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Dick Johnson, Test Pilot

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On this date in 2003, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Johnson was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with full Military Honors. He was born on September 21st, 1917 near Cooperstown, the eighth of 10 children.

His father died when he was only 8, and his mother raised the family on modest means. His first love was flying, and when he was just a kid, he had a homemade airplane powered with a Model T engine. As he matured, however, it looked like Dick was destined for baseball. In fact, he was actually in spring training with the Boston Red Sox when he decided in 1942 to fight in World War II. Serving as a fighter pilot in North Africa and Italy, Johnson flew 180 missions, mostly in a P-47 Thunderbolt.

After the war, Johnson decided that baseball couldn’t compete with flying, so he stayed in the Air Force. Then in 1948, news came back to Cooperstown that Johnson had broken the world’s speed record reaching 670.98 miles per hour in an F86 Sabre jet fighter.

As they say in Top Gun, Johnson felt the need for speed. In 1953, he left the military to become chief test pilot for General Dynamics in Ft. Worth, Texas. There, he tested and helped deploy several fighters. He also helped design the F-16, and in 1955 he and five other pilots founded the internationally known Society of Experimental Test Pilots.

Johnson’s skill and courage earned him world recognition and a host of medals and awards, including the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, 4 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Air Medals and many more. At the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Johnson’s name is etched on a wall bearing the names of world speed record holders. Also on display is Johnson’s Ivan C. Kincheloe Trophy, which he was awarded in 1967 as the Nation’s Best Test Pilot, and many consider Johnson to be the greatest in American history.

In 1948, Cooperstown held a Dick Johnson Day during which Governor Aandahl presented him with diamond studded pilot’s wings. Many have lobbied for his induction into the Roughrider Hall of Fame and the North Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame. Perhaps that will happen.

Dakota Datebook by Merry Helm

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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