'Mama Bird' Evelyn Johnson Dies At 102; Logged 7 Years Of Flight Time

May 11, 2012
Originally published on May 27, 2016 6:00 am

Evelyn Bryan Johnson, a record-setting pilot who was born just six years after the Wright brothers made their historic flight, has died at the age of 102. Johnson, who began flying in 1944, holds the Guinness world record for the most hours logged by a female pilot — more than 57,000.

In addition to her accomplished flying record, Johnson also helped many other pilots earn their wings. After one student called her Mama Bird, the nickname stuck with Johnson, as she gave lessons and FAA flight exams to thousands of pilots.

Johnson made an impact on aviation that will last beyond her years — by her own estimation, she trained some 5,000 pilots, including many who are today flying commercial jetliners and cargo planes.

"Two of them turned out to be vice presidents of US Air," she told NPR's Scott Simon back in 2003. "One of them was a 30-year pilot for FedEx; one of the girls flies for American out of New York; some of the other girls fly for United, Delta. There's lots of girls, as well as boys."

Johnson lived in Morristown, Tenn., where she was the longtime manager of the Moore-Murrell Airport — a position she held beyond her 100th birthday, and seemingly up to the time of her death Thursday.

Update at 7 p.m. ET: We've added audio to the top of this post — a remembrance from Charlie Mayer, NPR's director of operations. Charlie was Scott's producer when they visited Johnson in Tennessee; he also later flew with her. His story aired on All Things Considered Friday.

As the AP reports, "Johnson was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, in 2007. At that time, she had been flying for 55 years and had spent the equivalent of seven years in flight."

Those flights included several exploits, as Johnson told TAP TV last year. There was the time she flew in a race from Washington, D.C., to Havana, Cuba; the two times her engine failed, forcing her to land in fields; the flight that ended smoothly despite an engine on fire. Johnson also became one of the first women to earn a helicopter pilot's license, joining a group known as the Whirly Girls.

In 1958, Jonson's quick action after witnessing a helicopter crash earned her recognition from the Carnegie Hero Fund. The injured pilot was still in the wreckage when Johnson crawled beneath the whirling blades to turn off the machine's motor. She then sprayed the wreck with a fire extinguisher to prevent an explosion.

At the time of her death, Johnson had flown more than any other living pilot. She spoke with Scott Simon on the occasion of her 94th birthday, when she told him how flying airplanes always helped clear her head of life's worries.

"It's a different world from anything else. When you get up there and you fly around, everything is so beautiful. It's just wonderful like that," she told Scott. "And then, while you're up there, you forget about your problems while you're up. You've still got 'em, but that doesn't matter, you've had a little rest from it. It's just a wonderful thing."

That interview took place six years before Johnson's hundredth birthday — an occasion she said she was looking forward to. Johnson told Scott how she'd like to spend the day.

"Here's what I'd like: Willard Scott will be telling about me being 100 years old," she said. "But I wouldn't hear him — because I'd be up flying."

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An accomplished American aviator has died. Evelyn Bryan Johnson logged more flight hours than any woman in history. She died yesterday at age 102. NPR's Charlie Mayer, also a pilot, has this appreciation.

CHARLIE MAYER, BYLINE: I first met Evelyn Johnson on her 94th birthday in 2003. I visited her at the airport in Morristown, Tennessee with NPR's Scott Simon.

SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: In Morristown, Tennessee, the local flight instructor is 94 years old.

EVELYN JOHNSON: (Unintelligible) taking off runway 23.

SIMON: Evelyn Bryan Johnson loves to fly and believes it's good for what ails you.

JOHNSON: You forget about your problems while you're up. You've still got them, but that doesn't matter. You've had a little rest from them.

MAYER: Decades ago, one of Evelyn Johnson's students gave her the nickname, Mama Bird, and it stuck. By her own count, Mama Bird taught more than 5,000 people how to fly. As a designated pilot examiner for the FAA, she gave more than 9,000 flight tests.

Over the decades, she even trained her share of airline pilots.

JOHNSON: Oh, mercy, yes. Lots of them. Two of them turned out to be vice presidents of U.S. Air. One of them was a 30 year pilot for FedEx. One of the girls flies for American out of New York. Some of the other girls fly for United and Delta and Continental. There's lots of girls, as well as boys. There's lots and lots and lots of them.

MAYER: In her later years, Ms. Johnson used a wheelchair or a walker to make the journey from the airport terminal to her plane. She perfected the delicate maneuver of lifting herself from the tarmac up to the wing strut and into the copilot seat of a Cessna 150, tail number November 704 Yankee Echo. Once in that seat, Ms. Johnson was as nimble and muscular with the flight controls as any fighter pilot.

I flew with her on Christmas Eve 2004 and she wasn't shy about reminding me that she could still command that plane through every phase of flight. We departed off of runway 23, climbing to 4,000 feet under a canopy of smooth, gray clouds. Brown farmland faded beneath us. The snowcapped Smokey Mountains rose up on our left to meet the clouds.

Knoxville approach vectored us to Downtown Island Airport. Ms. Johnson took her first flight lesson there on October 1, 1944. During a quiet moment on that frequency, an FAA supervisor called us up on the radio. Cessna four Yankee Echo, Knoxville approach. Is Ms. Johnson onboard? I replied that she was and the air traffic controller asked her how many flight hours she had. She clicked on the radio without missing a beat and answered, 57,597 and a half. The controller was impressed.

Another pilot flying around out there between the mountains and the clouds got on the frequency to add his own tribute. Ms. Johnson signed me off 30 years ago, he said to anyone who was listening. She responded with a chuckle. I can't believe you're still flying. He answered back, Merry Christmas. We love you, dear.

Scott Simon interviewed Ms. Johnson in 2003, the centennial of powered flight. He asked her if she thought she might live to be 100.

JOHNSON: Well, of course, I've thought about it. I'd like to be. I'd like to live to be 100. Here's what I'd like. Willard Scott is telling about me being 100 years old, but I wouldn't hear him because I'd be out flying.


MAYER: Wherever she is today, Evelyn Johnson is probably sitting in the right seat of a two-seat airplane. She is gently encouraging a nervous student pilot while she steals a few peeks out the window at the beautiful world below.


BLOCK: Evelyn Johnson died yesterday in Tennessee. She was 102. Charlie Mayer is director of operations here at NPR News.



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