Jan Johnson is not your typical Warbird pilot and owner. She flies a Warbird designed to save lives as a flying ambulance.
Configured as the planes were used during World War II and the Korean War, Johnson’s 1945 Vultee Stinson L-5/G Sentinel attracted attention at EAA AirVenture 2018 because most of the right side of the fuselage opens so a wounded soldier on a litter could be flown from the front lines to a field hospital.
Complete with a mannequin on a litter to demonstrate the plane’s unique capabilities, Johnson brought the Stinson to Oshkosh for the first time after a long flight from California’s San Francisco Bay Area.
Her trip included two flat tailwheel tires and challenging arrival weather, but Johnson persevered and enjoyed displaying her plane.
After spending half the week in the Warbirds display area, Johnson moved her plane south to EAA Vintage headquarters, where she was interviewed during a Vintage in Review presentation.
Johnson, 60, who bought the Stinson in May 2017, felt an obligation to bring the vintage warbird to AirVenture and fulfill the longtime dream of Betty and Frank Huffman, the couple who retrieved it in pieces from a Nevada desert boneyard in 1987. Their backyard restoration took 10 years.
“Frank was a mechanic for United Airlines and he did most of the restoration work at their Santa Clara, California, home,” said Johnson. “The plane won Best Liaison at the Watsonville Fly-In in 1997.”
“In his later years, Frank was no longer able to climb into the Stinson, so the plane sat in his hangar at a private grass strip in California and only occasionally got flown,” Johnson continued. “I met Frank there one Saturday over a hamburger and he insisted that I come over to see his Stinson. After sitting in the front seat to ‘try it on for size,’ I fell in love with the plane.
“When Frank died in late 2016, his family said he wanted me to have the L-5, so I’m taking over where he left off,” added Johnson, who previously owned a polished LC-126C, a 1952 military version of a Cessna 195. “That was an expensive airplane to own and I sold it in July 2016, shortly after meeting Frank and his L-5.”
Johnson, a mechanical engineer with a small Bay Area medical device company, was late getting into aviation despite growing up hearing stories about riding in a P-51 Mustang from her mother, whose first husband was a World War II and Korean War pilot. He tragically died when he ejected from a Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star following a flame-out over the Sea of Japan.
After a Discovery Flight at age 51, Johnson finally decided she “needed to do it now” and earned her private pilot’s certificate in eight months by averaging three lessons a week. She now has 900 flight hours.
“I’ve found my tribe,” she says. “At Oshkosh I have something in common with everyone I meet and now some of my best friends are pilots.”
In addition to the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), Johnson is active in Ladies Love Taildraggers, the Ninety-Nines, and several other aviation groups. She recently flew her first Young Eagles flight.
“Although my husband fully supports what I do, my love of aviation has turned the tables on him because his passion is motorcycle and bicycle collecting,” she added with a laugh.
Making it to Oshkosh
“I was really jealous when I heard about Oshkosh as a student pilot. My flight instructor took two weeks off to attend the show and I really wished I could go too. At least he brought me a souvenir shirt!
“My first trip to AirVenture in 2010 was in a motorhome with two other pilot friends from the Bay Area and we were like kids turned loose in a candy store,” she recalled. “I’ve now flown to AirVenture for six of the last nine years and camping under the wing of an airplane is the true Oshkosh experience.”
Johnson is quick to note that L-5 Sentinel experts have been generous with their knowledge and support during her year and a half of ownership.
Although the Sentinel’s six-cylinder, 190-hp Lycoming O-435 engine offers dramatically better performance than the typical 65-horsepower Piper Cub converted for military use as an L-4, the engine is one of Johnson’s long-term concerns because it is no longer widely supported.
Fortunately, the plane performed well on the 4,200 nautical mile, 45 flight hour round trip to AirVenture. However, one of the challenges was dealing with smoke from numerous wildfires in the west.
Two real-life situations on the trip put Johnson to the test. While flying north from California to Hood River, Oregon, in 100° heat, she experienced a vapor lock in the airplane’s fuel system and the sputtering engine got her immediate attention. However, it roared back to full power after about 10 seconds.
On the trip home, the engine experienced power loss on the leg from Salem to Klamath Falls, Oregon, but the problem was remedied by immediately applying full carburetor heat.
The Flying Jeep
The L-5 is a comfortable traveling machine because both cockpit windows fold down for great ventilation. Plus, the pilot can cruise along with elbows out, just like in a car.
Popularly known as the “Flying Jeep,” the versatile Sentinel was said to be Eisenhower’s favorite aircraft because it could operate from short, unimproved air strips.
When used as an air ambulance, L-5 E and G model Sentinels could carry wounded soldiers up to 250 pounds. A placard on the panel states “Do Not Spin When Carrying Litter Patient or Cargo.”
The plane was also well-suited for forward observation, artillery spotting, and numerous other tasks. Almost 3,600 were built, making it the second most widely used light observation aircraft of the war behind the Piper L-4 Cub.
During the Battle of Okinawa in the Pacific, L-5s operated from a Navy LST ship using the Brodie landing system, which allowed a light aircraft to take off and land by snagging a wire hung between two booms.
For now, however, Johnson is happy to land on terra firma and show off her L-5 to as many people as possible. That’s what Frank would have wanted.