Evelyn Johnson

November 1, 1999

How much flight time is a lot of flight time?

An airline pilot who retires with 20,000 hours is considered high time, while a career military pilot might log a fraction of that. Many private pilots fly for a lifetime and never break the 1,000-hour mark.

Meet Evelyn Bryan Johnson, an unassuming flight instructor and designated examiner at Moore-Murrell Field in Morristown, Tennessee, northeast of Knoxville. In 55 years of flying, Johnson has logged some 56,700 hours. That's equivalent to almost six and one-half years aloft, if you were to fly 24 hours a day, seven days a week — or more than 27 years of flying 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. Since 1995, the Guinness Book of World Records has recognized her as the woman pilot with the most flight time.

Perhaps even more incredibly, almost all of Johnson's hours have been logged while giving dual instruction or administering flight tests. By her count, she's given more than 9,000 checkrides.

She will celebrate her ninetieth birthday on November 4. "I don't have time to worry about it," Johnson observed. "I'm going to live to 100 or beyond, and 90's just on the way to that." She'll probably commemorate the occasion by administering a checkride and giving a couple of hours of dual instruction.

Johnson's biography, written by former student George Prince, is titled Mama Bird. "One of my students — she's about as old as me — sent me a Mother's Day card and wrote that I took care of the students like a mama bird looks after its babies," Johnson explained. "A lot of people call me 'mama bird.' I thought it was funny, so we used it as the name of the book." The book has sold more than 1,500 copies and is in its fourth printing.

She took her first flight on October 1, 1944, and earned her private pilot certificate the following June. She added a commercial certificate in 1946 and became a flight instructor in 1947. She was named a designated examiner in 1952. "I love what I'm doing," she said. "I love my job — I love teaching people to fly."

From 1951 through 1954, and again in 1960, Johnson enjoyed participating in Powder Puff Derbies. "In 1955 B.C. — that's before Castro — I flew in an international women's air race from Washington to Havana. Racing gets in your blood — once you start, you want to do it every year." She also became one of the first female helicopter pilots and got involved in the Civil Air Patrol.

Her students over the years have run the gamut, from pilots flying for pleasure to individuals who went on to become airline executives. "I've taught loads and loads of airline pilots to fly," Johnson commented. "It makes you real proud."

In 1997, Johnson flew to Oshkosh in an airliner captained by one of her former students. "I sent a note to the cockpit — 'Are you the Eddie Roberts who I taught to fly?'" she recalled. "He said he nearly fell off his chair when he read that note." Johnson made the trip to be inducted into the National Flight Instructors' Hall of Fame. She was the FAA's National Flight Instructor of the Year in 1979.

Johnson isn't shy about offering advice to today's flight instructors. "A lot of them who are instructors are just doing it to build time — but if you really enjoy instructing, stick with it," she said. "You'll develop a reputation, and students will come looking for you. You'll never get rich, but you'll sure have a lot of fun while you're earning a living."

What problems does Johnson see on checkrides today? "Their instructors don't teach them how to read a map," she said. Second and third are radio navigation and stalls. "When you fly with a student, you can tell if their instructor is afraid of stalls — it's hard to get some of them to stall [the airplane]."

The veteran CFI isn't too keen on some of the recent regulatory changes. "I'm not too happy with what they've changed for the private [certificate]. Ten hours' solo won't give them enough confidence. But I think the idea to do three hours of hood work is a good one — I suggested it myself."

Johnson's contributions to general aviation go beyond flying and flight instruction. She owned an FBO, Morristown Flying Service, for 33 years and has managed Moore-Murrell Field since 1953. She's served on the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission for 16 years — including four as its chairman — and still travels frequently to Nashville, where she helps to allocate state and FAA block grant funds to airport improvement projects across the state.

Stacked one atop another, the scrapbooks in her office are more than two feet tall. Three dozen plaques and awards hang in her office and in the FBO lobby.

But Johnson is most proud of a small plaque behind her desk. It marks her 1997 induction into the Hamblen Women Hall of Fame in Morristown. "My picture is hanging up down at the Girls' Club," she explained. "They choose women who they think make good role models for the girls. It's just a little thing but it means a lot to me."

Copies of Johnson's biography, Mama Bird, are available for $11.75 postpaid from Evelyn Johnson at Post Office Box 1013, Morristown, Tennessee 37816, or by calling the airport at 423/586-2483 — Ed.