A lifelong love of flying

MARSHALL – The aviation industry has played a part in the growth of our country, and it’s still growing today, Ray Johnson said. On a more local level, Johnson’s been right in the middle of that growth, as a pilot, flight instructor and founder of a company that’s now known as Midwest Aviation in Marshall.

Taking an active role in aviation in southwest Minnesota was what helped earn Johnson a place in the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame. Johnson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in a ceremony April 20 in Bloomington. He also received a special recognition from the city of Marshall on Tuesday night.

“I’m definitely honored by the induction,” Johnson said. “In a way, it’s kind of hard to believe.”

Johnson said his interest in airplanes started pretty early in life. He used to build models of U.S. aircraft used in World War II.

“I think that led to the desire to fly a real airplane,” Johnson said. However, he didn’t start taking flying lessons until the 1950s, after he completed military service. He earned his pilot’s license and worked as a crop duster before starting his own aviation service.

“We had a spot in Tracy and did business there,” Johnson said. In 1973, he moved the business to Marshall, buying an existing aviation company there. That was the beginning of Midwest Aviation, which still operates at Marshall’s airport.

When he first came to Marshall, Johnson said, the airport’s administration building was a wooden structure with about 20 square feet of space, and fuel pumps outside. As the planes using the airport have gotten bigger, the facilities have been expanded multiple times.

“The city of Marshall has been very good about upgrading its facilities,” Johnson said. Based on runway size, “This is not a small airstrip anymore.” The airport has also remained an active place, with Midwest Aviation, the Schwan Food Co., and others flying into and out of Marshall.

Aviation has become something of a family trade for the Johnsons. Ray said his wife Marlys gave him a lot of support through the years, and three of their children have become pilots. Their son Pete Johnson and his wife Lynne now run Midwest Aviation.

Johnson said there have been a lot of highlights in his time working as a pilot and flight instructor. He enjoyed working with farmers as a crop duster.

“That was always a great experience. But out here the spraying season doesn’t last too long,” Johnson said. That was a big reason for his branching out into chartered flights.

The opportunity to travel was another great part of being a pilot, Johnson said. He’s gotten to fly all over the country, and even to other countries. Johnson has made flights to Russia, transporting groups of people on mission trips.

“I love flying to Canada, and we’ve made several flights to Alaska,” Johnson said. Flying in a smaller plane at lower altitudes is an exciting way to get there, he said. “You see everything, and then some . . . It’s a great way to travel.”

Teaching others to fly, Johnson said, “Is a pleasure in itself, too.” His students have ranged from teens and older children interested in learning more about airplanes to students with goals of becoming pilots or joining the military. “Some of my students are commercial pilots now,” he said.

Johnson said he knew he was being nominated for inclusion in the Aviation Hall of Fame, but that didn’t make the induction ceremony last weekend less of an occasion. Johnson said there were about 370 people in the audience, including his whole family. He had attended past induction ceremonies, but he said it didn’t prepare him for being an honoree.

“It was very interesting, but I was never in the hot seat (before),” Johnson said. “It was nerve-wracking.”

Although he’s thankful for the honor of being inducted in the Hall of Fame, Johnson said the attention isn’t the reason he loves aviation. Even without the award, he said, “I’d still be enthusiastic about what we do.”