Australian Jon Johanson has done what no other homebuilder has done with his or her aircraft. He has flown it around the world, not once, but three times.
Jon's adventures have taken place during the summers (Northern Hemisphere) in 1995, 1996, and 2000. The information here on our site is an article that was compiled by Jeremy Benedict about Jon's first two flights.
Jon Johanson appears to be a normal man and he had what is, for pilots at least, a normal dream. He wanted to build an airplane and fly it to Oshkosh. Oh, there were a couple of small problems: people told him he was not capable of building an airplane, he
didn't have the money or place to do it if he was, and he lived in Darwin, on the north coast of Australia, about 10,000 nautical miles from Wisconsin, on the far side of the world's biggest ocean. Well, it turns out this ordinary fellow is capable of extraordinary things.
Jon, a 38 year old nurse-midwife now living near Adelaide, did not aim from boyhood to follow in the footsteps of Charles Kingsford-Smith or Gordon Taylor.
"I was never good in school...actually, I was pretty awful" Jon recalls. "Corporal punishment was common in Australia when I was in grade school. We got a whack every time we missed a word on a spelling test. Spelling tests were always ten words, and I regularly got seven or eight thumps."
This kind of encouragement went on for several years. "I never quite quit, but the message I got from school was that I was too "thick" to amount to much, so I shouldn't expect much out of life. So for a long time, I didn't. I just got by, day to day, not thinking much about anything."
Out of school, Jon ended up as a carpenter's apprentice. It wasn't something he particularly wanted to do, but when you don't think much about the future, one thing is as good as another. He found himself on a small crew, building homes.
"We poured concrete, framed structures, hung doors and windows, everything except maybe the wiring and plumbing. And we did it in all kinds of weather." Jon says. He found he could hold his own, could learn what he had to to get a job done. Nobody on the crew seemed to think of him as anyone special, but they weren't calling him thick, either.
One day, on a lunch break, he was talking with one of the older guys on the crew. Somehow, the subject turned to flying, something that had begun tickling around in the back of Jon's brain. Whenever he had thought about it consciously, though, he had pushed it away. Flying was something for other, brighter, types; certainly not something for someone thick or slow.
Jon's companion had been around, and in the course of his woodworking career had spent some time working for an aero club, repairing wood gliders.
"I dunno," he said, "Didn't seem to me that the chaps flying those aeroplanes were so different. They all learned how, one step at a time, same as you're doing here. They'd make mistakes and fix 'em. Sometimes they'd make mistakes, and I'd fix 'em. But they were an ordinary bunch, having a good time... seems to me you could do it if you wanted..."
Two weeks later Jon was at the local airfield. He found that flying lessons cost $25.00 an hour. He was making $27.00 a week. Even so, he managed a lesson every second or third week....
Not long after he got his license, construction work began drying up and even though he had successfully completed his apprenticeship, he found it difficult to stay employed. His mother had always been interested in health and medicine, but the realities of raising four children had kept her from pursuing it as a career. Jon must have inherited some of the fascination, because he made the decision to pursue a new career as a nurse.
He enrolled at a hospital -- at the time, most nurses in Australia were graduated from hospital programs with a certificate, rather than from a university with a degree. The programs were focused and intense. Jon, who arrived a day late to begin the course, was behind from the start.
He ground away the days in the hospital and classroom, the nights studying. Even after the successes of his apprenticeship and achieving his pilot's license, he could hear echoes of his earlier schooling...maybe he just wasn't smart enough to keep up. He never quite failed, but his grades floated around in the lower strata. The final exams at school were tough and it took him two tries to pass. And there was the final hurdle; the dreaded Board Exams, necessary to gain the certificate and practice. Wrung out by months of work and strain, Jon knew he simply did not have the reserves to "sit the exam" more than once. He just could not afford to fail, even though the exams were so difficult it often took top students more than one try.
"I threw everything I had into it. I come from a religious family, and my mother and grandmother prayed. My mother asked God to see me through and keep me from despair if I didn't make it, but my Gran wasn't settling for that! She more or less told Him that she wouldn't settle for anything less than my passing with honors -- a "distinction", we call it." And this time, when the marks were posted, there it was: Jon Johanson, with distinction.
"Never underestimate your Gran." says Jon.
After graduation, Jon left Australia for a six month stint in the shattered country of Cambodia. He ended up staying two years. "Until you do something like that, you have NO idea how fortunate you are to live in a country like the US or Australia." he remembers. "We kept people alive, even healed them, in conditions where it didn't seem possible. I don't think I even started to realize, until then, what people could do if they really, truly, had to."
When Jon left Cambodia, he settled in Sydney, in southeastern Australia. He soon tired of the politics of nursing and besides, the flying bug had bitten again. He free-lanced in local clinics and slowly paid his way through flight training, eventually gaining the Australian equivalent of the ATP.
"In Australia, to get a entry level flying job, you have to know someone or get lucky, "Jon says. "I got lucky."
Luck came in the form of a Partenavia, a light fixed gear twin. Jon flew charter work out of Darwin, ferrying people and goods in and out of strips all over Northern Australia. Rules restricted charter pilots to a certain number of hours a month, but in the relative remoteness of Darwin, they weren't always strictly observed. "I'm not saying I flew more than I was supposed too" Jon grins. "I'm just saying I flew a lot. Quite a lot."
Droning away in the Partenavia, dreams of having his own airplane, something that helped him through some bad times, resurfaced. Neither nursing or flying paid enough for him to even consider a factory airplane, so his ideas began to revolve around homebuilts. When he heard rumors about an homebuilt project in Darwin, he tracked it down. He walked into the workshop, and there was an airplane he had heard about before, in Cambodia. Something called an RV-4.
"This thing was just the ticket. Rugged, simple, went fast, went slow, could handle bush strips. But I didn't know anything about metal or how to build with it, and I didn't want to get into something I couldn't handle, so I didn't do anything." Still, he couldn't stay away, and every time he was in Darwin, he stopped by to see how the RV was coming. Finally, the builder, in exasperation, asked Jon when he was going to quit looking and start building his own airplane. "I gave him the usual excuses." Jon remembers, laughing. "No money, no tools, no place to work, no skills..."
"I'll bet you've got a thousand dollars somewhere." the builder challenged him. Jon allowed that he reckoned he could scrape a grand together.
"Well, then," said the builder, sweeping a load of scrap off a workbench with a crash. "Here's your place, there's your tools, and I'll show you what to do when you need it. What's your next excuse?" Jon didn't have one. The order went to the States the next week.