Jack Johnson’s Jenny gets a new home


One hundred years after it was built, and almost nine years exactly since it was last flown, a rare Curtiss JN-4D has landed for the final time at the Alberta Aviation Museum.

Jack Johnson and Anne Stewart pose with the Jenny as it is packed up for its trip to the Alberta Aviation Museum.

The historic aircraft made its last trip September 27, not in the air, but on the back of two flat-bed trucks, hauling the fuselage and wings from a hangar in Westlock to Hangar 14, home of the museum.

“He isn’t flying anymore,” says Anne Stewart, long-time partner of Jack Johnson, who meticulously restored the unique aircraft over 21 years. “There aren’t too many people who fly that kind of airplane.”

Johnson decided to donate the Jenny, as it’s commonly known, to the museum early in September.

“It’s kind of been his second home,” says Stewart of the museum. Johnson was one of a team of volunteers in the museum’s restoration department during the 1990s. Over the years has been a frequent member of the ‘Tuesday and Thursday lunch crowd’ at the hangar.

Jack Johnson began flying in 1954, getting his licence at the Edmonton Flying Club. He worked his way up to the airlines through bush flying in the North and in Northern Ontario, then joining Airspray to fly water bombers. He was hired by Pacific Western Airlines in 1966 and flew airliners for the next 30 years. But his passion was restoring antique airplanes.

“My dad was just amazing with (rebuilding) antiques,” says Johnson’s daughter Trudy Shafer. “That’s always been his hobby and his passion. Airplanes, old cars, whatever. But the majority airplanes.”

The Jenny on its way to Alberta in 1977 was not much more than a “pile of junk” in a big crate.

He restored or rebuilt a dozen aircraft at his acreage north of Edmonton. Johnson also restored and donated the museum’s 1933 Waco.

The JN-4 was, by far, the most complex of Johnson’s restoration career. The aircraft had been in storage for 50 years before being purchased by an American enthusiast. The project proved too complicated and Johnson was able to bring it home in 1977. For the next 21 years it became a labour of love and authenticity. Almost every piece of the iconic trainer needed to be rebuilt. Missing instruments and parts had to be tracked down and acquired, often through bartering or trading.

His daughter remembers Johnson bringing the Jenny home.

“It was literally in a giant crate in a flat-bed. It was a pile of junk. It took forever taking every piece of wood and sanding it down and making it as original as possible.”

The JN-4, and its Canadian version, the ‘Canuck,’ were the mainstays of First World War flight training in the United States, Canada and Britain with about 7,000 built. After war’s end, they were sold off providing famed early bush pilots and barnstormers with an economical way to ply their trade.

The Jenny fuselage on display at the museum.

Jack Johnson’s Jenny returned to the air in 1998 after nearly 70 years on the ground, and a 21-year restoration. Johnson flew it to airshows and other events in the Edmonton area to show it off. When it last flew in October 2009 the aircraft had a total of 23.5 hours on it.

The museum is delighted to have this rare aircraft, which was common across Northern Alberta in the years after the First World War. The Jenny’s fuselage is on display in a place of prominence just inside the main door of the hangar. We plan to build a special raised display to show the JN-4, with its massive 43-foot-wings, in flight, when money allows.

Thanks to Jack Johnson and his family for allowing us to own such an important piece of aviation history.

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Anne Stewart wrote about Jack Johnson’s 21-year restoration of the Jenny for Aeroplane Monthly in October 1998. The publishers have graciously granted us permission to reprint the story here.