Tuesday, April 12, 2016

J is for Evelyn Bryan Johnson - Pioneer Women in Aviation: A-Z Challenge

(2005) Evelyn Bryan Johnson at age 95 (1909-2012)

In 2012, the world lost a pioneer legend in aviation, Evelyn Bryan Johnson. Her students called her "Mama Bird," who quite rightly deserved the designation. Evelyn ruled the skies.

At the time of her death, Evelyn held a Guinness World Record for the most flight time of any woman in the world. Having logged 57,635 hours, she had also traveled 5.5 million miles! She also held a record as the oldest flight instructor in the world. Evelyn retired in 2006 at the age of 97, but only because her vision was failing and she had lost a leg in a car accident. She lived to be 102.

The eldest of three children, Evelyn was born in Corbin, Kentucky, and moved to Tennessee at age five when the family relocated. Excelling in school, Evelyn attended Tennessee’s Wesleyan College on a scholarship and taught school for two years upon graduation in 1929. Enrolling at the University of Tennessee two years later, she met her husband Wyatt Bryan, marrying in 1931. They bought a dry cleaning business in Jefferson City, TN in 1933, towards the end of the Great Depression, and life appeared to be on course for the young couple.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, however, Wyatt joined the Army Air Corps and headed for flight school, leaving Evelyn to tend the business alone. Eighteen-hour days
were typical running the business. It was on one such day in 1944 that Evelyn, feeling a bit "bored" and yearning for a "hobby," saw an ad on the front page of the local newspaper. “Learn to Fly,” the ad read. Evelyn decided to treat herself to a lesson. Traveling from Jefferson City, Evelyn took a train and bus to Knoxville (TN), and walked a quarter of a mile to the river, where a rowboat took her across to Island Airport. There Evelyn took her first lesson. “It was love at first flight,” she later told anyone who asked. Ironically, Wyatt never flew for the military (his flight training was cancelled). It was Evelyn who would become the pilot.

Six months later, Evelyn soloed in a Piper J3Cub, earning her pilot's license in 1945. Evelyn told the story that shortly after receiving her license, she was flying about enjoying herself, when she decided to practice some stalls (a procedure all pilots learn). Suddenly the engine quit and the plane fell out of the sky. Forced to make an emergency landing in a field, Evelyn learned that all she really had to do “was fly the plane.” She gained a new level of confidence that day. Later asked about other emergencies she'd experienced in the air, Evelyn could only think of two or three.

Evelyn received her commercial certification in 1946 and flight instructor rating in 1947. Certification as a FAA examiner followed in 1952. Evelyn claimed, “I got lucky.” Two flight instructors had decided to quit and Evelyn was immediately hired. Aviation careers in transport and with commercial lines were not available to women yet, but given a choice, Evelyn claimed she only would have been interested in teaching people how to fly.

Evelyn became the founding member of the Morristown, Tennessee Civil Air Patrol squadron in 1947, a search and rescue operation within the state. She joined the Ninety Nines as well, an international organization of female pilots started by Amelia Earhart. Entering a number of air races too, among them the Powder Puff Derby, Evelyn thoroughly enjoyed her new occupation. Flying was "both my job and my hobby,she said.

Evelyn was one of the first female pilots to fly a helicopter
She became an instructor in 1958.

Other esteemed awards and achievements:
-FAA Flight Instructor of the Year in 1979
-Induction in:
Women in Aviation Pioneers Hall of Fame
National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame
Kentucky Aviation hall of Fame
Tennessee Aviation hall Fame

Evelyn owned Morristown Flying Service for 33 years (the dry cleaning business sold) and helped finance airport improvements throughout her state while on the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission. Outliving two husbands (she married Morgan Johnson in 1965), Evelyn led a full life devoted to aviation, and estimated she had instructed over 5000 students (she stopped counting after 3000). She had given over 9000 check rides as well, which is the final FAA flight test all pilots must satisfy to obtain a license.

Asked by a junior high student during a 2003 talk at Tennessee's Museum of Aviation, what advice she would give kids who are interested in flying, Evelyn could only think of one thing. “Don’t let anybody tell you, you can’t.”

Interview of Evelyn Johnson at 85 

http://www.eaavideo.org/video.aspx?v=1634355572001 (Timeless Voices – Evelyn Bryan Johnson; Tennessee Museum of Aviation; a live talk in 2003 by Evelyn given to group of 6th, 7th and 8th graders); http://articles.latimes.com/2012/may/21/local/la-me-evelyn-bryan-johnson-20120521; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evelyn_Bryan_Johnson; http://www.nationalaviation.org/johnson-evelyn/; https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/evelyn-bryan-johnson-dies-mama-bird-was-a-prolific-pilot/2012/05/13/gIQAFrVFNU_story.html; http://oddballpilot.com/2012/06/interview-evelyn-johnson-flight-instructor/; http://www.avweb.com/news/profiles/182968-1.html

Sharon M. Himsl
Published: Evernight Teen 


  1. This was some remarkable lady. Thanks for a wonderful read.

  2. I loved learning about Evelyn. She makes me want to learn to fly.
    Mary at Play off the Page

    1. Funny you should mention that. Just yesterday I told my husband the same thing. Never thought I'd say that!

  3. Another intrepid woman aviator! I love her quote. Can't just can't be in your vocabulary.

    1. Oh yes. And she had a 'cool' practical head about her. You see that in the video. Love that.

  4. She's a hoot! I love her strength and style. She had the right genes and the right attitude to live to be 102 I watched the video and she would have been great to meet.

    1. So glad you got to see the video. She makes you think you can do anything you set your mind to! Thanks Birgit.

  5. Bryan Johnson is also new to me. 5,000 students is more than impressive.

    1. A very inspiring record! Oh to be even half as productive!

  6. What a long life and career she had! Amazing she could be a flight instructor until the age of 97%


  7. Fascinating account of a fascinating woman!

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  8. What a jewel of a gal! Love at first flight! Teaching until she was 97! 5.5 million miles? Thanks Sharon, did you ever meet her?

    1. No. Wish I had met her! Really like this pilot :)

  9. What a story. And what a long life. Thanks for telling me about her.

  10. Great article. And good to know not all pioneering pilots died young :-)

    The Old Shelter - Jazz Age Jazz

    1. Hi Sarah. Thank you! Her story is one of my favorites. She lived into our time...truly amazing. Wish I could have met her.


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You could call me an eternal optimist, but I'm really just a dreamer. l believe in dream fulfillment, because 'sometimes' dreams come true. This is a blog about my journey as a writer and things that inspire and motivate me.