F-104 Record-Setter, River Rats Founder Howard Johnson, 1920-2020

Howard C. “Scrappy” Johnson, who received the Collier Trophy for setting a record altitude in the F-104 Starfighter, a veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and one of the founders of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, died Dec. 9, 2020, at age 100.

Johnson got his commission and wings in 1943 through the Aviation Cadet program, serving as a gunnery instructor throughout WWII. He served in the Air Force Reserve between the wars and went back on Active duty for the Korean conflict, flying 87 combat missions in the F-51 Mustang. In 1955, he was the first to pilot a jet fighter, the F-94 Starfire, over the North Pole, and in the late 1950s also flew the F-86 Sabre, F-89 Scorpion, and F-104 Starfighter operationally. In May 1958, despite having only 30 hours of flight time in the Starfighter, he piloted an F-104A model to 91,243 feet, besting previous altitude records by more than 10,000 feet in “Operation Sky High.” For the record-setting flight, Johnson received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Robert J. Collier Trophy for one of the most outstanding aeronautical achievements of 1958.

After a number of staff and flying positions in the U.S. and West Germany, Johnson was deployed to Korat Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, from September 1966 to August 1967, where he was deputy commander of operations of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing. While there, he flew the F-105 Thunderchief, racking up 117 combat missions over North Vietnam and Laos and nearly 330 combat hours.  

Johnson organized a tactics conference in May 1967 for 8th Tactical Fighter Wing Commander Col. Robin Olds. Attended by fighter, bomber, escort, electronic warfare, and tanker pilots to discuss operations near and beyond the North Vietnamese border, it was called the “Red River Valley Fighter Pilot’s Tactics Conference,” and was followed by a lengthy party. Olds suggested a permanent unofficial organization to be called the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, and Johnson was elected its first president. Also called the “River Rats”—which had its first stateside reunion in 1969—the social organization also raised money for the survivors or lost, captured, or missing Airmen, and raised awareness of those missing in action and prisoners of war. A statue recognizing the River Rats and participating units stands at the Museum of the U.S. Air Force Memorial at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

After deputy and Wing command assignments around the U.S. following his Vietnam service, Johnson retired as a colonel in 1972. He published a book, “Scrappy: Memoir of a U.S. Fighter Pilot in Korea and Vietnam,” co-written with Ian A. O’Connor.