Prairie bush pilot aids in capturing the Old West

  • Doug Johnson stands in front of a Sears mail-order house. Photo courtesy of Doug Johnson.
  • Photo by Andrew Moore from his book "Dirt Meridian."
  • Photographer Andrew Moore, left, with pilot Doug Johnson. Photo by Blake Ogden.
  • Photo by Andrew Moore from his book "Dirt Meridian."
  • Photo courtesy of Doug Johnson.

Bush flying can be done on the Great Plains, not just in Alaska, but take your border collie along.

You needn’t always think of Alaska when you hear the term “bush pilot.” Doug Dean Johnson of Rushville, Nebraska, made off-airport landings on the Great Plains for years to help photographer Andrew Moore with his new book, Dirt Meridian, which will be published Sept. 29. Johnson’s regular job is crop dusting in turbine-powered Air Tractor aircraft.

There is also a video made by a German television company that, while in German, shows more of Moore’s work and how he got his shots.

You need to bring a border collie along when landing on the plains. Johnson, given credit in a New York Times video on the project as Doug Dean, brought his dog along to keep cattle away from his 1971 Cessna 180 while he and Moore hiked to an abandoned pioneer farmhouse. By the way, there are no antique treasures left in those houses; they’ve been picked over right down to the doorknobs.

Son of a rancher, Johnson is a first-generation pilot who became interested in flying because all the ranchers had an airplane. He used to fly his hand out the window of the car his grandfather was driving, and the love of flying grew from there. He studied aviation at the University of Nebraska, then flew charter flights but discovered that wasn’t the job for him.

Three years ago Johnson and Moore, who got tired of attempting to find rumored pioneer sites by car, flew a load of 4-by-5-inch and 8-by-10-inch camera gear to a site and hiked to the structure, leaving the dog to guard the airplane. Later Moore decided he liked the aerial perspective. A photographer at heart, Johnson built a $30,000 rig mounted on the strut that Moore could control from inside the airplane. They would find a good site, then drop down till the wheels nearly touched the ground and “zoom in” as a photographer would until the composition came into view. You’ll see that in the video. Johnson now has a video rig intended for future projects for his airplane that has been submitted for FAA approval for a year.

Johnson has flown for other stories and customers. CNN’s Inside Man did a story on the drought on the plains, and that meant more work for Johnson. His main occupation continues to be crop spraying. He has 11,000 hours total pilot time, and he estimates nearly 90 percent of it is ag spraying.

Alton Marsh

Alton K. Marsh

Freelance journalist
Alton K. Marsh is a former senior editor of AOPA Pilot and is now a freelance journalist specializing in aviation topics.
Topics: People, Media, Aviation Industry

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