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Last month I happened to catch the tail end of a National Public Radio piece on Evelyn Bryan Johnson, a record-setting pilot who had died a few days before, at the age of 102. I had never heard of Johnson, but her story is an inspiring one. It’s not an adventurous yarn of success against all odds (except perhaps her long journey by train, bus, and rowboat to her first flying lesson). It’s a more straight-forward tale of a woman discovering what she loved to do in life early on, and consistently doing it day after day for more than 60 years.

Evelyn Johnson

Evelyn Bryan Johnson in 2007 at Moore-Murrell Field in Morristown, Tennessee. When she stopped flying at the age of 96, she had logged 57,635.4 hours--mostly as a flight instructor. (Photograph by Chad Greene.)

If you’ve ever thought that flight instructing is just a way to build time, you may think differently after hearing Evelyn’s story. Born in 1909 (just six years after the Wright Brothers first flew), she grew up along with aviation. She soloed in 1944, got her Private ticket in 1945, and received her Commercial Pilot’s license in 1946. She became a flight instructor in 1947, became a Designated FAA Examiner in 1952, and was Flight Instructor of the Year in 1979. She was inducted into the Women in Aviation Pioneers Hall of Fame, the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, the Kentucky and Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame, and the National Aviation Hall of Fame. That’s a lot of notoriety for a flight instructor working at a small airport in Tennessee.

Over the years Evelyn experienced two engine failures, a fire in the air, and a valve issue over a hilly part of Texas. But she never crashed an airplane. When she stopped flying in 2005 at the age of 96, it was only because a car accident forced doctors to amputate her leg. She wanted to keep flying, but couldn’t. “It’s not the flying that’s the problem,” she told USA Today in 2007, “It’s getting this prosthesis into the small planes … I’m a workin’ on it.”

By the time she tied down a plane for the last time, she had logged 57,635.4 hours, or more than 6 1/2 years in the cockpit–more than any other living pilot at the time. Along the way she taught more than 3,000 students, and administered more than 9,000 checkrides. Even after she stopped flying, she had no desire to leave aviation behind. She continued to manage Moore-Murrell Airport (KMOR) in Morristown, Tennessee for many years.

In a tribute to Evelyn on JetWhine.com, Scott Spangler eloquently summed up her career (and the career of William K. Kershner) like this:

“What set these historic teachers of flight apart from the rest was a fundamental tenet of education that seems missing today. At its core, education, aviation or otherwise, really isn’t about curricula or technology. What matters most is the personal, human connection between teacher and student, united in a shared passion for learning. And that the best teachers are really still students who eagerly share what they’ve learned with others.”

We’ll be covering flight instruction as a career here on Oddball Pilot in the future. For now, I encourage you to take the time to watch, listen, and read some of the interviews with Evelyn Johnson that I’ve come across. She might get you thinking about flight instruction in a different way. We wish we could have interviewed her ourselves.

Interviews

Flying with Miss Evelyn: Aloft with ‘Mama Bird,’ the World’s Senior Flight Instructor
Audio interview with Scott Simon on National Public Radio ( 2003)

Timeless Voices – Evelyn Bryan Johnson
EAA video of Evelyn giving a talk to kids at the Tennessee Museum of Aviation (2003)

Evelyn Bryan Johnson
Text of a great interview with Joe Godfrey on Avweb.com (1999)

TapTV interviews aviation legend Evelyn Bryan Johnson
Video interview on Trade-A-Plane TV (2011)

Retrospectives

‘Mama Bird’ Evelyn Johnson Dies At 102; Logged 7 Years Of Flight Time
Audio retrospective on National Public Radio (2012)

Evelyn B. Johnson, Pilot and Instructor, Dies at 102
Obituary in The New York Times (2012)

Evelyn “Mama Bird” Johnson dies at age 102
TV retrospective on WBIR TV (2012)

Evelyn Bryan Johnson
Biography on The National Aviation Hall of Fame site (2007, 2012)

“Love at first flight” for record holder, 98
Profile by Leon Alligood in USA Today (2007)

Evelyn Bryan Johnson
Profile on AvStop.com

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One Response to “Interview: Evelyn Johnson, Flight Instructor”

  1. Jeremy says:

    Really enjoyed the NPR audio retrospective with Evelyn Johnson.

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