From the Wright Brothers to Clyde Cessna even to movie portrayals of pilots, the aviation world has always seemed like a bit of a boys’ club, but that’s only to all those that have never heard of Mama Bird.
Evelyn Bryan Johnson, better known as “Mama Bird,” was one of the world’s pioneering female pilots. At the time of her death May 10, 2012, she logged the most number of flying hours in the world.
Mama Bird was born in 1909 in Kentucky. She spent her first 35 years leading a somewhat typical life for women in her generation. She attended college, became a teacher and lived in Tennessee. It wasn’t until 1944 that her life changed forever.
In 1944, Mama Bird, who was still going by Evelyn at that point, married her first husband, Wyatt Jennings Bryan. But it was also the year that she learned how to fly.
Bryan was a member of the Army Air Corps. Perhaps his involvement with aviation sparked the interest in his wife to get in the cockpit, but regardless of what it was, she was hooked.
During her flying career, Mama Bird logged more than 57,000 flying hours in 55 years. It is estimated that she flew more than 5.5 million miles – to put that into perspective, think of traveling to the moon and back 23 times.
In addition to flying, she also started her own flying service and managed a small-town airport until she was 95. During that time, Mama Bird taught more than 3,000 young men and women how to be pilots and certified more than 9,000 for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Mama Bird’s accomplishments are now documented in the Guiness Book of World Records for spending the most hours in the air for a female pilot. She was also inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, OH. Her scrapbooks, memorabilia and other documents from the 1930s to 2002 are on display in the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University.
Mama Bird died at the age of 102. Before her burial in Jeffersonville Memorial Gardens, she was honored with a fly over by the Rocky Top War birds from Sevierville, Tenn.