Local Obituaries

Pan-Am mechanic, fuel aviation expert Carl Johnson dies at 89

Carl Johnson, president of Panair Laboratory, started out with Pan Am as a mechanic and became an expert in fuel analysis.
Carl Johnson, president of Panair Laboratory, started out with Pan Am as a mechanic and became an expert in fuel analysis. Johnson family

Carl Johnson was not even 10 when the inventor of the Jacobs Chuck, a clamping device that holds a drill bit in a drill, passed along an engine to Johnson’s father. The inventor, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, heard that little Carl had an interest in mechanical things so he told the senior Johnson, a ship captain, to pass the gift to the boy.

Johnson “started this motor gift, listened to it intensely, shut it off and proceeded to disassemble the entire motor, organizing and spreading out all the parts. It would be his first total tear-down, something he would do as a mechanic on the large radial aircraft engines at Pan Am many years later,” Johnson’s son Eric Johnson recounted from a family story.

Johnson, who died at 89 from congestive heart failure on March 20 in South Miami, was pretty shrewd even as a lad born to Swedish immigrant parents in Miami on Dec. 6, 1926.

Johnson “put the small engine back together and started it up again. All this took about three hours and my aunt tells me my father was about 8 or 10 years old at the time,” Eric Johnson recalled.

The mechanically minded Johnson began working at Pan American Airways at 18 and would spend 27 years with the company, first as an aircraft mechanic and then in the fuel testing lab. He eventually acquired the lab for about $7,800, after leaving the company in 1975.

That lab evolved into the ongoing Panair Laboratory. Johnson, the fuel analyzing company’s president, served a client base that includes international oil companies, airlines, government agencies and power plants. The firm tested fuel from around the world, receiving gas from, among other places, the Black Sea region, Russia, Singapore, the Caribbean and United States. Fuel for jet engines must be tested numerous times as part of safety regulations established by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Johnson also worked with the National Transportation Safety Board and FAA in an advisory capacity on crashes. “He knew all about the components and fuel system and because of that, my father became a huge knowledge base worldwide,” his son said.

Johnson, a merchant marine in World War II and who also served in the Korean War, had another champion at home to look up to who helped establish his interest in aviation. His mother, Gunhild Johnson, started an aircraft-parts covering company with a friend, Alma Daniels, in the 1940s. The wings and flight controls of older aircraft were made of lightweight, fabric-covered ribs that Johnson and Daniels stitched together as they initially carted around portable sewing machines through South Florida. Their business became an FAA-certified repair station that operated out of Miami International Airport for a decade.

When Daniels retired, Carl joined his mother in the business and the two operated from a big steel structure Johnson built in the backyard of her house on Le Jeune Road, near the airport.

He was the consummate dad. He was always there and that made a difference.

Eric Johnson, on his father Carl Johnson, an aviation expert.

Both mother and son shared jolly laughs, Eric Johnson said. “His mother was a singer in church — this booming voice and huge laugh. Dad had the same loud laugh.” He loved the ocean, too, and shared his passion with his children. Daughter Wendy, a corporate executive, dives around the world thanks to her father’s inspiration.

“Dad introduced us to the ocean and had no fear in the water,” Eric Johnson said. “He would jump in a tank of sharks.”

Recently, father and son had a conversation about parenthood. Eric told his father how much his being there made a difference. “He was the consummate dad. He was always there. He interrupted me, which he rarely did, and he said, ‘I never had a dad around, he was always out to sea.’ I asked him, ‘How did you manage that?’

“He said, ‘I had to learn to hang around the good guys.’”

In addition to his son Eric and daughter Wendy, Johnson is survived by his wife, Dorothy, his children Susan Johnson-Smith and Mark Johnson, and granddaughters Caroline and Stephanie Johnson.

Visitation will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday at Stanfill Funeral Home, 10545 S. Dixie Hwy., Miami-Dade.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen