Evelyn Bryan Johnson was born Evelyn Stone on November 4, 1909 in Corbin, Kentucky. She graduated with honors from Tennessee Wesleyan College and later attended the University of Tennessee where she met and married Wyatt Jennings Bryan. In 1944, while living in Jefferson City, Tennessee, with W. J. serving in the Air Corps, an ad in the paper for flying lessons in nearby Knoxville caught her eye. It was love at first flight. She soloed about a month later, got her instructor's rating in 1947 and since then she's trained thousands of students, given thousands of flight exams, and logged over 56,600 flight hours. That's not a typo.
"Mama Bird" has won over thirty awards and acknowledgements. She was in the first group of three inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame. She won the Carnegie Award in 1959. In 1969 she earned her Silver Wings. In 1974 she was Flight Instructor of the Year for the Nashville FSDO. Five years later she was National Flight Instructor of the Year. Five years after that she was Safety Counselor of the Year. In 1989 she was honored by the Piedmont Pioneers, a group of Piedmont Airline pilots that included many former students and examinees. In 1991 she joined the UFOs—United Flying Octogenarians—which is a group of pilots in their 80s that are still flying. In November she'll celebrate her 90th birthday and she's going as strong as ever, giving a lesson or flight exam almost every single day.
How did you wind up in a rowboat to get to your first flight lesson?
I took a train from Jefferson City to Knoxville. The ticket cost twenty five cents. Then I took a bus to the end of the line. That cost a dime. Then I walked about a quarter of a mile down the road, and rode in a rowboat over to Island Airport. I did that for about six months until the instructor left, then I took lessons at McGhee-Tyson. My first lesson was October 1, 1944. I soloed on November 8, 1944 in a Piper J3 Cub. No lights, no starter, no radio. I had the eight hours of dual which was the minimum then and the CFI got out. I'm glad nothing happened because I really didn't know a lot at that time.
Your home field in Morristown, Tennessee is named for M. M. Murrell. How close did he come to building the first flying machine back in 1877?
His airplane was people-powered, no motor or engine. The story is that he didn't fly it but one of the men that worked for him did. It didn't perform exactly the way Mr. Murrell wanted it to and he got discouraged, then all of a sudden he quit the project and became a preacher. It's possible that if he had continued he might have done real well with it and maybe even have beat the Wright Brothers. Some of the pieces of the original machine are downtown in a museum, and one of the local teachers has built a replica that's also in the museum.
Do you have any record of how many students you've taught over all these years?
I quit adding up the students that I've soloed when it got to about three thousand, and that was a long time ago. I do keep records of the flight tests I've given and that number is up over nine thousand now. Most of my time is flight tests. I have about five students and that's about all I want right now because I've been the airport manager at Morristown for forty-five years and that keeps me real busy. I have at least four flight tests a week and sometimes one every day, so five students is about all I can handle.
Who are some of your more colorful students?
I had one seventeen year-old boy going all over town telling everybody he could fly as good as I could if I'd just get out of that airplane. Of course I wasn't going to get out until I was convinced he'd be okay by himself. So one day we taxied out and I asked him to stop the airplane and I said "I want you be careful and take it around the field by yourself and give me a real good landing." I was unbuckling my belt to get out and I heard a noise and he's standing there next to the airplane saying "No sir. I'm not going to fly this thing by myself! There's too many things that can happen." He wasn't ready to solo that day, but a few days later he was, and I still see him every now and then.
I had an elderly man whose son was a military pilot that had been killed in Korea. I had trained his son and had him almost through his private license when he went off to the military. The man used to need to catch an airline in Knoxville and he wanted me to be the pilot to take him there. We were flying down there one day, running a little late, and he was talking about the stress of losing his son and dealing with his daughter-in-law and their kids and he'd lost a lot of weight trying to handle all this. When we got there the plane was just about ready so I pulled right up in front of it. You could do that back then, you could never do that now. This fellow jumped out to get his luggage and started running for the plane. He had lost so much weight that as he ran around the front of the airplane his pants fell clear to the ground. This was in front of the tower and the terminal and the passengers on the airplane. He stopped, put down his luggage, pulled up his pants, picked up his luggage and boarded the airplane. I've often wondered what the people in the tower were thinking.
Was Senator Howard Baker one of your students?
I didn't teach him, but I did give his private pilot flight test. We were flying a Beech Debonair and when we got to the stall series he said, "This airplane wasn't made for stalls." I told him that if we didn't do them he'd just have to get along without his private pilot's license. He did them. He has told that story in Congress and it's in the Congressional Record.
I taught two vice presidents of Piedmont Airlines. Gene Sharp worked here at Morristown for a long time before going to Piedmont as a pilot. He's a fine person and a good worker and it didn't take long before they recognized that and promoted him to vice president in charge of airline operations. When Piedmont became part of U. S. Airways Gene kept his title as vice president in charge of airline operations. Gene retired about three years ago.
I also taught Greg Gibson. He learned to fly here and got a job flying for Piedmont and about a year ago became vice president in charge of airline operations.
Did you ever have a student you couldn't teach?
I've run across a few. I was kind of glad they decided to quit. I was beginning to think I might not be able to teach them. But that's very few, maybe two or three. I think that if they had hung in there they probably would have got it eventually. It takes some people longer than others, but in general almost anybody can learn how to fly.
I had one student a long time ago and I said "If I get two like him I would quit instructing." But later he turned out to be a pretty good pilot.
What does it take to be a good pilot?
Concentration. Study. Effort. Dedication. Once you make up your mind that you're going to do this, you've got to stick with it. You can do almost anything if you just stick with it long enough.
Can you tell from the first lesson if the student has talent?
In the first lesson they're just hanging on, sitting there doing what I tell them to do. But after the first few hours you can tell who's going to be real good at it. You know when they start asking the proper questions and studying a lot.
I'm an initial flight instructor examiner, too, and in the books they say "Don't ask the students questions or don't ask the students if they have a question." Well, I don't agree with that because if they won't ask me some questions I won't know what they're wondering about. But if they don't ask, then I'll start asking "what made that airplane stall?" Then they've got to start talking and I can bring them out and see what they're interested in and what they need to learn.
What's your favorite airplane for primary flight instruction?
I like them all, but I like the Cessnas because you need good rudder control. In some of the other airplanes rudder control isn't so important and I worry about people that learn in one of those. When they transition to an airplane that does need good rudder control is when they can get into trouble. Seems like I'm always hearing about people ground looping or losing directional control because they didn't have good rudder control.
Do you have a favorite book or video to recommend to students studying for the private certificate?
Rod Machado's and Barry Schiff's books are all good. Bill Kershner is a friend of mine so I know more about his books, but they're all good. I use both the King Schools and Sporty's videos.
What's the most common reason for pink-slipping an examinee?
I find that many private pilot applicants cannot use a map. The radios and navigation systems are great but they can quit working and the map is right there to help you stay on course.
Give us some highlights of your 56,600 hours. Any students ever freeze up on you? Any emergencies?
I've never had a student freeze up but I've had two complete engine failures, a fire in the air, another airplane swallow a valve over the wooly part of Texas where there wasn't anything but hills around. One time on a night takeoff here at Morristown the RPMs went to 1,100 which was just two hundred above idle, about three hundred feet off the departure end. I got on the ground safely with all of the emergencies so far.
Do you still fly for the Civil Air Patrol?
1947 is when we organized a CAP group here at Morristown. East Tennessee has a lot of mountains and we did a lot of search and rescue around here. Not so much anymore, but in the past people would come down here from the flat country and run into a hill and we'd go try and find them. We haven't had to do so much lately, thank goodness, but there's still an active CAP group here. I don't have the time to go fly searches anymore, plus I don't have an airplane to do it. This is the first time in fifty years that I haven't owned an airplane.
Which airplanes have you owned and flown?
For nineteen years I was a Cessna dealer, so I flew and sold just about everything they made. My first airplane was an Aeronca Champ. Then a Great Lakes. Then a Piper Pacer. Then I ferried a Tri-Pacer to South America. Until then I didn't want that big old wheel up front slowing me down but the tricycle gear was so much better in crosswinds I couldn't wait to get home and trade the Pacer for a Tri-Pacer. I had a PA-14 which you don't see too many of. They called that the "Family Cruiser," then I had a "Super Cruiser" too. After that I owned a Cessna 172, two different Bonanzas, and as a Cessna dealer I had a string of 172s, 182s, 206s, and 310s. My last two airplanes were a 172 and a 150. I had sold the 150 to a fellow from Georgia and when he moved to Colorado he thought he should get something bigger to handle the mountains. So I bought it back from him. I sold both the 172 and the 150 to the flight school here so now I get a chance to fly them with students. Back when I owned them I was usually too busy in the flight school planes to fly them.
Your South America trip sounds like an adventure. Do you have a favorite place you've flown to?
I used to race in the Powder Puff Derby so I've flown to California five times. Back in those days we went from coast to coast. We'd go from the west to the east, but sometimes we'd switch it around and go from east to west. I enjoyed those trips a lot. From here in Morristown I used to go to Florida a lot. I did a lot of charter work in both Bonanzas and the 206 and I just enjoyed going anywhere people needed to go.
A lot of folks went up north after the war for the jobs up there, and it seemed like I was always going to Detroit to pick up bodies and bring them back here to be buried. I did some air ambulance work, too.
What innovations have changed aviation the most?
The tricycle gear allowed some older people to have more confidence in crosswind situations. It's just so much easier to land without the fear of ground-looping. The VOR system was important because before that we just had the four-course range for naviagation. VORs allowed people to feel more confident about going farther from home so you could plan a trip and fly it. I think both of those things did a lot to enhance aviation.
Do you feel the same way about GPS?
I don't have a GPS. There's a LORAN in the 150 that I fly, but what bothers me about GPS is there's no backup for it. They're claiming all we need is those satellites but I remember not too long ago when a satellite went down and everybody lost their pagers and phones. I wonder what's going to happen to aviation if we're that dependent on GPS alone. Sooner or later all mechanical things made by man are going to fail, so the problem isn't so much GPS itself as cutting out all the backup systems, which is what they're talking about doing.
NOTE: The Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University just published a study on the integrity and accuracy of a stand-alone GPS system. Warning: it's a 2.1MB .pdf file that you have to download to read.
You've seen a lot of changes at the FAA. What are they doing that they shouldn't be doing and what should they be doing that they aren't?
User fees would really tear down general aviation. Generally I think the FAA does a pretty good job, but not when they decide that everybody needs to give them more money. We're already paying fuel taxes and sales taxes into the Aviation Trust Fund which they keep using to pay other things, then they decide that they need user fees on top of that. I hope that doesn't occur.
I served on the Womens Advisory Committee on Aviation and twice a year we would go to Washington to meet with the FAA Administrator. They took up some of our suggestions which made us feel pretty good. We felt like we knew what was going on inside the FAA back then, but not now.
You mentioned a few of your male students. How many of your students were women?
Not many, maybe five percent. I trained a lady that flies for American Airlines and several more that fly for freight companies and check haulers. I think the low percentage isn't because women couldn't do it, I just don't think they were that interested. If the airlines had been hiring women pilots when I came along I don't think I would have been interested in doing that. I was more interested in teaching people to fly.
You've received so many awards and acknowledgements. Which are you the proudest of?
The Carnegie Hero Award was one of the first. Being Flight Instructor of the Year both here in Tennessee and Nationally was quite a thrill. The National Aeronatics Association gave me the Elder Statesman Award in 1993. In 1994 I was inducted into the Women In Aviation Pioneers Hall of Fame and received an Award of Merit from the Ninety-Nines.
The home folks don't usually pay attention to you but the Hamblen Womens Hall of Fame is women that they consider to be good role models for young girls and I'm real proud of getting an award at home. And of course, being in the first group of three in the Flight Instructor Hall of Fame was an honor. That was at the EAA Museum in Oshkosh at AirVenture '97.
We all want to be flying when we're 90. What's the secret of a long, productive life?
Don't sit down and watch the grass grow. Stay busy. Have something that you have to get up and do every day. Anybody that can move around at all can get interested in something and stick with it.
Who gave you the nickname "Mama Bird?"
Fran Davis is one my students. One year she sent me a Mother's Day card which was funny because she's almost as old as I am. But she sent it to me because the way I looked after my students reminded her of a mama bird looking after the baby birds.
Read Michael Maya Charles's column on the checkride "rite of passage" "As the Beacon Turns #12: Sarah's Big Day."