Chairman’s Note: Honoring the living legends of bizav
Recently, Universal was recognized for our contributions to Texas’ aviation history by the Lone Star Flight Museum. We’re honored to be mentioned in the same breath as so many amazing men and women who made this industry what it is today.
But it also got me thinking. For every museum placard and exhibit memorializing influential aviation trailblazers, there are 10 times that many everyday heroes who were just as critical in shaping business aviation’s future. It’s vital that we remember and honor those individuals, such as 91-year-old Captain Johnnie Spotts.
The stories of his career and his experiences are fascinating. In 1943, he took his first flying lesson. A year later, his first solo. Throughout the1940s, he flew pretty much every small aircraft there was, from Luscombes to Piper Cubs. His first professional pilot job was flying a Beechcraft Queen Air before moving up to a Hawker 125 for a company out of Dallas. When that company went out of business, Captain Johnnie happened to be in Memphis, Tenn., looking for a job.
As luck would have it, he happened to meet the management of legendary recording artist Frank Sinatra who was in town for a stop on a cross-country tour. Sinatra’s pilot has suffered a heart attack, and they were in need of a pilot qualified to fly the aircraft and finish the tour.
Captain Johnnie finished the tour and was hired on full-time, relocating to California.
“I had a great time flying Sinatra,” he said. “We made a deal early on. I wouldn’t sing, and he wouldn’t fly the plane. We got along very well.”
In the mid-60s, Captain Johnnie met my father and Universal founder, Tom Evans. Captain Johnnie utilized Universal’s services for much of his career even after he was no longer flying Sinatra.
“Tom Evans was flamboyant shall we say,” he said. “It was great – he really knew what he was doing – and could get the job done. One time when I was flying for Flour Corp., we were on the way to Australia, flying over the Philippines and were asked for a permit number. We had to land in Manila to work it out. By communicating with Tom on the teletype machine, he was able to convince the general in charge, who was on the golf course, to approve the permit so we could proceed. In those early days, Universal was the only company to have a local agent that knew aviation at each location to represent Universal. Everywhere we went, we were met by competent people that Tom had arranged, which made it a pleasure. Whoever was representing Universal was top-notch people – no yoyos so it worked out good.”
Working with Sinatra, Captain Johnnie recalled meeting a lot of interesting people over the years. Like that time he flew Princess Grace from London to Monaco.
“There was a big ‘hoo-rah’ surrounding her and the flight,” he reminisced. “When she finally was able to get on board, she sighed and said, ‘Whoo! That’s over!’ She was very gracious, as were most of the people I met flying for Sinatra. Now and again, I go through my old logbook, and it’s quite interesting.”
After Sinatra retired, Captain Johnnie had a variety of aviation jobs traveling the world and adapting to the advancing technologies.
“Over the course of my career, the equipment on the aircraft became so more advanced, and then the jets came around and made things so much better, especially getting around the weather,” he said.
Captain Johnnie officially retired in 2000. These days, he’s enjoying retirement on his lake home back in the Tennessee woods, sitting on his deck watching the squirrels and deer. Captain Johnnie said he doesn’t miss the travel, the FBOs, and the hundreds of hotels. But being in the cockpit is another story.
“I do miss flying,” he said. “I think I’d like to get out there and fly sometimes. I went for a ride in an Aerostar 600 and really had a good time. I hadn’t looked down from the air in a long time, and it felt great to fly again.”
“I wouldn’t swap my life for anything. It was good to me, and I was good to aviation. I had a great career, and I really enjoyed it. I don’t remember any regrets during my flying career – everything was heads up and going ahead full time.”
With so much changing so fast in bizav, we must remember how we got here and the fantastic individuals and trailblazers like Captain Johnnie, who guided us through the early years of the industry.