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Honoring a legend

Happy birthday, Mama Bird

Her name is Evelyn Johnson, but many call her "Mama Bird." No matter what you call her, she is one amazing person.

Evelyn is the highest-time pilot alive in the world, of either gender. She is the second-highest-time pilot in history. Only one pilot ever flew more than Mama Bird, her friend (and mine) Ed Long. How many hours does she have? Exactly 57,635.4. That is more than six and a half years in the air as a pilot if you flew 24 hours per day.

She taught about 5,000 students and gave 9,000 flight tests. She is a member of the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame, The Women in Aviation Pioneers Hall of Fame, and the National Aviation Hall of Fame. She is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Her birthday is November 4, and she will be 100 years old. You can still find her five days a week at Moore-Murrell Airport (MOR), in Morristown, Tennessee.

She started learning to fly in 1944. Today she holds ASMEL fixed-wing and helicopter, ATP, and has been an FAA designated pilot examiner since 1952. She earned that designation not from the FAA, but from the CAA. She remembers giving a checkride to one-time presidential candidate, Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker, before he became a senator.

Evelyn Johnson has also played a role in many areas of aviation. She has been an aviation leader and promoter through all of the decades from the 1940s through the 2000s. She served on the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission for decades and has managed Moore-Murrell Airport for more than 50 years. Think of the changes she has seen--and fostered--during that incredible career. She was there during the introduction of jets, the moon race, and so much more. According to those who were there, she did it with a smile and a twinkle in her eye.

Most of all, think about all of those thousands of students. Can we possibly grasp how many aviation careers she influenced? She saved the life of at least one man along the way. He crashed a helicopter and she crawled under the still-flailing rotor blades, turned the engine off, and tried her best to douse the flames with a fire extinguisher. She was awarded a bronze Carnegie Medal for her actions.

The fascinating idea is that many of you could actually meet Mama Bird personally. Just drop by the airport and introduce yourself. She will gladly welcome you, and you will probably get to hangar fly with the highest-time human pilot in the world. Just ask her a question and sit back in awe.

Or, go to the 2009 induction banquet of the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame on November 14. Evelyn plans to attend, and I'd bet they'll do some celebration of her birthday.

Ralph Hood, an aviation speaker and writer, has been flying since 1971 and has more than 3,000 hours of flight time. He is a multiengine commercial pilot with an instrument rating. Visit his Web site.

By Ralph Hood

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