Ken Johansen was all of 8 when he first climbed into a small plane — his dad behind the controls.
After he grew up, Johansen took to the air again with his dad, Robert. They crisscrossed the country for more than a decade as members of the Skytypers, dazzling crowds with their precision maneuvers.
Their father-son act came to an end only a couple of years ago when Robert stopped flying with the team. Then, there was just one Johansen who still got off the ground.
Last Saturday, Ken and his fellow GEICO Skytypers wowed 193,000 at the Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach. It was his final performance.
Johansen, 52, died Wednesday when his World War II-era plane went down in a wooded residential area in Melville. He had taken off from Republic Airport minutes before, on his way to an air show in Maryland. Federal authorities are still investigating the crash.
For Johansen, his father was his role model. Both flew for the U.S. Navy. After their military careers, both became commercial pilots. And, of course, there was the flying for fun in their off-time.
“I definitely got the bug from my father,” Johansen told Oceancity.com in 2014. “To get to do this with my father is both fun and an honor.”
On Father’s Day that year, the men talked about their relationship for a Maryland television station. Ken told the audience that taking to the sky with Robert deepened their connection.
“There are times in the show when I’m out front and I need to lead Dad back to the rest of the group,” the son said. “And if the wind is different and I need to make a different turn, or climb or descend, he knows exactly what I’m going to do.”
His father, who lived in Northport for a time this decade, echoed the happiness that his son felt flying together.
“I feel blessed,” Robert said. “We have fun.”
Ken, who was with United Airlines at the time of his death, rose to the Skytypers’ executive officer.
In a video released by the team, Johansen talked about the importance of keeping the routine fresh to keep the pilots sharp.
“We all strap these airplanes on and they become extensions of our bodies,” he said. “Where we can push them, where’s the envelope of the plane, it’s worth discovering that and it’s wonderful.”
In a 2017 TV interview, Johansen talked about his faith in his plane.
“It’s a strong machine,” he said. “It was built in 1940. They built them really safe back then.”
The day after the crash, the Skytypers posted a statement and a picture of Johansen, who lived in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He is survived by his wife and their two children.
“We lost a dear friend,” the statement read. “Our hearts are broken as we mourn his passing.”
Over the years, Johansen had developed a talent for passing on his love of flying to younger generations.
When the Skytypers were on Long Island, they performed educational programs for children at Republic Airport, said Andrew Parton, executive director of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City.
Last year, several children from Westbury attended the program. They thrilled at seeing the planes up close. And they stood in awe of Johansen, sharing the secrets of the sky.
“He still had that little boy inside him who loved to fly,” Parton said.