The Super Bowl dominated much of the nation’s attention Sunday, but a soon-to-be 100-year-old former fighter pilot drew a large audience himself hours before kickoff.
Surrounded by family, friends and fellow veterans, Howard ‘Scrappy’ Johnson celebrated his milestone birthday Sunday afternoon with a party at Abacoa Golf Club.
More than 120 people attended the event honoring the Palm Beach Gardens resident and retired Air Force colonel who trained pilots in World War II and flew fighter planes in Korea and Vietnam.
“This is impressive,” said Johnson, who got his nickname as a teenager after confronting a bigger boy who kept teasing him. “I’m overwhelmed.”
During his long military career, Johnson clocked 7,000 hours in 15 fighter planes and set the world altitude record in 1958 by flying to 91,249 feet in an F-104 Starfighter.
That feat made national headlines, but Johnson also has drawn attention for his work in creating the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association.
Founded in 1969, the nonprofit organization strives to raise awareness of military service and sacrifice and support family members of uniformed service aircrew personnel who were prisoners of war, missing in action or killed in action during the Vietnam War through the present.
Since 1970, it has awarded more than 1,130 scholarship grants worth $2.3 million to the children and spouses of Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps aircrew members.
Members meet annually, and a handful attended Johnson’s birthday party on Sunday.
“There’s so much camaraderie,” said Kathy O’Brien, Johnson’s stepdaughter. “It means so much to be able to keep these pilots together.”
Johnson, a great-grandfather of 17 who was honored by the Palm Beach Gardens City Council in 2018 for his service and achievements, remains actively involved with the River Rats, O’Brien said.
He spends much of his time on the computer corresponding with fellow veterans as well as with family members and friends.
“He’s as sharp as a tack,” O’Brien said. “When people ask what has helped his longevity, we say the keys are two martinis at night and eight ounces of Chardonnay at lunch. He also eats bacon and watermelon for breakfast. The man is just unbelievable.”
For information on the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association or to contribute, visit www.river-rats.org/.
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