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Evelyn Johnson, pioneering pilot, dies

MORRISTOWN, Tenn. -- Pioneering female pilot Evelyn Bryan Johnson, known as "Mama Bird," has died at 102.

Johnson started flying in 1944 and went on to run her own flying service and manage a small-town airport. The Farrar Funeral Home in Jefferson City said the Morristown resident died Thursday.

"I don't care how many problems you have down on the ground, you forget about them" while flying, the bright-eyed and barely 5-foot-tall woman known to her students and colleagues as Mama Bird or Miss Evelyn said in 2005.

Johnson was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2007 after flying for 55 years and spending the equivalent of seven years in the air. She was estimated to have flown about 5.5 million miles and never had a crash despite her share of mechanical troubles in the sky.

"Had two complete engine failures, didn't scratch either airplane," she said. "Had a fire in the air, but got it down safely. I had a Navaho [airplane] swallow a valve down in the woolly part of Texas where there was nothing around but knotty little hills, and was able to get back 22 miles to an airport. And the minute it touched down it quit."

She held the Guinness Book of World Records certificate for most hours in the air for a female pilot. She was also one of the first female helicopter pilots.

Her office at Morristown's Moore-Murrell Airport was filled with awards, citations and mementos.

At 95, she was still managing the airport she had run since 1953, where she had taught more than 3,000 student pilots and certified more than 9,000 pilots for the Federal Aviation Administration.

She taught public school for two years before meeting W.J. Bryan while attending the University of Tennessee in the 1930s, where she earned an English degree. They married and moved to Jefferson City near Morristown to start a dry-cleaning business.

When World War II came, Bryan hoped to learn how to fly in the service. He landed at an air base in Florida in charge of laundry.

"He started in to fly but ended up washing clothes. I was washing clothes and ended up flying," Evelyn Johnson said.

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