Evelyn Bryan Johnson “Mama Bird” Flew West at Age 102
Evelyn Bryan Johnson, the legendary East Tennessee flight instructor and
designated pilot examiner better known to her many students over the years as “Mama Bird,” passed away on May 10, 2012 after a period of declining health. Evelyn Stone was born in Corbin, KY on Nov. 4, 1909, just six years after the Wright brothers’ first flight. She graduated from Tennessee Wesleyan College, and she taught 6th grade for two years. She met Wyatt Jennings Bryan (W.J.) while attending summer school at the University of Tennessee, and they married in 1931. Johnson took up flying during World War II so she would have a hobby while W.J. was away in the Army Air Corps. She took her first flight on Oct. 1, 1944, and soloed on Nov. 8, received her Private Pilot license in June 1945, and Commercial Pilot license in 1946. She became a Certificated Flight Instructor in 1947, and was named a Designated Pilot Examiner in 1952. She later added Air Transport Pilot for Single Engine Land to her license, and seaplane and rotor-craft ratings. In 1958, she was only the 20th female pilot in the world to earn a helicopter license. Mama Bird lovingly kicked more fledgling pilots out of the nest than probably any other instructor. As a pilot of many types of aircraft, including a T-33 jet, she never crashed, she maneuvered out of engine failures twice, and a fire once. Among her many honors, she was named FAA Flight Instructor of the Year in 1979, and was inducted into the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame in 2002, and into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2007. She was a Colonel, and a 62-year member of the Civil Air Patrol, and a founder of their Morristown Composite Squadron. Her interest in helicopters waned after she witnessed a helicopter crash into a power line at the Morristown Airport. The helicopter lifted off the ground only a few feet, then crashed onto the ramp. As smoke poured out, she grabbed a fire extinguisher and crawled under the still turning rotor blades to turn off the ignition. She then emptied the extinguisher on the engine stopping the fire from spreading, and her quick action saved the badly injured pilot. For her bravery and swift action, she was awarded the Carnegie Medal for Heroism. Along the way, she logged 57,635.4 flight hours and administered some 9,000 practical flight tests. In nearly six decades as a flight instructor, she taught more than 5,000 men and women how to fly. On the occasion of her 100th birthday, she said her flight time still qualified her as the highest-time lady pilot, and the highest-time living pilot in the Guinness World Records. Her logged time, equivalent to 6.6 years, is second only to an Alabama man, John Long, Jr., who died in 1999 at the age of 83, who had logged over 65,000 hours checking power lines. Johnson owned Morristown Flying Service for 33 years, and served as manager of the city’s Moore-Murrell Municipal Airport (Morristown Regional Airport) from 1953 until shortly before her death. She served on the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission for 18 years beginning in 1983, and was chairman for four years. She was a member of the “Whirly Girls,” and the Ninety-Nines organization of women pilots chose her as one of the 100 most influential women in America. Johnson was a long-time member of the Silver Wings Fraternity and served 12 years on their Board of Directors. An automobile accident in 2006 cost her part of a leg and pretty much ended her flying, but it did not end her involvement in aviation. She will be missed in aviation, not only in Tennessee, but everywhere her students have gone. She looked after all of her students, and she also did a marvelous job of encouraging women to fly. The new terminal at Moore-Murrell Airport was dedicated to her in May 2011. A bust of Johnson by Laureen Prater Barker, a California sculptor and former student of Johnson, stands just outside the new facility. Mr. Bryan died in 1963, and she married Morgan Johnson in 1965 who died in 1977. She is survived by two grandsons and three great-grandchildren.