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Ex-Navy helo pilot finds new calling as comedic tour guide

Oct. 14, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Former Navy helicopter pilot Troy Johnson turned his life-long love of acting and entertainment into a new career piloting World War Two-era 'Duck Boat' tours in Seattle.
Former Navy helicopter pilot Troy Johnson turned his life-long love of acting and entertainment into a new career piloting World War Two-era 'Duck Boat' tours in Seattle. (Jon Anderson / Staff)
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Retired Navy Cmdr. Troy Johnson doesn’t a mind a bit that it was only after leaving the Navy that he got promoted to captain and placed in command of his own ship.

He’s a little surprised, though, that those two things came as he pursued a new career in the performing arts.

“I had always loved performing in high school and college, but I knew I wasn’t going to go to Hollywood and really make a go of it as a starving actor,” he says.

After a 22-year career piloting helicopters in the military, Johnson says his primary goal when he left the service four years ago was finding a job that would both be fun and help him reconnect to that lifelong love of entertaining.

Shortly after retiring in 2009, Johnson saw his opportunity to have his own stage in an unlikely place: the rolling — and floating — tour vehicles known simply as “the ducks.”

Officially dubbed the DUKW, the World War II-era amphibious landing craft are basically big, floating trucks designed to deliver troops from ship to the shore. The duck fleet saw combat duty from North Africa through Europe and into the Pacific. During the Normandy invasion, with the enemy holding all the major ports, ducks carried 18 million tons of supplies ashore for three months following the initial landing.

In more recent years, however, they have found new life as the tourist-town assault vehicle of choice in more than a dozen cities across the country from Washington, D.C., to Seattle.

Johnson says he was immediately taken with the way Seattle’s “Ride the Ducks” tour operators deliver the fun. That’s not just as driver and captain of the ducks, but also as the tour’s sole “performer,” providing an 1 ½ hour road-and-water show that is typically equal parts comedy routine and music review, with healthy splashes of history lecture and travel tips.

“As duck captains, we’re entertaining — we tell jokes, we play music and we’re highly informative about the city. People are going to have fun, learn some things and be interactive. And then, of course, there’s the thrill factor of driving off of land directly into the water.”

As part of his audition for the job, Johnson had to memorize at least 130 trivia tidbits about Seattle.

“When you start training, they give you a script that lays out all the points of interest along the route and some funny comments. After two weeks, you start to improvise and create your own show.”

He even gets a stage name. When driving his duck, Johnson is known as “Beau Dayshus.”

All drivers must complete a more than six-week training course that includes earning a 25-ton merchant marine captain’s license from the Coast Guard before becoming “fully duck boat qualified.”

In some ways, Johnson says, it can be a lot like flying in the Navy.

“You come in in the morning, walk into the shop and check out the board to see what duck you’ve been assigned to, similar to finding out which aircraft you’re going on. You do a pre-flight, go underneath the duck, doing about a 20-point inspection on it, just like you would on an aircraft. And then away you go.”

He says camaraderie among drivers, maintainers and support staff “is also very similar to what we had back in the squadron.”

The driving itself has similarities as well.

“Driving a duck boat is a lot like taxiing an aircraft on a rough runway. On land, it’s kind of bumpy and you’re feeling the ground, but then once you go into the water it’s like lifting off and everything gets really calm and smooth. It has that same kind of transitional feel to it,” Johnson says.

But it’s the performing that he really loves. And that’s nothing like anything he did in the Navy.

“I love coming to work. You get to interact with these folks, dance, sing, tell jokes and it just fits my personality. So it’s the perfect job, especially for those who have a need to perform or like being out front.”

The pay is not bad, either.

“They pay us well,” he says. After four years, he’s drawing about $20 an hour in base pay, plus often double that in tips.

“If you’re a really good captain, you can make enough in, say, six months that if you want to take the next six months off, and you plan accordingly, you can probably do that.”

Meanwhile, that kind of flexible schedule has allowed him to pursue more traditional performing roles.

He’s landed leading parts in several major Seattle productions, including the musicals “Rent” and “Chicago.”

Now he’s hoping to combine his experience in planning, logistics and travel in the Navy with his more recent performing roles to get a job as a guide for Adventures by Disney.

“Disney takes groups of 30 to 40 people on tours around the world, and they need two guides per group to lead the group and plan entertainment.” He says the six-month contracts as guides are highly competitive, but “I think all my experience comes together pretty well for this Disney dream job.”

Whether or not he gets that job, he says he’ll keep on trucking — and floating — as a duck captain.

“That’s the goal, just to keep having fun,” he says. “If I can avoid a 9-to-5 desk job for the rest of my time out of the military, I am one happy camper.”

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