Liberal Arts


Purdue University has enjoyed a rich and vibrant association with aviation, ranging from the work of Amelia Earhart to the achievements of Neil Armstrong. Through their dedication, its graduates have become the engineers, the aviators, and the astronauts who have helped to make American history. One such graduate who worked tirelessly to improve aviation was Ralph S. Johnson. A native of Goodland, Indiana, Johnson graduated from Purdue with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1930, and he returned in 2008 to receive an honorary doctorate in aeronautical engineering. From the time he left Purdue to the time he returned, Johnson helped to transform aviation from a primitive, informal venture to a standardized, efficient mode of transportation. Johnson’s contributions are numerous, including a method of deicing planes, a checklist that standardized cockpit procedures, and a technique of landing that is still used today—the stabilized approach. In addition to using numerous monographs and periodicals, this article also makes use of Ralph Johnson's extensive personal papers located in the Purdue Archives. The papers highlight Johnson's tenure as chief test pilot for United Airlines from 1935 to 1947, and show the challenges that he and his fellow engineers faced as the airline industry worked to create more legitimate modes of travel. Although largely forgotten as an aviation pioneer, Johnson’s papers help to cement his status as an important figure in the development of the airline industry, and it is this article’s goal to bring Johnson the recognition he deserves as someone who dedicated his career to the task of modernizing airplanes and the airlines.