page contents

Mama Bird: Record-breaking female pilot

Mama Bird: Record-breaking female pilot

Evelyn Stone Bryan Johnson, nicknamed “Mama Bird,” was the female pilot with the most number of flying hours in the world. She was a colonel in the Civil Air Patrol and a founding member of the Morristown, Tennessee Civil Air Patrol squadron.

When Evelyn’s first husband, W. J. Bryan, enlisted in the Army in 1941, she decided to take up flying as a hobby. To get to her first flight lesson, she had to take a train and a bus, walk a quarter-mile, and then row to the airport, because a bridge had not yet been built to reach it.

Her first solo flight took place on November 8, 1944, and she received a private license in 1945 and a commercial certificate in 1946. She became a flight instructor in 1947. She taught 5,000 student pilots before she stopped counting and certified more than 9,000 for the Federal Aviation Administration. Learning how to fly from her were future pilots of jetliners and cargo planes, future airline executives, and former Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee.

Over the years, she sold Cessna airplanes, wrote about aviation for trade papers, participated in airplane races to Havana and across America, and became one of the first women to get a helicopter license. As a pilot of many kinds of aircraft, including a jet, she never crashed, maneuvering out of engine failures twice and a fire once.

At the age of 92, Evelyn was the oldest flight instructor in the world, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and she continued to teach for 3 more years. Born just 6 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903, she flew 5.5 million miles – the equivalent of 23 trips to the moon – and more than 57,634.4 hours – the equivalent of 6.5 years aloft.

Evelyn’s flying career came to an end when glaucoma and the loss of a leg due to an automobile accident caused her to put on her air brakes. She said in an interview with USA Today, “It’s not the flying that’s the problem. It’s getting the prosthesis into the small planes. I’m working on it.” She last flew a plane in 2005.

Mama Bird’s contributions to general aviation go beyond flying and flight instruction. She owned a fixed-base operation – Morristown Flying Service – for 33 years, and she celebrated 54 years of service at Moore-Murrell Field in Morristown, Tennessee. For 19 years, Johnson was a Cessna dealer, so she flew and sold just about everything Cessna made. She owned many airplanes, ranging from an Aeronca Champ to the Super Cruiser.

Johnson served on the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission for 18 years and was chairman for 4 of those years. She helped allocate state and FAA block grant funds for airport improvement projects throughout the state.

In 2006, when asked when she planned on retiring, her response was: “When I get old enough. I’m only 97 years old.” She continued to manage a local airport beyond the age of 100.

Mama Bird was born on November 4, 1909 in Corbin, Kentucky, and died at the age of 102 on May 10, 2012 in Morristown, Tennessee. She survived both of her husbands, married to Wyatt Jennings Bryan from 1931–1963 and to Morgan Johnson from 1965–1977.

Only one man has surpassed Evelyn’s record of hours flown – Ed Long, an Alabamian, who had racked up more than 64,000 hours of flight time. Rumor has it that one of Mr. Long’s last statements was, “Don’t let that woman beat me.”