Prior to COVID, Mount Kisco resident Scott Johnson, who is the CEO and founder of Westchester-based private equity firm SJ Partners, flew his six-passenger Piper Meridian turboprop to attend industry conferences and family trips to Mackinac Island, a vacation spot that accepts only private planes.
Johnson needs laser-sharp focus for his day job, evaluating consumer and service companies for acquisition. That same precision is also needed when he’s up in the skies. “You always have to be one step ahead when flying or investing. You also have to exhibit humility and know the limits of your aircraft,” explains Johnson.
When COVID cancelled in-person meetings, Johnson’s plane at a Westchester County Airport hangar sat idle. For an aviation enthusiast, not flying simply wasn’t an option, so Johnson combined his passion for flying with his passion for helping others. He joined nonprofit Veterans Airlift Command (VAC), which provides free air transportation to post-9/11-combat wounded soldiers and their families for medical and other compassionate purposes.
Helping wounded soldiers is especially gratifying to Johnson, whose great uncle, Ardsley resident Ed Gross, served as a bombardier in the 722nd Squadron of the 450th Bomb Group during WWII. Johnson’s VAC call sign is Hero Flight 722 in honor of him.
One of Johnson’s most recent passengers for VAC was Matthew Levya, a Purple Heart recipient who lost both legs and several fingers when an IED exploded on a mission in Afghanistan. Levya spent almost three years at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas and underwent 130 surgeries while recovering. Walter Reed Medical Center is another frequent destination for Johnson, so veterans can undergo medical procedures.
Levya was visiting one of “his brothers,” a fellow veteran and amputee in Chattanooga over the July Fourth weekend whom he met at Brooke. “Without him, I’d be lost. I have a small circle of friends who truly understand what I’ve been through. That’s why I appreciate Scott and VAC flying me,” says Levya. Today, Levya is a personal trainer to other amputees.
“It’s been a privilege to fly the soldiers and these children.”
In addition to flying veterans, Johnson has also provided free flights to critically ill children, through two nonprofits — Patient Airlift Services and Angel Flight. This past spring, he transported critically ill children with Epidermolysis Bullosa, which causes skin to be fragile, blister, and then shear off, so they may undergo medical treatment at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
Most of the passengers Johnson flies are severely immunocompromised or have mobility issues. Many are either too young to get the vaccine or were particularly worried about traveling at the start of the pandemic, when the vaccine wasn’t widely available. “This mode of transportation is eminently more comfortable, and they are able to get closer to their destination than with a commercial aircraft,” notes Johnson.
“It’s been a privilege to fly the soldiers and these children,” says Johnson, who (at press time) has flown 30 passengers this year and more than 10,000 miles for the three organizations. His wife, Samantha, who also has a pilot license, has aptly given him a new moniker: The Pilot Mensch.