Pilots

Sam Johnson

January 1, 1999

It's dawn in Racine, Wisconsin. The film crew adroitly maneuvers around the winged behemoth, securing a camera to the aircraft's nose, reading light meters, checking shot angles, and barking into walkie talkies. The pilot walks rapidly across the tarmac without pausing and lowers himself into the left seat of the 1929 Sikorsky S-38B "flying boat" replica. The giant Pratt & Whitney radials rumble to life. Showtime.

The pilot is Sam Johnson, the irrepressible chairman of SC Johnson. The $5 billion global company makes everything from Edge shaving cream to Ziploc freezer bags. Johnson learned to fly more than 50 years ago in a Piper J-3 Cub, has been type-rated in jets, and still flies his own Cessna Caravan. He is the kind of pilot who still gets an impish twinkle in his eye when he talks about flying low and slow, especially in anything that floats, even though his company has two Falcon 900s and a Citation V. His stable of aircraft includes the jets, a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter, a Caravan on amphibious floats, a Grumman Goose, a Stemme S-10 motorglider, and a Piper Cherokee Six.

In 1935 Sam's father, H.F., used an S-38 amphibian for a 15,000-mile circuitous roundtrip from Milwaukee to Fortaleza, Brazil, to study the Carnauba palm, then a mainstay of the company's wax products. (The S-38 had a top speed of 85 knots — it was a very long trip.) His father's tales of the Amazon's bandits and fierce piranha made a lasting impression on then seven-year-old Sam, and one can argue that his focus has been skyward ever since. Recently Sam re-created the flight made by his father. Johnson took off on October 22 in this replica S-38, appropriately dubbed Carnauba. He was accompanied by his sons Curt and Fisk, who are also officers of SC Johnson. The expedition will be the subject of a documentary film. An excellent Web site ( www.scjcarnauba.com) retraces the family's flight.

Johnson flies an average of twice a week. When asked about memorable flights, he waxes (pardon the pun) romantic about his college days, when every other weekend he would fly his Grumman Widgeon from Boston to Ithaca, New York, to visit his girlfriend (now wife) Imogene, herself a 44-year AOPA member. (He was at Harvard, she at Cornell.) "I never flew the Widgeon IFR," says Johnson. Consequently, he did a fair amount of low altitude "river flying." Sometimes the weather would truncate the flight and he would have to land short in Elmira or Syracuse and call his grandmother, who lived in upstate New York, for a ride. "Those flights were memorable," he deadpans.

After Harvard, Johnson spent two years flying a desk at Air Force Intelligence in California. "I fought the Battle of San Bernardino," he jokes. Leaving California, he took out a loan and bought a Beech D-18S, hoping that he could persuade his father to buy it from him for use as the company aircraft. Fortunately, his father agreed.

The company, begun by Johnson's grandfather in 1886 as a manufacturer of wood floors and floor wax, had operated aircraft from 1929 (an open-cockpit Waco Taperwing) to the mid-1930s (the S-38).

Sam joined the company in 1954 and became head of the new products department. One of his first introductions was a revolutionary new in-door/outdoor insecticide, Raid ("kills bugs dead"). Sam also presided over the growth of the company's flight department, which in the ensuing years operated several twin-engine Beeches, a DC-3, a Commander 560, a Gulfstream I, a Falcon 20, a Challenger 600, and now the current fleet. Johnson's flight department is a very busy place. The Falcons log 700 hours each per year; the Citation, 600; and the S-76, 250. Not surprising, when you consider that the company has operations in more than 50 countries and sells products in at least 100.

About 10 years ago Johnson came up with the idea of retracing his father's famous flight to Brazil. He looked for an appropriate aircraft but then decided that the trip had to be made in an S-38. He scoured the world for one in vain. (After the original Carnauba expedition, H.F. sold the S-38 to Shell Oil; it crashed and sank on takeoff off Indonesia in 1938.)

Then he searched for parts; tail booms were found holding up the floor of a California warehouse, and a wing section was located in a New Hampshire barn. None of these was usable. Sikorsky no longer had blueprints but did have copious photographs that proved useful. Finally, some drawings were unearthed in the archives of the former Civil Aeronautics Board. Born Again Restorations began work on the replica in 1995, and the aircraft was delivered to Racine in October 1998. While nobody on Johnson's ramp wants to speak about how much it cost, the way Johnson talks one surmises that the airplane was built with the Space Shuttle's fiscal discipline. From a distance it looks like an ultralight, belying its upscale interior of polished wood, rich fabrics, handstitched wicker, and cut crystal. "It's like driving a vintage Rolls-Royce Town Car," Johnson says of the replica. "It turns hard but feels elegant. This is my favorite airplane now."