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The Johnston Special Part 2

By J. Davis, EAA 588164, for Bits and Pieces

Read Part 1

Crash after a stall-spin
Crash after a stall-spin in June 1971

Stanley N. Johnston died on August 20, 1998, at the age of just over 100 years. During his lifetime, he scratchbuilt six airplanes, the first in the 1920s and the last in the late ’60s. His last aircraft, the Johnston Special, has come into my possession, and a long restoration process has begun. In this article, I’ll describe how this happened.

At the time of his death, Stan was living in London, Ontario, and his shop was located on Central Avenue. His Johnston Specialhad first flown in 1969. My friend Richard Marcus actually flew off the [then] 50-hour test period, putting the plane through its paces. His comment? “The sweetest plane I’ve ever flown!” By 1998, the Johnston Special had changed hands several times. After being sold to a fellow in southwest Ontario in 1970, it was badly crashed in a stall-spin incident in June of 1971.

The wreck was bought by Ron McLeod, who, in partnership with Alex Breitenbach, rebuilt it, and flew it for several years before selling it to a guy in Quebec, where it remained for over a decade. In the early ’90s, Stan bought it back and towed it back to Ontario by its tail wheel, a distance of some 750 kilometers! The last picture I have of the flying Johnston Special is dated 1998 and was taken at Centralia Airport (CYCE) near Exeter, Ontario.

Rusting remains
Rusting remains of a precious artefact.

Stan never had a pilot’s license and never flew pilot-in-command in any of his planes. It was his son Donny who did all the flying, and it was Donny who inherited his dad’s pride and joy, the Johnston Special. Donny never had a pilot’s license, either, but by all accounts, was a hotshot aerobatic pilot. He performed many aerobatic maneuvers with the Johnston Special. After his dad’s death, Donny continued to live in the shop. He disassembled the Johnston Special and brought it back to the shop because he had big plans for this plane.

Coming home
Hauling the Johnston Special home.

Eventually Donny had to leave the shop on Central Avenue, and with no steady income nor place to go, Don approached a childhood friend, now residing on a farm near Glencoe, Ontario. He was given permission to move into a small trailer on his farm. A true hoarder, Donny started to erect ramshackle structures under which to house his “stuff”—garbage bags full of old clothes, hockey gear, car and motorcycle parts, books, magazines, videos, and Johnston Special parts.

For reasons known only to himself, Donny had decided that the airplane needed two major improvements: a wider fuselage and a different airfoil. To this end, Donny had towed the Johnston Special out to the farm in Glencoe and completely disassembled the wings in order to fabricate and install new ribs. He also hacksawed the steel cross members in the cabin section of the fuselage and heated and stretched the cabin nearly a foot wider than it originally was. After about a year of living here, Donny disappeared, never to be seen again. He would be in his 60s now, and all attempts to locate him have failed.

The farm owner took “part payment” for arrears in rent.

Several years later, I was flying right seat in Richard’s vintage Luscombe when he pointed out the wingless fuselage lying in a field not far from where I live. After landing at a nearby grass strip, we checked out the remains, and I decided then and there that this important historical aircraft couldn’t just be left to turn into a pile of rust. I contacted the owner of the parts, and after agreeing on a price , I lashed the fuselage’s tail to my little pickup truck and hauled this piece of aviation history home to my shop.

Then the hunt for parts began. Over the course of the next two months, I spent many days searching for airplane parts scattered over about an acre of land. Some parts, such as the horizontal tail, had been covered and were in pretty good shape, but many other parts were buried under mounds of trash, in overgrown brush, and under collapsed structures.

90-hp Franklin engine
The 90-hp Franklin engine

It was a real treasure hunt! With Richard’s help, I was  finally able to amass a collection of nearly all the major bits and pieces. The joy in turning up things like seatbelts, stainless-steel flying “wires”, control sticks, venturi tube, etc., was exhilarating! In the end, we found most, if not all, the bits and pieces needed to restore the plane. Unfortunately, we were able to find only two ribs and only one aileron, but based on these items, new parts can be fabricated.

Hacksaw cut
An example of a hacksaw cut through a fuselage member.

To date, I’ve stripped the fuselage and pulled it back to its original width, replacing any tubing distorted in the process. It’s quite a puzzle! During the hunt for pieces, I had collected a bucket full of sawed-off cross members, and I was usually able to identify the stub from which it was cut based on a close inspection of the saw cut.

Restoration begins
And so the restoration begins.

The fuselage has now been welded back into its original configuration and primed. The engine, a 90-hp Franklin, has been removed for disassembly and inspection. Rib fabrication and wing assembly are next on the list.

It’s my hope that this remarkable airplane will fly again one day and maybe eventually wind up displayed in a Canadian aviation museum as a testament to a remarkable man and a true Canadian homebuilt aviation pioneer.

Stan Johnston’s headstone with his JS No. 2 engraved.

Read Part 1


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