A local pilot with a global impact on aviation died this month, Scott County’s first known death related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Randall “Randy” Lee Sohn, 87, of Savage died April 1 of COVID-19-related pneumonia. Family and friends said he leaves a legacy of aviation education and safety.
Sohn’s many aviation distinctions earned him a place in the Hall of Fame of the EAA Warbirds and Commemorative Air Force, to name a few.
Sari Hughes, Sohn’s daughter, said her father had a global presence in the aviation community, but his love for reading and conversation fostered expertise in other areas, such as tractors and automobiles.
“Everything was interesting, and if it was interesting, you should learn about it,” she said.
Sohn grew upon a farm in Lake Park, Iowa, with a dream of becoming a pilot. In one of his school report cards, a teacher wrote, “Randy should stop drawing airplanes in his school work,” Hughes said.
Sohn took his first flying lesson in 1953 and joined the U.S. Air Force the same year. He graduated into the Reese Air Force Base class of aviation cadets in 1955.
In 1958, Sohn became a flight instructor rated for multi-engine aircraft. In 1960, he began flying commercial jets as a pilot for North Central, later known as Northwest Airlines.
In air shows, Sohn flew fighters and bombers — he was one of the few who could do both.
His message was always, “Know your airplane, know your abilities, never risk anything,” Hughes said. Air shows look risky, she added, “but he was absolutely positive of any perimeters of any aircraft he flew and his abilities.”
For awhile, he was one of only five designated examiners able to certify pilots in instrument flying, where the pilot flies the aircraft without visibility, she said.
He was granted authority by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly and give pilot checkouts to all high performance piston aircraft, according to the Commemorative Air Force.
Notably, in 1971, Sohn was chosen to fly FIFI, a surviving Boeing B-29 Superfortress, from where it long sat in a desert in California to the Commemorative Air Force headquarters in Texas.
In 1994, he retired flying DC10 and 747 airplanes and moved to a home on Dan Patch Lake in Savage with his wife, Judy. The two met on a flight while she worked as a flight attendant and married in 1991.
“I didn’t know anything about him being so well known for what he did,” Judy Sohn recalled. “I really didn’t know that part of him. I just knew that he was a nice, decent guy and he treated me well — he liked my cat, he liked animals, but I didn’t marry him for being a well-known pilot.”
On Dan Patch Lake, he enjoyed the wildlife and visiting with neighbors, she said.
Around town, Sohn became a familiar face at the Caribou Coffee in Savage, where he often visited twice a day.
“When I would come up from Texas and I couldn’t find him, I went to Caribou,” Hughes said. “They poured his coffee when he walked in — they knew what he wanted.”
He made friends around town, she said, following a pattern of how he lived his life.
“Dad knew pretty much everybody and had a phone number for them,” she said, adding his social circle often included celebrities such as astronauts, authors and musicians.
Laurie Bergren, Sohn’s niece, remembers her uncle landing his Cessna on the road near her family’s farm in Iowa and taxiing it right up their driveway. He once took her and her younger brother out for an open-cockpit ride in his biplane and once gave her a flying lesson in his Beechcraft Bonanza.
“He was so committed to aviation education and getting young people to appreciate aircraft and flying and this whole universe,” she said. “He had a knack for making people feel welcome and special.”
Sohn took to writing after his retirement and published stories and aircraft manuals. Even in his older years, the phone rang continuously with someone looking to ask him a question about planes or flying, Judy Sohn said.
There is no memorial planned for Sohn yet; Hughes said losing a loved one during the pandemic leaves family feeling helpless, but she hopes her family’s story will encourage others to have difficult conversations about medical directives.
She’s thankful her father’s wishes for his care were known and the legal paperwork in place in the end. She said it helps bring her family closure, and everyone should take a moment while at home to make their own arrangements accessible to first responders.
Bergren said sewing masks for local hospitals is helping her process the grief in a time where circumstances keep family and friends apart.
There’s also time to reflect on how a remarkable person touched their lives, she said.
“How many people can say they had some passion and they ran every last drop of it?” Bergren said.
Hughes said he just had to fly.
“And he left memories all over the world doing it,” she said.