Tennessee aviation legend dies

May 11, 2012

Evelyn JohnsonEvelyn Bryan Johnson, the legendary Tennessee flight instructor and designated pilot examiner better known to her many students over the years as “Mama Bird,” died May 10 after a period of declining health. Johnson was 102.

She took her first flight on Oct. 1, 1944, and earned her private pilot certificate the following June. Johnson added a commercial certificate in 1946, became a flight instructor in 1947, and was named a designated examiner in 1952. She also became one of the first female helicopter pilots and got involved in the Civil Air Patrol. From 1951 through 1954, and again in 1960, Johnson raced in the Powder Puff Derby.

Along the way, Johnson logged 57,635.4 flight hours and administered some 9,000 practical tests. She built her flight time giving instruction and conducting checkrides. On the occasion of her 100th birthday—Nov. 4, 2009—she said her flight time still qualified her as the highest-time female pilot and the highest-time living pilot in the Guinness World Records. “I’d be getting more [flight time] if I didn’t have glaucoma and could get a medical,” she said.

An automobile accident in 2006 cost Johnson part of a leg and pretty much ended her flying, but it did not end her involvement in aviation. Johnson was manager of Moore-Murrell Airport in Morristown, Tenn., from 1953 until shortly before her death, and she served on the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission for nearly two decades. She was profiled in the November 1999 AOPA Pilot and the September 1999 Flight Training.

“When you think about Evelyn and her dedication to flight training, and the depth of caring she had for her students—it was genuine,” said Bob Minter, AOPA southern region manager, founder and chairman emeritus of the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame, and a longtime friend of Johnson. Among her many other honors, Johnson was inducted into the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame in 2002, and the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, in 2007.

“It’s a life to be celebrated, not to be sad about. With the lives she’s touched as a flight instructor and a human being, I don’t think there will be another like her,” Minter said. “With today’s faster airplanes, I don’t think we’ll ever see times logged like that again, either.”

Evelyn JohnsonShortly after her 2006 auto accident, Minter told Johnson that she would be inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame the following summer. “She told me, ‘I will walk on the stage to accept that award,’” he said. “And she did.”

Johnson’s flying led to many stories, and one of them involved a checkride for Howard Baker, the former senator. “She went to give Howard Baker a flight check in a Bonanza, if I recall,” Minter recalled. “She asked him to do a stall. He said, ‘I’ve never done a stall in this airplane.’ She said, ‘You’ll do one now if you want a private ticket.’”

Johnson will be missed in aviation, not only in Tennessee but everywhere her students have gone, Minter added. “She looked after all of her students, and she also did a marvelous job of encouraging women to fly. She mentored many of them.”

The new terminal at Moore-Murrell Airport, where Johnson also operated an FBO for many years, 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.

Johnson’s funeral is May 15 at 7 p.m. at First Baptist Church in Morristown, Tenn. Friends will be received from 4 to 5:30 p.m. and from 6 to 7 p.m. Burial is May 16 at Jefferson Memorial Gardens in Jefferson City, Tenn. A T-34 formation flyover is planned.

Mike Collins

Mike Collins | Technical Editor, AOPA

Mike Collins has worked for AOPA’s media network since 1994. He holds a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating.