Sunday, March 13, 2005 95-year-old female pilot can't get enough of being in clouds By DUNCAN MANSFIELD The Associated Press MORRISTOWN, Tenn. — It was ''love at first flight'' for Evelyn Bryan Johnson when she took her first flying lesson back in 1944. Today, at 95, her head is still in the clouds. ''It is just a whole different world up there,'' said Johnson, who has logged more time in the air than perhaps any living pilot — 57,600 hours, or more than 6½ years combined — and who either has taught or certified thousands of others, from former Sen. Howard Baker Jr. to her two grandsons. ''I don't care how many problems you have down on the ground, you forget about them (while flying),'' says the bright-eyed and barely 5-foot-tall woman known to her students and colleagues as ''Mama Bird'' or ''Miss Evelyn.'' ''The world is so beautiful,'' she says of the view from above. ''And to look at it, you know God did a really good job. It is just the most satisfying, fun, relaxing thing you can think of.'' The awards, citations and mementos are piled in her small office at Morristown's Moore-Murrell Airport, about 45 miles northeast of Knoxville. She has managed the place since it opened in 1953, taught more than 3,000 student pilots there and certified more than 9,000 pilots for the Federal Aviation Administration. She has already culled some of the best pieces for the various halls of fame that honor her, including the Flight Instructor Hall of Fame at Oshkosh, Wis., the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame — she is a Corbin, Ky., native — and the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame. Her latest Guinness Book of World Records certificate for most hours in the air for a female pilot is still unframed. Her biographer George Prince, a former student, estimates that she has flown about 5.5 million miles during a 60-year career in mostly small airplanes, equal to 23 trips to the moon. ''Evelyn is a national aviation icon and treasure,'' said Bob Minter, founder and director of the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame in Sevierville, which inducted Johnson in 2002 with FedEx founder Fred Smith. She learned to fly a single-engine ''high wing'' Piper J3-Cub in an era when many women didn't know how to drive a car. Then she mastered seaplanes, multiengine planes, helicopters and transports. She began teaching flying and certifying for the FAA. She was a transcontinental racer for a short time and a longtime member of the Civil Air Patrol. And she won a Carnegie Foundation award for saving the life of a helicopter pilot who crashed during takeoff at the Morristown airport in 1958. She crawled into the wreckage, turned off the engine to stop the spinning blades, then helped pull him out. The man recovered and became a test pilot for the FAA. ''She probably is one of the greatest teachers that aviation has ever known,'' Minter said. ''She has a compassion and a caring and a fervor about her that is really, really hard to find.'' She taught public school for two years before meeting W.J. Bryan while attending the University of Tennessee in the 1930s. She earned an English degree, they married and moved to Jefferson City near Morristown to start a dry-cleaning business. When World War II came, Bryan hoped to learn how to fly in the service. But he didn't want to go to chilly Greenland for training, and instead he landed at an air base in Florida in charge of laundry. ''He started in to fly but ended up washing clothes. I was washing clothes and ended up flying,'' Evelyn said. She was 35, bored and looking for a hobby. One Sunday morning before church, she spotted a small advertisement in the newspaper. ''The ad said, 'Learn to fly.' Well, I believe I will,'' she thought. ''So the next Sunday afternoon, I got on a train in Jefferson City and went to Knoxville. I got on a city bus and went to the end of the line. Then I got a ride in a rowboat across the river and took my first flying lesson (at Knoxville's Island Home Airport). ''It was love at first flight,'' Johnson said. ''And I have been flying ever since.'' Her joy became her work. Both Bryan, who died in 1963, and her second husband, Morgan Johnson, who died in 1977, became pilots. She operated a flying service for 20 years, not only to train pilots but also to ferry sightseers, passengers and cargo around the country and once to South America. She has never crashed. ''(I) had two complete engine failures, didn't scratch either airplane,'' she said. ''Had a fire in the air, but got it down safely. I had a Navajo (airplane) swallow a valve down in the woolly part of Texas where there was nothing around but knotty little hills, and was able to get back 22 miles to an airport. And the minute it touched down it quit.'' Time may be catching up with Mama Bird. She plans to stop giving pilot exams this spring and a pending medical certification required for her license may prove insurmountable. Still, she isn't talking about retiring. ''I've always said, when I get old enough. I'm only 95.'' Attached Photo: Evelyn ''Mama Bird'' Johnson, 95, stands by a plane at Moore-Murrell Airport in Morristown, Tenn. Johnson holds the Guinness Book of World Records mark for a female pilot of more than 57,000 hours in the air. She's been flying airplanes since 1944.