying Tigers, the U.S. pilots who helped defend China against invading Japanese forces before America got into World War II.

Johnson’s service mirrors that of thousands of other Americans at the time. He went to the recruitment office the day after Pearl Harbor and signed up.

Wayne Johnson, in his P-51 during WWII.

When he returned home, he became a lawyer, representing Silver Bay and Beaver Bay in the ’50s. He flew his Cessna until he was 87. That’s when both of his legs were amputated because of a blood disorder.

In June, the Minnesota Department of Aeronautics closed the airport he helped create. Its runways had fallen into disrepair.

In a book he wrote, Johnson said he got hooked on flying when he got a ride from Archie Burmeister in a plane at his family’s farm near Chokio, Minn.

He started taking lessons in exchange for milking the cows of his instructor, but never told his parents, although he suspected his father knew.

They were different times. Burmeister had taught himself to fly by reading books. At 16, Johnson was allowed to fly the plane himself after just six hours of instruction. And after every lesson, Burmeister took the kid to the pool hall for a beer.

“Mr. Wagner, who owned the pool hall, didn’t care how old we were as long as we could pay for the beer that sold for a nickel a glass, and behave properly,” he wrote.

There were other kids who wanted to fly back then but Burmeister told him not to tell them he was learning in exchange for farm chores. He wanted them to pay with cash.

Those days are gone, now. Most people can’t afford to learn to fly even if they wanted to. Airports are closing. And old pilots are going west.

(h/t: Paul Tosto)