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Once a Newport Beach kid enthralled with planes, Brad Johnson completes 30-year Air Force career

Major Gen. Mark D. Camerer, left, presents Brad Johnson with the official certificate of retirement.
Major Gen. Mark D. Camerer, left, presents Brad Johnson with the official certificate of retirement at a ceremony on Nov. 10.
(Courtesy of Doug Johnson)

When Bradford Johnson was a kid growing up in Newport Beach, he used to beg his parents to take him to John Wayne Airport.

They’d park the car, go upstairs and just watch the planes take off the tarmac, though Johnson said, laughing, that his three brothers and parents probably didn’t realized he’d been pushing for those outings because he wanted to one day become a pilot.

He also remembers watching with keen interest the El Toro Air Show and the Blue Angels.

His mother, Anne, remembers the model airplanes he used to keep, and his older brother, Doug, remembers asking Brad to keep the planes on his side of their shared bedroom.

All these things, he said, continued to fuel his ambitions to become a pilot — but not just any pilot. He wanted to serve in the U.S. Air Force, a goal he ultimately achieved. He went on to serve a 30-year-long career that ended officially last week.

Having been deployed to places like Qatar, Oman, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Panama, South Korea and Germany, Johnson, 53, retired from the force as a colonel on Wednesday.

“His father would have been so proud,” said Anne Johnson.

Brad’s wife, Jill Koshak-Johnson, said she knew of his Air Force ambitions when the two met in college. Johnson was attending Claremont McKenna College while Koshak-Johnson enrolled at Scripps College.

Johnson's wife, Jill Koshak-Johnson, puts on Brad’s retirement pin at the ceremony on Nov. 10, 2021.
(Courtesy of Doug Johnson)

“His mom said he was always staring out the window, looking at the sky. Very inquisitive, always pondering and wondering what was out there and to explore,” said Koshak-Johnson. “He instilled that in our children [Aaron and Olivia] as well.”

But his career path met with some turbulence early on.

Johnson said he graduated with a degree in biology and international relations and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

He took on a few odd jobs while waiting for his pilot training spot to open up, only to find out that his chances were suddenly canceled when it was determined there were too many pilots.

“I spent the next nine months doing a lot of soul searching. The Air Force said ‘no,’ so what are my other options?” said Johnson.

He worked in the private sector for a time but eventually would make his way to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida as an aircraft maintenance officer. There was no other way to get into the Air Force, he figured, than to get on board and remind them he wanted to fly.

Two years later, in June 1993, Johnson got his chance.

An undated picture of the Johnson family from sometime around 1976 in Corona del Mar.
An undated picture of the Johnson family from sometime around 1976 in Corona del Mar. Johnson, third from right, holds his mother, Anne Johnson’s, hand.
(Courtesy of Brad Johnson)

“I remember doing cartwheels down the hallway in the maintenance building. I’m a tall guy. So, it wasn’t pretty. I think I hit a wall as I was going over. That was the ticket to ride,” said Johnson, laughing.

Johnson said he’ll miss going on missions, both combat and humanitarian, because he felt he was part of something much bigger than himself, acting in defense and support of the liberties enjoyed in the United States.

He’ll also miss the opportunities being a part of the military gave him, including living in Germany for four years, serving as an instructor pilot and developing friendships along the way.

“I will intensely miss the people, and that’s the bond that develops among people that serve,” said Johnson.

Johnson flies a C-130 military transport aircraft in an unspecified location over Europe sometime in 2000.
(Courtesy of Doug Johnson)

“Especially, those bonds formed on deployments in combat are incredibly tight and enduring, and that’s tough to find in a lot of places, but you find it in the military quite frequently because of the fact that everybody is moving to different places at different times,” said Johnson. “You get to know people, moving apart and then circling back … you pick up where you left off because everyone’s used to that, so that’s neat.”

“You have relationships that do endure over time despite all the moves that happen over the course of a career,” he said.

For now, Johnson’s happy to take a breather and begin taking the first steps to transitioning back into civilian life, joking that his golf clubs will be assisting him in doing so.

Koshak-Johnson described it as their next chapter.

“We’ve been married the whole extent of his military service. I would say even just a couple of years ago when we knew that time was coming, it was something we both talked about … what’s next, given the changes and the ways I’ve had to compromise my own career,” said Koshak-Johnson, a physical therapist. “I had even more concern than he did just knowing what civilian life could be like.”

Koshak-Johnson said she worried as civilian workplaces differ from the rigid structure and hierarchy of the military, but the two had realistic discussions about what their life would now look like. She said they agreed that they wanted to be in one place for a while, meaning that they’ll be settling down in New Jersey, where Johnson was stationed until his retirement.

“Here in New Jersey, that’s surprisingly become [home] for us. We love our neighbors, the proximity to the city and the things to do, we have definitely found this great sense of community where we are right now,” said Koshak-Johnson.

Johnson and wife Jill Koshak-Johnson pose in front of a T-38 aircraft.
Johnson and wife Jill Koshak-Johnson pose in front of a T-38 aircraft, the type flown by Johnson during undergraduate pilot training in May 1995.
(Courtesy of Doug Johnson)

“There’s a sense of relief and feeling you don’t have to go somewhere and you have the option to be able to do that, but also that uncertainty that I think a lot of people face in this midlife,” she added. “You’re in the middle of your life and what comes next. It’s not retirement-retirement but it’s definitely a new chapter and [wondering] what that’s going to look like.”

Johnson describes his wife as one of his greatest supporters and says all his success comes back to the people who were already doing amazing things he just happened to be around for.

"[The ceremony was] saying thanks to as many people as I could who really made it happen,” said Johnson. “My wife, my kids, my mom. It was difficult for her too, but being able to acknowledge their impact in my life over the course over 30 years to them and others.”

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