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"95-year-old female pilot can't get enough of being in clouds"

Sunday, March 13, 2005

95-year-old female pilot can't get enough of being in clouds 
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 6 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

''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

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.


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