While doing an internship in Waco during her senior year, former Baylor golfer Nicole Johnson, BBA ’03, suffered from poor eyesight—literally and figuratively. The internship helped her realize that sitting behind a desk was not for her, but she couldn’t visualize what her career path would be.
“I thought, ‘Go ahead and get the degree.’ I was going to go home and try to figure it out,” Johnson says.
Clear sight was right around the corner. The next day, Johnson learned of a change in U.S. military aviation standards regarding eyesight. The military eased its restriction of people who had undergone photorefractive keratectomy (PRK) surgery becoming pilots.
Johnson went through a military flight physical to ensure she would qualify other than her eyesight. When she passed, eye surgery was quickly on the horizon.
A year later, Johnson entered U.S. Navy Officer Candidate School. She finished primary flight school second in her class as the lone female. She believes being a student-
athlete prepared her for training.
“The premise is the same as far as discipline, time management, situational awareness and being able to compartmentalize things,” she says.
Johnson was assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 83 (VFA-83) in Virginia Beach and attached to the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. At the time, she was the lone female pilot in the Air Wing. Johnson, who is a lieutenant commander, did two combat deployments and flew 63 missions over Afghanistan.
Military life was nothing new for Johnson, whose father Nick was a Navy and commercial pilot during her childhood. Her family lived in California before moving to the Houston area. Johnson graduated from Montgomery [Texas] High School before beginning at Baylor in fall 1998.
Johnson decided to attend Baylor largely because of then-head coach Sylvia Ferdon.
“Coach Ferdon was extremely knowledgeable about the game and a great person overall,” Johnson says. “She always took such good care of us. The Ferdons [Sylvia’s husband Doug was a journalism professor] were like our family. It was a great relationship.”
Johnson majored in computer information systems at Baylor, where she was a five-time Big 12 Conference Commissioner’s Honor Roll selection. She won the 2001 Islander Fall Classic and was Baylor’s low individual score at the 2001 NCAA Regional, tying for 19th.
“I absolutely enjoyed my time at Baylor,” Johnson says. “I wasn’t the most studious person in the world, so the academics were tough. But the professors were great, and the experience was great. The hardest part was trying to stay on top of all the schoolwork while playing a year-round sport. Luckily, my teammates were smart.”
The discipline she learned at Baylor carried over to her military and now professional career as a First Officer for FedEx Express based in Memphis, Tennessee. Johnson flies a Boeing 777, and nearly all her flights are international. Recently, one of her FedEx flights passed through Iran and slightly south of the Afghanistan border.
”“It’s interesting having a completely different view of the world now, going some of the same places I went as a fighter pilot but in a different context now.”
“It’s interesting having a completely different view of the world now, going some of the same places I went as a fighter pilot but in a different context now,” she says.
Johnson remains an integral part of the Navy. She has been an instructor pilot with VFA-122 at Naval Air Station Lemoore in California since 2011. Johnson has continued in that role as a reservist since her active duty ended in December 2014.
“It’s probably my favorite thing, seeing how excited the new generation is,” Johnson says of the pilots she trains. “They’re eager for knowledge and excited to get their careers started. Anything I can do to pay it forward is great because I had a fantastic cadre of instructors that guided me along and got me to where I am today.”
Johnson participated in the Navy’s Pilot for a Day program, which allows terminally ill children to spend a day shadowing a pilot. She is active with Wounded Warrior Project, Susan G. Komen Foundation, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Beyond Batten Disease Foundation.
Her time-management skills continue to prove advantageous with her busy schedule, allowing Johnson to manage a round of golf as often as possible. Every year, she competes in the U.S. Department of Defense Armed Forces Golf Championship. Johnson has been the All-Armed Forces Women’s Individual Champion five times.
“I’m nowhere near what I used to be as far as my skill level,” Johnson says. “Between training on the 777 last fall and Navy responsibilities, and how awful the weather has been—I’ve hardly touched a club since September. So, we’ll see how it goes this year.”