‘Ray of Sunshine’ Memorial May Light Way for Pilots

Times Staff Writer

On his headstone, Gunter Ralf Johnson’s parents inscribed the message, “Our Blazing Ray of Sunshine.”

Charles and Ursula Johnson did not know at the time they lost their 21-year-old son to a freak accident that some day they might preserve his memory by helping airliner pilots through the blazing sunshine at Los Angeles International Airport.

For more than a year, commercial pilots have been asking the Federal Aviation Administration to install a beacon atop the Forum in Inglewood, about a mile from Los Angeles International’s runways. Pilots have argued that on the western approach to the airport in the late afternoon, the sun and smog combine to form a blinding haze that greatly reduces visibility and increases the possibility of midair collisions.


The FAA has countered that while the beacon is a good idea, it is not essential to safety, because there are other means of keeping pilots on course, and could cost as much as $80,000. Los Angeles officials recently stepped in and said the city could install the light for $10,000, and would do so if the FAA would maintain it.

After reading a news account about the controversy, the Johnsons of Rancho Palos Verdes decided to act in a way they said Gunter would have appreciated.

“He was the type of person that cared for people so much. On the surface, you would think he would take nothing in life seriously,” said Ursula Johnson in an interview at the Gardena-area warehouse office of the family’s office supply business. “We thought if Gunter would have seen that (article), he would have said, ‘Mutti, poppa, don’t you have that much?’ ”

Two days later, the Johnsons sent a $10,000 cashier’s check to City Councilman Richard Alatorre, whose committee held hearings on the beacon proposal. Alatorre will officially accept the contribution this morning at a City Hall news conference. FAA approval is still necessary before the beacon can be installed.

Last Aug. 18, tragedy struck the Johnsons in an unlikely way.

Gunter was skateboarding with some friends near the Johnson home when the rear wheels caught a crack in the sidewalk and sent him flying. He landed on the pavement and suffered a fractured skull.

Hospitalized and in a coma, Gunter never awoke and after a series of tests was declared brain-dead, Charles Johnson said. The family agreed to take Gunter off life support eight days after the accident when they were approached by an organ donor group.

His heart and two kidneys were donated to three people. In a letter accompanying the check to the city, the Johnsons said that the cash donation, from Gunter’s life insurance, “may provide assistance to the many pilots using Runway 24R at LAX.”

Charles and Ursula Johnson said they had not been searching for a way to memorialize their son until they read about the beacon proposal.

“Maybe some pilot flying (near the airport) when the sun is blinding him like that; maybe he’ll whisper under his breath, ‘Thanks, Gunter,’ ” said Charles Johnson. “They remember things like that.”