Lightning Man

My Old Man met Johnny Smith during an act of of immeasurable kindness. We were finally able to relocate back to Henry’s hometown of Canton, Georgia, in the early 1980s. With our few worldly possessions moved, it was time to fly the Luscombe 8A to her new home.

I drove Henry to the grass field a couple of hours west of our new home where she was based, saw him off and started the drive back to 47A, Cherokee County Airport, now CNI. About an hour into the drive, I was hoping he and Lucy were safely on the ground. Rain was pouring, lightning was cracking and thunder was booming. It was so bad I finally pulled off the road to wait for the storm to pass.

At Cherokee, Johnny had come by to make sure his Champ was properly secured against the impending storm when he saw the little Luscombe land just ahead of the deluge. He rushed to help the pilot tie her down, and when he grabbed the wing strut, lightning popped and he was knocked to the ground. The Old Man was jolted as well.

Uninjured, he forever earned our gratitude and was known to us from that day on as Lightning Man.

Johnny’s mom told him that from an early age he was always looking up and shouting, “Airplane!” As he grew older his love of aviation led him to model airplanes, then remote control airplanes until he finally took his first lesson in 1975 at the age of 18.

Learning to fly was fun, he knew he would like it, but it was also challenging. He got the hang of the flying part quickly, but the landing part took some time to figure out. At the time there were maybe only four airplanes parked at 47A, and one of them belonged to his instructor, David Darnell. Once he landed with such a thud that he nearly quit because he didn’t want to damage Dave’s airplane.

But Dave assured him that he was progressing well and encouraged him to continue. He did and soloed at nine hours. Now more confident, he bought a Champ, which was a good thing and a bad thing. It was good because he was flying regular under his student certificate with the appropriate sign-offs. It was bad because he stopped pursuing his lessons and his license. In 1981, he met Richard Honea and Jimmy Garland (both have been mentioned in Short Final columns before, and I have had the privilege of flying with both of these gentlemen). These young men urged him to finish his training. He did. In fact, he and Richard took their check rides on the same day. Johnny took his first and then returned to work. He asked Richard to buzz the fire house if he passed. He did.

That’s right. Not only is Johnny a pilot, he is a fireman which seems ironic since we dubbed him Lightning Man before we knew that bit of information. Norman Sosbee, a well-known businessman and pilot at Cherokee, encouraged Johnny to pursue that field.

The county seat of Cherokee County is Canton. Such a name for a southern town suggests that textile manufacturing at one time was the major industry. While silk production didn’t work out, cotton did. The cotton mill in Canton where Johnny worked as a machinist had its own fire brigade. Johnny joined, took the necessary training and fell in love with a vocation.

The textile mill closed, and the City of Canton fire chief, knowing Johnny was well trained, offered him a job. That was 32 years ago. He is now shift lieutenant and “wouldn’t take nothing for it.”

He also wouldn’t take nothing for his 1976 Cessna 150M that he has owned for the last 16 years. Flying her is a “stress reliever” for a job that can be stressful. He has had some close calls but, like flying, firemen continuously train for emergencies.

On the job, he teaches kids fire safety procedures, and at the airport, “Every chance I get I try to take a kid flying.” One of those is his own. He has been married to Robin for 34 years, and their daughter, Samantha, loves the warbirds. At the age of 22, she has been to SUN ’n FUN 23 times. Wow.

Johnny loves the atmosphere there, and over the years he has met so many great folks. He is still amazed that so many people come together in one location who share the same passion. If you wonder about Robin’s support for this passion, she has soloed and has 78 hours under her flying belt. Motherhood and life kind of curtailed her flying, but it hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm.

Johnny’s passion and ingrained civic duty led him to a post on the Cherokee County Airport Authority for nearly 14 years. Now, he prefers petting and piddling with his C-150. She has new windows, fairings and paint. “I like my little 150. She’s a good airplane. In fact, she’s the best airplane ever made.”

Now who can argue with that?


Deb McFarland is the proud owner of Lester, a 1948 Luscombe 8E, and part of the “Front Porch Gang” at Pickens County Airport in Georgia. Deb can be reached at


  1. Bill Leavens says

    I really like Deb’s musings.  They’re real and they are what light plane aviation is all about.  Reading this makes me proud to be a part of the select few who call themselves pilots.  Wish there were more of us.

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