Feb. 22, 2021

Mike Johnson has an interesting job as an unmanned aircraft systems program planner at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). But it wasn’t always this way.

Despite being a private pilot, an advanced ground instructor, a drone operator and aerial photographer, a certificate recipient from the American Association of Airport Executives, and the holder of undergraduate and graduate degrees, Johnson had to spend years proving himself and working his way up to positions with increasing levels of responsibility.

At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP), Johnson worked the taxi booth, drove the hotel shuttles, fueled aircraft and handled luggage. “I had an MBA when I was working in the mail room,” said Johnson, who has now been at MnDOT for 10 years.

As a Black person in aviation, Johnson is part of what he terms “still a very small group.” As such, he wants to help change that. “It motivates me to reach out more, to share what I know with other people of color,” said Johnson. “I want students of color to say, ‘Mike looks like me. If he can do it, I can do it.’”

Johnson spends one day each week teaching middle school students how to fly and race drones at their school, which is exciting for them, and doesn’t require a trip to the airport. “I know that many kids don’t have a way to get to the airport,” he said. “So, I realized I could bring aviation to them.” Johnson was able to purchase the drones with a grant that he obtained.

Mike Johnson, MnDOT

Johnson also takes students on introductory flights and has partnered with FBOs and other entities to get young people in an airplane. He has worked with the Experimental Aircraft Association on its Young Eagles program; he is also assistant program director for the local chapter of the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, and participates in its ACE Academy.

“I want young people of color to know that you don’t have to be rich to get into aviation,” said Johnson. “Just like any other career, if you set your mind to it, you can do it.”