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A-10 Pilot LtCol Paul Johnson

New commander 75th FS Pope AFB, NC

2001

Lt. Col. Paul Johnson, the new commander of the 75th Fighter Squadron at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., stands in front of the A-10 that saved his life and carried him home from Operation Desert Storm. (Air Force photo)


Staff Sgt. Jim Chaffin removes the name of the former commander of the 75th Fighter Squadron, Lt. Col. Jack Allison, to reveal the name of the new commander, Lt. Col. Paul Johnson. Chaffin is a dedicated crew chief with the 23rd Fighter Group.

Released: Jan. 19, 2001

Decorated Pilot Gets Dream Job


By Senior Airman Bryan Bouchard
4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

POPE AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. (ACCNS) -- All the planets fell in line Jan. 16 for an A-10 pilot from Pope Air Force Base, N.C.

Lt. Col. Paul Johnson of the 23d Fighter Group here assumed command of the 75th Fighter Squadron from Lt. Col. Jack Allison on the 10th anniversary of the beginning of Operation Desert Storm -- an operation where Johnson earned one of two Air Force Crosses awarded during the conflict.

"In a career already filled with big moments, today is another big moment for P.J.," said Col. Joseph Wood, 23rd Fighter Group commander, during the change-of-command ceremony.

The big moments began 10 years ago for Johnson, during Desert Storm.

At the beginning of the Gulf War, Johnson was a flight lead assigned to the 353d Tactical Fighter Squadron from Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, S.C. The 32-year-old pilot was deployed with his unit at King Fahd Royal Airport in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

There wasn't much confidence then in the A-10 Thunderbolt II's abilities or in the abilities of those who flew it, Johnson said, but that was soon to change.

Capt. Johnson, as he was then, was flying sorties like hundreds of other American and allied aviators in the region. But on Jan. 21, 1991, he and wingman Capt. Randy Goff flew a mission that took them about 120 miles west of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad to find the aircrew of a downed Navy F-14 Tomcat -- a fateful mission for the recent distinguished graduate of weapons school.

According to records at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, the combat-search-and-rescue mission took the two deeper into enemy airspace than any A-10 before them. As the mission progressed Johnson ran into unknown enemy air defenses, bad weather and some confusion regarding the location of the downed naval aviators.

Finally, Johnson said, after nine hours of flying the rescue mission was successful. They found the pilot's location on the ground, but never actually saw him until the MH-53 Pave Low helicopter swooped down to pick up the pilot.

For his efforts in helping coordinate a daylight rescue way behind enemy lines and the first mission of its kind for the A-10, Johnson was awarded the Air Force Cross.

But this was not the only "big moment" during Johnson's tour in the desert.

A few days after the rescue mission, Johnson was flying a different jet through the thick black smoke from Iraqi-initiated oil fires on a ground-attack mission when he found himself on the receiving end of a shoulder- launched surface-to-air missile.

"It was a bad day," he said. "The leading edge of the right wing was damaged and a lot of debris flew into the engine." At that moment, Johnson wasn't sure he'd be returning to Myrtle Beach.

"I thought I was going to have to punch out; my first thought was, 'I'm not going home,'" he said. The damage was so extensive he could see his landing gear through the hole in the wing.

Fortunately, the right engine recovered somewhat and he was able to make it back into Saudi airspace. He pulled off a no-flap approach to King Fahd Airport and landed, despite a blown tire which shredded on touchdown.

After 30 days in the battle-damage repair shop the "Warthog" was up and running again, and just as the jet had rescued him from danger and brought him back to Saudi airspace, it brought him back to the States and his wife of 10 years, Tricia.

"I have a special bond with that aircraft," Johnson said of tail number 664, "and my wife does, too."

That special bond was strong enough to change an old tradition in the 75th Fighter Squadron. The squadron's flagship, which had traditionally been aircraft 175, was changed to Johnson's old friend, 664.

Ten years after the war, Johnson said it is overwhelming to take the helm of a fighter squadron, which he calls his "dream job."

"I am carrying on the proud tradition of the 75th FS," he said.

Johnson added that the squadron will continue to be mission-ready at all times to go after the next Saddam Hussein, whoever "he" may be.

"There will be another enemy," he said. And when that happens, "we'll pack our bags, generate our airplanes and we'll fly away."

He said that the 20-year-old A-10s "may no longer be cutting-edge technology, but they still are cutting-edge airpower."

He'll always have a special place in his heart for one of those A-10s.

"There are two women in my life," Johnson announced to guests at his ceremony, "my wife and aircraft 664."