Evelyn Bryan Johnson
November 4, 1909 – May 10, 2012
She was just looking for a break from the dry cleaning business when Evelyn Johnson saw an ad for flight lessons. To get to that first lesson, she traveled by train, on a bus, a mile on foot and finally by rowboat, but it was love at first flight. Her husband, W.J., had earlier escaped the laundry business and headed for flight training during World War II. The irony is that after his flight training was cancelled, it was her husband that was offered a job as the head of laundry at McDill Field in Tampa, Florida. Thus it was that Evelyn was learning to become the pilot in the family.
- Johnson earned a private pilot certificate in June 1945, added a commercial certificate in 1946, became a flight instructor in 1947 and was named designated FAA examiner in 1952.
- She has administered over 9,000 checkrides.
- Johnson was the FAA Flight Instructor of the Year in 1979.
- Johnson has been inducted into the Women in Aviation Pioneers Hall of Fame, the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame and the Kentucky and Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame.
- Johnson holds the record for the most flight hours of any woman, 57,635.4 hours.
Evelyn was born November 4, 1909 in Corbin, Kentucky, the oldest of three children. She was five years old when her father, a conductor for the railroad, moved his family to Tennessee.
She always enjoyed school and earned a scholarship to Tennessee Wesleyan, graduating in 1929. After a couple of years of teaching, she enrolled at the University of Tennessee. It was there that she met her husband, W.J. Bryan. They married in 1931. In 1933 the couple borrowed $250 from his father, started a dry cleaning business and worked 18 hours a day.
A few days after Pearl Harbor, WJ joined the Army Air Corps and left Evelyn to take care of the business. While looking for a hobby she took her first flight lesson on October 1, 1944.
Johnson soloed on November 8, 1944 in a Piper J3Cub with the minimum 8 hours required before the instructor jumped out leaving the controls to her. She says she’s glad nothing happened because she really didn’t know a lot at the time.
Johnon earned her private pilot certificate the following June, added a commercial certificate in 1946 and became a flight instructor in 1947. That afternoon she instructed her first student. She was later named a designated FAA examiner in 1952.
She also became one of the first female helicopter pilots and was involved in the Civil Air Patrol.
Johnson’s students have run the gamut, from pilots flying for pleasure to individuals who went on to become airline executives. She gave Tennessee Senator Howard Baker his private pilot flight test. Johnson says they were flying a Beech Debonair and got to the “stall series.” The senator said the plane wasn’t made for stalls. Johnson told the senator that, if they didn’t do the stalls, he’d just have to get along without his private pilot’s license. He did them.
What does it take to be a good pilot? Johnson says concentration, study, effort and dedication are the keys.
Johnson doesn’t have a favorite airplane for primary flight instruction, saying she likes them all. But she likes Cessna if a student wants good rudder control. She worries that students can get into trouble if they have not been trained in a plane with good rudder control.
Known as Mama Bird, Johnson sees problems with today’s “check rides”. She says the instructors don’t teach students how to read a map. Other problems are radio navigation and stalls. Some instructors are afraid to have their students get the experience of stalling a plane.
Johnson isn’t shy about offering advice to today’s flight instructors, saying, “A lot of them are just doing it to build time, but if you really enjoy instructing, stick with it. You’ll never get rich, but you’ll have a lot of fun while earning a living.”
Johnson’s contributions to general aviation go beyond flying and flight instruction. She owned a fixed-base operation, Morristown Flying Service – for 33 years. And recently she celebrated 54 years of service at Moore-Murrell Field in Morristown, Tennessee.
Johnson served on the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission for 18 years and was chairman for 4 of those years. She helped allocate state and FAA block grant funds for airport improvement projects throughout the state.
For 19 years, Johnson was a Cessna dealer, so she flew and sold just about everything Cessna made. She owned many airplanes, ranging from an Aeronca Champ to the Super Cruiser, but adds she was often too busy with her flight school to fly her own planes.
From 1951 through 1954, and again in 1960, Johnson enjoyed participating in Powder Puff Derbies. It was 1955 B.C. – before Castro, she says. She flew in an international women’s air race from Washington to Havana, Cuba.
She has stacks of scrapbooks and three dozen or so plaques and awards. She was the FAA’s Flight Instructor of the Year in 1979. She has been inducted into the Women in Aviation Pioneers Hall of Fame, the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, the Kentucky and Tennessee Aviation Halls of Fame. Johnson is most proud of a small plaque that marks her 1997 induction into the Hamblen County Woman Hall of Fame in Morristown. She says the organization chooses inductees who make good role models for girls.
In 55 years of flying, she’s logged close to 57,635 and ¼ hours. That’s equivalent to almost seven years aloft.
If you ask her when she plans to retire, she’ll tell you “When I get old enough. I’m only 97 years old.”
For her personal dedication to flight instruction and her promotion of general aviation, Evelyn Bryan Johnson has earned her place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Evelyn Bryan “Mama Bird” Johnson age 102, died May 10, 2012 in Jefferson City, Tennessee.