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'Mama Bird' Evelyn Johnson Dies At 102; Logged 7 Years Of Flight Time
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'Mama Bird' Evelyn Johnson Dies At 102; Logged 7 Years Of Flight Time



An accomplished American aviator has died. Evelyn Bryan Johnson logged more flight hours than any woman in history. She died yesterday at age 102. NPR's Charlie Mayer, also a pilot, has this appreciation.

CHARLIE MAYER, BYLINE: I first met Evelyn Johnson on her 94th birthday in 2003. I visited her at the airport in Morristown, Tennessee with NPR's Scott Simon.

SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: In Morristown, Tennessee, the local flight instructor is 94 years old.

EVELYN JOHNSON: (Unintelligible) taking off runway 23.

SIMON: Evelyn Bryan Johnson loves to fly and believes it's good for what ails you.

JOHNSON: You forget about your problems while you're up. You've still got them, but that doesn't matter. You've had a little rest from them.

MAYER: Decades ago, one of Evelyn Johnson's students gave her the nickname, Mama Bird, and it stuck. By her own count, Mama Bird taught more than 5,000 people how to fly. As a designated pilot examiner for the FAA, she gave more than 9,000 flight tests.

Over the decades, she even trained her share of airline pilots.

JOHNSON: Oh, mercy, yes. Lots of them. Two of them turned out to be vice presidents of U.S. Air. One of them was a 30 year pilot for FedEx. One of the girls flies for American out of New York. Some of the other girls fly for United and Delta and Continental. There's lots of girls, as well as boys. There's lots and lots and lots of them.

MAYER: In her later years, Ms. Johnson used a wheelchair or a walker to make the journey from the airport terminal to her plane. She perfected the delicate maneuver of lifting herself from the tarmac up to the wing strut and into the copilot seat of a Cessna 150, tail number November 704 Yankee Echo. Once in that seat, Ms. Johnson was as nimble and muscular with the flight controls as any fighter pilot.

I flew with her on Christmas Eve 2004 and she wasn't shy about reminding me that she could still command that plane through every phase of flight. We departed off of runway 23, climbing to 4,000 feet under a canopy of smooth, gray clouds. Brown farmland faded beneath us. The snowcapped Smokey Mountains rose up on our left to meet the clouds.

Knoxville approach vectored us to Downtown Island Airport. Ms. Johnson took her first flight lesson there on October 1, 1944. During a quiet moment on that frequency, an FAA supervisor called us up on the radio. Cessna four Yankee Echo, Knoxville approach. Is Ms. Johnson onboard? I replied that she was and the air traffic controller asked her how many flight hours she had. She clicked on the radio without missing a beat and answered, 57,597 and a half. The controller was impressed.

Another pilot flying around out there between the mountains and the clouds got on the frequency to add his own tribute. Ms. Johnson signed me off 30 years ago, he said to anyone who was listening. She responded with a chuckle. I can't believe you're still flying. He answered back, Merry Christmas. We love you, dear.

Scott Simon interviewed Ms. Johnson in 2003, the centennial of powered flight. He asked her if she thought she might live to be 100.

JOHNSON: Well, of course, I've thought about it. I'd like to be. I'd like to live to be 100. Here's what I'd like. Willard Scott is telling about me being 100 years old, but I wouldn't hear him because I'd be out flying.


MAYER: Wherever she is today, Evelyn Johnson is probably sitting in the right seat of a two-seat airplane. She is gently encouraging a nervous student pilot while she steals a few peeks out the window at the beautiful world below.


BLOCK: Evelyn Johnson died yesterday in Tennessee. She was 102. Charlie Mayer is director of operations here at NPR News.



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