Howard “Scrappy” Johnson,The Fighter Pilot

A picture of the altitude record cartoon donated to Scrappy by the Aviation Writers Association.
Aircorps Art Dec 2019

A picture of the altitude record cartoon donated to Scrappy by the Aviation Writers Association.
A picture of the altitude record cartoon donated to Scrappy by the Aviation Writers Association.

During my research for a book about the pilots who flew F-104 Starfighter I had the privilege to meet Howard  C. “Scrappy” Johnson in his house in South Florida. After the visit we became  “email-friends” which is the modern version of the more traditional “penfriends”. Scrappy Johnson is an aviator whose amazing career is chronicled in this fast-paced—sometimes raucous, sometimes sobering, but always exciting—larger-than-life story that reads like fiction. He has served as a fighter pilot flying over 7,000 hours in fifteen different fighter planes during his career.

Scrappy after the world's altitude record, on his P-51 in Korea, by the THUD in Vietnam and the original copy of Collier trophy.
Scrappy after the world’s altitude record, on his P-51 in Korea, by the THUD in Vietnam and the original copy of Collier trophy.

He flew in WWII, Korea And Vietnam.In 1953, Major Johnson transferred to Hamilton AFB where he had the first opportunity to hear about the Air Force’s newest, fastest airplane, the F-104. In 1958, with only 30 hours of flight time in the Starfighter, he shattered the World’s Altitude Record zooming to 91,243 feet. In recognition of the record, Vice President Richard Nixon presented him with the Robert J. Collier trophy for aeronautical achievement.

Home of the World's Greatest Fighter Pilots! If you don't know who the world's greatest fighter pilot is...It ain't you!!
Home of the World’s Greatest Fighter Pilots!
If you don’t know who the world’s greatest fighter pilot is…It ain’t you!!

The following year, Johnson founded and became the first president of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association. He then named Robin Olds, his good friend, as his successor.Scrappy Johnson was instrumental in the founding of an organization that came to be known as The River Rats, or, more formally, The Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association. What started with a handful of Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps pilots banding together to honor their fallen and captured comrades—and to make sure those brave men would never be forgotten—now, some forty years later, has grown to include five thousand members worldwide. The mission of the ‘rats’ proudly includes the sponsoring of a scholarship fund for the children of dead, missing and captured airmen. Colonel Howard C. “Scrappy” Johnson was elected its first president.

Colonel Johnson retired in 1972 after receiving not only the Collier Trophy, but two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, seven Distinguished Flying Crosses, and eighteen Air Medals. Colonel Johnson, a Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame inductee, lives in South Florida and remains active in the River Rats organization.

Scrappy Johnson by a German Republic F-84F Thunderstreak in 1961.
Scrappy Johnson by a German Republic F-84F Thunderstreak in 1961.

Since when we met, early in 2013, i receive weekly emails from Scrappy.One night he sent me an article he wrote in 1961 when he was an advisor to the West German Air Force, the Luftwaffe. Scrappy wrote this article with the hope that it would get published on an American magazine.But that didn’t happen. The reader’s Digest, New York New York, Real Letter,Brand & Brand Letter one by one they turn him down.

Fast forward to 2013.

After Scrappy sent me the article i read it and  wrote him back thanking him for the opportunity. Few days later he called and told me: ” You know what? Those assholes back then didn’t want to publish my article so if you like it you can publish it on your website. You do a good job with it so i would be honored for you to have it and to share it with others”. Well…the honor was really mine.

It’s a long article so we will publish it in three parts:

Part 1 Monday September 30, 2013

Part 2 Wednesday October 2, 2013

Part 3 Friday October 4, 2013

Note:If you are interested to read one of the best book written by a fighter pilot than you have to read “SCRAPPY -Memoir of a U.S. Fighter Pilot in Korea and Vietnam.” .

One of the best comments i read about this book is from Robin Old’s daughter Christina: “Scrappy and my dad, Brig. Gen. Robin Olds, were cohorts and compadres in a world that only fighter pilots can understand. I read this book with great enjoyment, appreciation, laughter and admiration. Through no end of great tales, self-deprecating honesty and acute analysis of the political bureaucracy in play during the Vietnam war, I learned far more about fighter pilots than I already knew I didn’t know! “Scrappy” is a great read and should be on everyone’s list – not only for Air force veterans but for active duty pilots of today.”

Click on the book cover to buy it on Amazon.

Scrappy's Book
Scrappy’s Book


  1. Could not subscribe to your email newsletter updates — received msg stating “could not connect” when I tried.

  2. Moreno Aguiari, 9/28/13
    It is a wonderful thing you are doing to spread the word about our AF history through Scrappy.

    My wife is the daughter of one of Scrappy’s best childhood friends growing up in Louisville (Jack Pruitt). Scrappy was his best man at Jack’s wedding on Dec 6, 1941 and you know what happened the next day and messed up their honeymoon.

    I got Scrappy into the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame and we have become fast friends. I honor and cherish every day that I get to read Scrappy’s emails or get to talk with him. He is a genuine American treasure and hero.

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  4. Would love to speak with Mr.Johnson,just to say howdy,with alot of good memories of growing up with his son,Billy,as my best friend and fishing buddy on Lake Texoma.His wife and my mother sure enjoyed their golfing.

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  1. The Luftwaffe in 1961 by Howard "Scrappy" Johnson, Part 1

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