Evelyn Bryan Johnson dies; ‘Mama Bird’ was a prolific pilot

Correction: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly described one of Mrs. Johnson’s flight students putting an aircraft’s engine “into stalls” as part of a license exam. An engine is not put into stalls. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, a stall is “a loss of lift and increase in drag that occurs when an aircraft is flown at an angle of attack greater than the angle for maximum lift.”

In this March 7, 2005, file photo, Evelyn "Mama Bird" Johnson, 95, poses by a plane at Moore-Murrell Airport in Morristown, Tenn. (Wade Payne/AP)

Evelyn Bryan Johnson liked to tell people that she and the sky fell in “love at first flight.”

Their romance began during World War II, when Mrs. Johnson’s husband was serving in the Army Air Forces and she was holding down their dry cleaning business in Jefferson City, Tenn. She was lonely and looking for a hobby when a newspaper advertisement caught her attention. “Learn to fly,” the promotion said.

“Well, I believe I will,” Mrs. Johnson recalled thinking.

She enrolled in flight lessons, flew solo for the first time on Nov. 8, 1944, in a Piper J-3 Cub, and earned her private pilot’s license the next year. Then she was off. Over the next six decades, she learned to fly seaplanes, multi-engine aircraft and helicopters. She logged 57,635 hours in the air — more than any other woman in history.

Mrs. Johnson was 102 when she died on May 10 of undisclosed causes at an assisted living facility in Jefferson City. Britt Farr, a representative of the local funeral home that handled arrangements, confirmed her death.

In 2007, Mrs. Johnson was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Ohio, whose members also include the Wright brothers, astronauts Neil Armstrong and John Glenn and test pilot Chuck Yeager.

Only the late Ed Long, an Alabama man who inspected power lines from a low-flying plane, logged more flight hours than Mrs. Johnson. Long spent the equivalent of seven years aloft; Mrs. Johnson could claim about six and a half.

In that time, she traveled a reported 5.5 million miles — a distance equal to about a dozen round-trip flights to the moon. She flew in five Powder Puff Derbies, the old coast-to-coast races for female pilots, and raced from Washington to Havana in 1955.

But mostly she flew over the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, where she managed a small airport in Morristown well past her 90th birthday, ran a tourist and transport flight service for decades and worked as a Federal Aviation Administration examiner. She also sold Cessna planes and taught, by her count, 5,000 flight students. Many of them referred to the 5-foot Mrs. Johnson as “Mama Bird.”

One student was former senator Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.).

“When we got to the stall series” — when the plane was deliberately put into stalls — “he said, ‘This airplane wasn’t made for stalls,’ ” she once told an interviewer, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel. She told him “he’d just have to get along without his private pilot’s license.”

(The senator did the stalls.)

Only in her mid-90s — after glaucoma diminished her eyesight and a car wreck left her without part of her left leg — did she stop flying.

“I’ll say it to everybody, even the ACLU,” she told National Public Radio in 2003. “I don’t see how anybody can be up in the air and see this world and not believe in God.”

Evelyn Elizabeth Stone was born Nov. 4, 1909, in Corbin, Ky., and grew up in Tennessee, where her father was a railroad conductor.

She graduated in 1929 from Tennessee Wesleyan College in Athens and several years later received an English degree from the University of Tennessee, where she met her first husband, W.J. Bryan. They opened their dry cleaning business during the Depression.

Bryan died in 1963 after 32 years of marriage. Mrs. Johnson’s second husband, Morgan Johnson, died in 1977 after 12 years of marriage. A stepson from her second marriage, Morgan Johnson Jr., died in 2001. Survivors include two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Her first husband, Mrs. Johnson once recalled, had enlisted after Pearl Harbor and was assigned to the laundry detail at a Florida air base.

“He started in to fly but ended up washing clothes,” she told the Associated Press in 2005. “I was washing clothes and ended up flying.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.


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