Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame Induction

Johnny Magda Inducted into Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame

On November 3rd LCDR Johnny Magda was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in Lexington, Kentucky. BA coordinator for the event was Dan Cherry USAF (Ret) and former flight leader of the Thunderbirds. At the induction ceremony, it was announced that Aviation Heritage Park had just obtained the rights to a F9F Panther which will be displayed alongside the Phantom. The plane was located and made available through the efforts of Bob Rasmussen. It will be painted in the Blue Angel scheme of the time with Boss Magda’s name on it. Dan also presented Dale Magda, son of Johnny Magda, with an oil painting of Magda’s Panther. The painting will be displayed in a Johnny Magda exhibit at Western Kentucky University.

Remembering a Veteran
Marni Magda’s Speech

On November 3, 2007 in Lexington, Kentucky my father John J. Magda was inducted into the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame. With fall leaves framing the country road in brilliant yellow and rust red, rolling past the hills of bluegrass farms along a black stretch of open fence, I was reflecting on the events of the weekend honoring my father in a hangar filled with airplanes representing the history and love of flight and tables of aviators awaiting the awards in the Kentucky Aviation Museum. I was seeing the warmth of the faces who had honored my father that evening, when I was startled back into the present as a black stallion far in the distance decided to run for the joy of it across the bluegrass field on and on toward us, powerful hooves digging in the earth, black mane flying in the wind, soaring across the field for the sheer joy of it, and I knew I was with my father in the magic of being.

Fifty-six years after his death, with the help of men who knew him, lifting the buried memory bites, I am blessed to be able to say I know my father. I can picture the man he would have become had he lived into old age.

In early 2006 when Bob Kirby called asking for permission to gather the details of my father’s life with the intent that he be nominated to be inducted into the Western Kentucky University Distinguished Alumni, I hesitated. For years my family had struggled to put the loss behind us after my father was killed in the Korean War. He had been a Ace pilot in WWII, survivor of the Battle of Midway, Leader of the Blue Angels in 1950 as aviation moved in the accelerated world of jets, and by the age of thirty-three had made the greatest sacrifice a man can make for his country. I was four years old and have missed him every day of my life.

After my father’s death, my mother moved my brother and me to California which had been my father’s dream for after the war. My parents grew up in the same neighborhood, about three miles from Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

His parents came through Ellis Island in 1905, immigrants from Hungary. My parents fell in love in high school. They attended Western Kentucky with the intent of becoming teachers when the growing conflict in Europe changed my father’s plans, and he entered the Navy to become a pilot.

This proposed honor for my father coincided with the sale of my mother’s home of the last fifty years. It was in going through the pictures and letters she had saved in the cupboards that I began to find the man I had never known. There he was larger than life in the saved copy of the December 5th 1949 edition of Life Magazine. But it was in his letters to my grandparents and my mother written as V-mail in WWII and letters from Korea that I discovered the husband, father, and son who always focused on watching out for the family. The years of war in his twenties had given an early maturity to this man and his letters revealed how much he loved and wanted to protect his family. As a girl, I remember walking into a room filled with the men who had flown in combat and in the Blue Angels with my dad. I felt like the daughter of a god. Over the years the details of my father shifted and blurred. Interrupted lives and conversations held memory at a loss. What was it like just shy of your twenty-fourth birthday to write a farewell letter to your wife and sit on the deck of the USS Hornet in the number 2 position for takeoff on June 4, 1942? What was it like to find the enemy fleet just after all the men you knew so well of the torpedo squadron had been blown out of the sky and only one would survive in his life jacket in the sea as the Battle of Midway raged? What was it like when your wingman ran out of fuel to decide to ditch both planes at the same time for a better chance to be rescued? What was it like for five days drifting in the open sea in two life boats tied together without food or water, wondering if any one was still searching, if anyone had survived?

As I read one of my letters to my mother written after my brother was born in 1943, I could tell my mother must have asked my father why he didn’t say more romantic things to her in his letters. He broke from his usual focus on concern for her and the family and said that he didn’t dare let himself think in that way. He had to remain focused on the business of war. He said of his mission that day, “If I could have gotten out of the plane, I could have walked across the sky on the flak that was coming up at us.”

My father got to fly for the Navy for five years of peace time. He set a speed record in the F-J-1 jet fighter in 1948, flying from Seattle to San Diego. He joined the Blue Angels team in 1949 and became its leader as aviation moved from propellers to jets with a whole new world of maneuvers to invent.

It was while I was sitting at the table in Lexington, Kentucky the day before my father’s induction into the Kentucky Aviation hall of Fame with aviators whose age span took us through many of our wars that I learned the most about the attitude, ultimate trust, and deep joy of formation flying in war or in peace.

Richard Bradbury, “Brad” chosen by my father to be his wingman during the Korean Conflict led the stories that night of what he still considerers this many years later as the greatest honor of his life, to fly with my father. Whether Blue Angels or Thunderbirds the stories of risk and precision and trusting one another when the unexpected happened made be proud that my father had been a leader of such men.

Last year on October 27, 2006, Western Kentucky University honored my father by inducting him into their Hall of Distinguished Alumni. It was that first reunion with my dad’s wingman where we sat together, and he told the events in Korea moment to moment of that last fatal day when my father’s jet fighter was hit with ground fire. It was the beginning of recovering the unspoken details of my father’s life. At the induction ceremony, my father’s college football coach who was one hundred years old, walked over to me and said, “I remember your day. He always dressed better and showed up to work harder than any other man. He was focused on giving it his best. He was a great athlete and an extraordinary man.”

Now a year later my father has been honored again with induction into the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame. He would have loved this honor. I can imagine him leading the Blues in a roll of celebration. I have spent this last year meeting a family of men who share the love of flight, the courage to risk and the honor of team. Each one is well aware of the heart breaks of war, the things that can go wrong in a flash beyond ones control. But consistent with them all is the courage to return to the core truth, being a part of flight, inventing, testing, and protecting the country they love is a mission they are proud to have accepted.

I can picture my dad today, a bit of gray hair left above his ears, his piercing Hungarian eyes still commanding in spite of encroaching wrinkles. I can see us as we walk along the California beach he so loved. In the distance he points at four pelicans in perfect formation an inch above the foam of a wave. He’d look at m, his eyes in a smile. “We learned it from them.”

Marni Magda