One never knows when life will take a dramatic turn or who may be the catalyst. October 25, 1997, was one such turning point in my life when I interviewed aviation legend Evelyn Bryan Johnson at a small town airport in Morristown, Tennessee. Evelyn probably never understood the impact her story made on me during our casual conversation. I’m not sure I did until years later. On May 10, 2012, Evelyn made her final flight at age 102. I’ve written an account below of how this legendary pilot known as Mama Bird gave me wings.
I was obtaining my masters in producing film and video and thought if only I had a good story, I know I can make a film. I recall shortly afterwards thinking that I should interview Evelyn Bryan Johnson, a legendary pilot in East Tennessee. I had often heard Evelyn ‘s name mentioned at the local airports where I accompanied my father and brothers. Even the hard to impress old school male pilots shook their head in wonder with the mention of Mama Bird’s impressive achievements. Her check rides were the stuff of legends. Senator Howard Baker, who flunked his first check ride with Evelyn, said “she’s the sweetest, kindest lady you would ever want to meet except when she’s doing a check ride. Then she’s a pure devil.”
Evelyn (Stone) was born in Corbin, Kentucky in 1909. After high school, she graduated with honors from Tennessee Wesleyan College in 1929. That same year, Evelyn saw her first airplane, an American Standard. She took a ride in the open cockpit plane and thought it was a “great adventure.”* Later she attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and graduated in 1932 with a degree in English. She married W.J. Bryan and they moved to Jefferson City, TN, where they established College Cleaners.
In 1944, Evelyn saw an ad in a local paper for flying lesson. George Prince, author of Mama Bird, Biography of Evelyn Bryan Johnson, A Flight Instructor wrote the following: ‘On Sunday, October 1, 1944, Evelyn got on the train in Jefferson City and went to Knoxville… From the Southern Railway Depot in Knoxville, she rode a city bus to the end of the line… From there, she walked about a mile along the river to a point opposite Island Airport. There was no bridge crossing the river. Mr. George Longfellow carried her across the river in a rowboat to take her first flying lesson. It was “love at first flight.”‘
Shortly afterwards, Evelyn’s career in aviation took off. She obtained her pilot’s license, flight instructor’s rating, sea plane rating, helicopter rating, helicopter instructor’s rating, flew in several air races and helped manage (and at one time owned) Morristown Flying Service in Morristown, TN. She flew in Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, San Juan, St. Thomas, Guadeloupe and the British West Indies. In 1968 she was promoted to Lt. Col. in the Civil Air Patrol and in 1979 the FAA awarded her Flight Instructor of the Year. In 1995 and 1996, Evelyn held the Guinness Book of Records for the most flying time for a woman, which was over 50,000 hours! She also continued to run the College Cleaners for four decades.
In the fall of 1997, my brother lived in Morristown, TN, approximately five miles from the airport where Mama Bird was a fixture. I took this as my opportunity to go to the airport and talk to Evelyn. Shy and insecure, I made my brother come with me in case I couldn’t make a connection with this legendary pilot. I need not have worried. Mama Bird was gracious and happy to talk. I sat in awe listening to her. I was astounded at how much she had accomplished in her life, her courage, and her bravery. At the time of my interview, she had 55,600 hours and was still flying at age 87!
As Mama Bird was talking, she happened to mention the women’s air races. She had flown in several of them in the fifties and sixties and was a timer in one as well. I knew nothing of women’s air races which surprised me since I attended air shows and hung out at general aviation airports on a regular basis. I asked Mama Bird a few questions about the races and how they began. She just casually mentioned how they had been going on for quite a while but as she talked, something just clicked inside of my gut and I KNEW that I had to learn more, that this was the story I had been looking for. Thus, my journey began.
I learned the first women’s national air derby took place in 1929 and that twenty women, including Amelia Earhart, competed in the race. I was completely shocked to discover so many women besides Amelia flew during that time period and just how accomplished they all were! It took ten years of researching the race (much of it before internet searches were available), make connections, write proposals and try to convince other people to produce the film before I realized that if the film were going to be made, I was going to have to take the risk. In June 2007, I left my job and took out a loan at the start of one of the worst financial times since, ironically, 1929.
It took an additional three years to produce the film. I researched, wrote, directed and produced the documentary, which is called Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women’s National Air Derby (BTTC). In the summer of 2010, I premiered BTTC. I paced in the back of the theater the entire time the film played and worried every second that there would be a technical problem, that the audience was bored, and on and on. When all four hundred people gave a standing ovation after the credits rolled, I was paralyzed. I had no idea what to do! I was just taking it all in and speechless. People came up to me saying they cried, laughed and were absolutely amazed with the film.
When I finally recovered from the initial shock, I began taking questions. One of the most frequently asked questions, even now, is how did I learn of the derby. The first time someone asked me this, I had to stop and think as I had been working on the film for thirteen years and had been through so much. When HAD I first learned of the derby? As I rewound my mind through all that had happened, a clear vision came into focus where I was sitting at a conference table in that small airport in Morristown, TN, with Mama Bird and realized, that’s when I knew. While Mama Bird may not have told me specifically about the very first women’s air race, my conversation with her opened up a whole new world and led me to the discovery of the women in the 1929 air derby.
All of these women are role models for following through when something excites and captures the imagination. By living her life and sharing that passion, Mama Bird inspired others, often without even knowing it. Through this, her legend will live on.
In her biography, Evelyn said she would “Retire her earthly wings when she is fitted for Heavenly ones. After all, old pilots never die; they just buzz off and fly away.” If anyone ever earned those Heavenly Wings, it is Evelyn Bryan Johnson.
Blue skies and fair winds Mama Bird.
*Credit goes to George Prince for all the biographical facts about Evelyn in his book Mama Bird Biography of Evelyn Bryan Johnson A Flight Instructor. Evelyn gave me a copy of this book during our interview and wrote inside “Good Luck with your project, Evelyn Bryan Jonson, 55,600 hours!”