Evelyn Johnson, 102, held Guinness aviation record

MORRISTOWN, Tenn. — Pioneering female pilot and Guinness world record holder Evelyn Bryan Johnson, known as “Mama Bird,” died Thursday, according to a funeral home. She was 102.

Bryan started flying in 1944 and went on to run her own flying service and manage a small-town airport. The Farrar Funeral Home in Jefferson City said the Morristown resident died Thursday.

“I don’t care how many problems you have down on the ground, you forget about them (while flying),” the bright-eyed and barely 5-foot-tall woman known to her students and colleagues as Mama Bird or Miss Evelyn said in 2005.

Bryan was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2007 after flying for 55 years and spending the equivalent of seven years in the air. She was estimated to have flown about 5.5 million miles — equal to 23 trips to the moon — and never had a crash despite her share of mechanical troubles in the sky.

She held the Guinness Book of World Records certificate for most hours in the air for a female pilot. She was also one of the first female helicopter pilots.

Her office at Morristown’s Moore-Murrell Airport, some 45 miles northeast of Knoxville, was filled with awards, citations and mementos. At 95, she was still managing the airport she had run since 1953, where she had taught more than 3,000 student pilots and certified more than 9,000 pilots for the Federal Aviation Administration.

She was also a member of the Flight Instructor Hall of Fame at Oshkosh, Wis., the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame — she was a Corbin, Ky., native — and the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame.

She taught public school for two years before meeting W.J. Bryan while attending the University of Tennessee in the 1930s, where she earned an English degree. They married and moved to Jefferson City near Morristown to start a dry-cleaning business.

When World War II came, Bryan hoped to learn how to fly in the service. He landed at an air base in Florida in charge of laundry.

“He started in to fly but ended up washing clothes. I was washing clothes and ended up flying,” Evelyn said in 2005.

Her joy became her work. Both Bryan, who died in 1963, and her second husband, Morgan Johnson, who died in 1977, became pilots. She operated a flying service for 20 years, mostly to train pilots but also to ferry sightseers, passengers and cargo around the country and once to South America. She never crashed.

“(I) had two complete engine failures, didn’t scratch either airplane,” she said. “Had a fire in the air, but got it down safely. I had a Navaho (airplane) swallow a valve down in the wooly part of Texas where there was nothing around but knotty little hills, and was able to get back 22 miles to an airport. And the minute it touched down it quit.”

Information from: The Knoxville News Sentinel.

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