No matter the obstacle, Johnnie Jones had a dream he was going to achieve. He set his heart that the “Jet will fly,” and fly he did. Coming from humble beginnings, he made a career in aviation.
Jones was born and raised in Americus, Ga., the youngest of six siblings. He was just a child when he found his calling.
“As a young boy growing up, around the age of 5 or 6, I heard this roaring noise come across the house, and I ran outside to see what it was. It was some type of fighter jet,” he remembered. “I said, ‘That seems like something I want to do.’”
He got to work studying how he could become a pilot.
“Once I get interested in something, I go find a book,” he said. “I dove into aviation and learned everything I could about it.”
He lost his father before he turned 3, but he found inspiration in two men in particular. One of them was General Daniel “Chappie” James, a decorated fighter pilot in the Vietnam War who became the first black Four-Star General in the Air Force. Jones never got to meet Chappie, but his other role model was much closer, his brother Kirby Gene Ragins. Kirby entered the Air Force in 1967 and would rise to the rank of Sargent. On one visit home on leave, Kirby took young Johnnie to see an Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration at Robins AFB in Warner Robins, and Jones was hooked.
“I’ve just always had a sense that nothing could hold me back if it’s something I want to do. In high school, I called myself ‘The Jet,’ and my motto was ‘The Jet will fly,'” he said. “It’s often said that in order to be something, you’ve got to be it in your mind before you can achieve it. It was destined for me to be successful because failure wasn’t even part of my thought process.”
It took time before he was cleared to take off. He needed to help take care of his mother, so he enlisted in the Air Force, rather than go straight to college.
“My mom had some tremendous obstacles. One of the reasons why I didn’t go and pursue going to college without going to the Air Force first is because she was sick,” he said. “When I joined the Air Force, I was able to make her my dependent, and she was able to get the medical care she needed because my mom couldn’t afford to go to doctors.”
He had a guaranteed job lined up to become an aircraft maintenance specialist and visions of being stationed somewhere far from home.
“I grew up in Americus, so I joined the Air Force to see the world, and they sent me to Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta,” he joked.
Jones was stationed at Moody from 1972-76, and he served as crew chief on the T-38 Talon, then the F-4E Phantom.
He could have kept doing the steady gig, but his dreams were still in the sky.
“I always wanted to fly the airplane, plus I didn’t like getting my hands dirty,” he quipped.
He got his first taste of flying unofficially in a C-7 Caribou after he joined the Air Force Reserves, and it reinforced his goals.
“It just felt natural,” he said. “It felt like it was what I was born to do.”
He needed a college degree to become an Air Force pilot, so he enrolled at what is now Clark Atlanta, before finishing at Georgia State in time to graduate and enter pilot training before hitting the age cutoff.
He went on to spent a decade flying the C-130 Hercules as pilot and aircraft commander out of Dobbins AFB from 1982-1992. He logged 23 years altogether in the service, retiring as a Major.
While flying in the Air Force Reserves, he made the transition to flying commercial jets. After some hiccups, he found his home.
“There some obstacles, the usual stuff you face being African American,” he said. “I ended up interviewing with United in 1985 and got turned down, and, because they were being pressured to consider more minorities, they called me back and I got hired in 1988.”
He flew for United Airlines for 30 years, and in August of 2019, he celebrated both his 65th birthday and retirement.
His aviation career has touched down now, and he is spending his retirement helping the dreams of others take flight. It was on some of those many flights that he found inspiration.
“I spent a lot of time sitting in my airplane with the autopilot on crossing this country and crossing oceans and I had a lot of time to think,” he said. “I thought about my childhood and the things that we went through and how rough it was. We didn’t have a lot growing up.”
He previously served two terms as President of the Fayette County Chapter of the NAACP.
“Dr. King was an inspiration to me. I always felt like I wanted to leave a community better than I found it,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Recently, Jones launched AFRICAMERICA. The mission is to become a powerful, unifying image that represents the advancement, presence, and common interest of people of African-American heritage, their longterm positive impact on American society, their collective economic impact, and their voting strength.
“I often ask the question, ’Is there one word that could describe what I call the colored, negro, black, African-American experience. Give me one word,” he said. “It’s AFRICAMERICAN, so that’s my gift to you.”
He hosted the inaugural event on Feb. 1 coinciding with the start of Black History Month, and it was dubbed “Historymakers in our midst.” The gathering celebrated groundbreakers, both living and gone on, from around the area, including Valencia Seay, the first black State Senator to serve Fayette, Chuck Floyd, the first black judge to serve in Fayette courts, Virgil Fludd, the first black State Representative to serve Fayette, Ed Johnson, the first black Mayor of Fayetteville, Pota Coston, the first black County Commissioner, Charles Rousseau, the first black male County Commissioner, Mario Avery, the first black Mayor of Fairburn, Shelley “Butch” Anthony, the first black owner of a restaurant chain, Chris Snell, the first black female to serve as Director of the Fayette County Library, and Melinda Sylvester, the first black magazine publisher serving Fayette.
“Some people may feel ashamed that their ancestors were enslaved, but they sacrificed their freedom so that we could have ours, and that’s why we’re here today,” Jones said. “We should be very thankful and celebrate.”
Fayetteville Mayor Ed Johnson was one of the honorees, and he thanked Jones for what he created.
“One thing I have always admired and commended him for is that he’s always pushing the envelope to make sure that our history is not neglected,” said Mayor Johnson. “It inspires me to know that he does not forget from whence he came, even though he has all these wonderful accomplishments. He humbles himself to the point that he understands how important it is.”
Jones is a big believer that you can achieve anything you put your heart into. He has concise advice for aspiring pilots, or anyone with a dream.
“If you really are passionate about it, and if you immerse yourself in learning all about whatever it is you want to do, and you feel like it’s meant for you, it’s going to happen. Nothing can stop it,” he said. “One of the lessons in life I’ve learned is nothing comes easy, but if it’s meant for you, you’ve just got to put up with all of the things that come with it.”