Female Aviator Soars over Others

Hometown Heroes, People
on January 8, 2006

When Evelyn Johnson’s husband enlisted in the Air Force during World War II, the Tennessee woman decided she’d get a hobby to ease her mind. Picking up the Sunday newspaper, Johnson saw an ad that sent her soaring.

“It was just a little notice about learning how to fly,” Johnson says. “I had never in my life thought about flying. But I decided that I believe I will.”

That was in 1944. Now 96, the aviation legend still has her heart in the clouds. She has logged more flight hours than any other woman in the world—57,630—and taught more than 5,000 aspiring pilots how to fly. She’s also certified about 9,000 pilots for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and has managed the Moore-Murrell Airport in Morristown, Tenn. (pop. 24,965), since she opened it in 1953.

“Oh, honey, it’s a whole different world up there,” Johnson says. “You leave your problems behind, even if only for a little while.”

In an era when women pilots were a rarity, the barely 5-foot-tall woman says she never worried about handling any airplane. Dubbed “Mama Bird” by one of her students, she has flown a variety of aircraft, from single-engine airplanes to commercial seaplanes and helicopters. She has had several “close calls”—two complete engine failures and an onboard fire while airborne—but has never crashed. In 1958, she won a Carnegie Foundation award for saving the life of a helicopter pilot who crashed during takeoff at the Morristown airport. Crawling into the wreckage, Johnson turned off the engine, stopped the spinning blades, sprayed it down with a fire extinguisher and helped pull out the pilot.

Although Johnson never had children, the aviation pioneer has left her mark on younger generations. Adele McDonald, a pilot since 1987, acknowledges that Johnson not only taught her how to become a pilot but “helped pave the way for women” in a primarily male-dominated profession. “She is my greatest mentor and role model, as a pilot and as a person,” says McDonald, 53, who works as a corporate contract pilot based in Newport, Tenn. (pop. 7,242).

Robert Klepper, 70, of Jefferson City, Tenn. (pop. 55,469), shares McDonald’s admiration for Johnson. “I’m proud to be one of her flock,” he says. “She taught me how to fly and I spent 33 years as a pilot before I retired in 1991.”

A tough instructor, Johnson always has been adamant about flight safety. “She made sure you knew what to do in case of engine failure,” Klepper says. “In fact, you never knew when she was going to reach over, pull the throttle back to idle and ask where you were going to put the plane down.”

Mama Bird wanted to be sure her little flyers were able to land safely in any situation, Klepper says. “No matter where you were, you learned to keep an eye out for some place to land in case of an emergency,” he says. “We would get just about close enough to touch the grass and then she would give you the throttle back. A lot of livestock and cows were continually on their toes when our airplane was around their pastures.”

Born in Corbin, Ky. (pop. 7,742), Johnson has awards, citations and mementos galore, as well as a listing in the Guinness Book of Records for most hours in the air by a female pilot. She also has been inducted into the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame and the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame.

“She is the epitome of aviation and no one has touched more lives in a positive way with aviation than Evelyn Johnson,” says Bob Minter, founder and director of the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame in Sevierville, Tenn. (pop. 11,757). “She is a teacher of all teachers and an unbelievably extraordinary woman. She is truly a beloved woman.”

Diagnosed with glaucoma, Johnson still flies, but no longer solo, and she has no plans to stop soaring among the clouds. “My first flying lesson was October 1, 1944, and I fell in love with it from the start,” she says. “It is so awesome that I don’t know how anybody could be up there looking down at this beautiful world and not be thankful to God.”