With her husband serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II, Evelyn Bryan Johnson was looking for something to occupy her time when she wasn't running their dry-cleaning business in Jefferson City, Tenn.
She found it in a small advertisement while reading the newspaper before church one Sunday morning in 1944. The ad said, "Learn to fly."
"Well, I believe I will,'" she recalled thinking, according to a 2005 Associated Press interview. "So the next Sunday afternoon I got on a train in Jefferson City and went to Knoxville. I got on a city bus and went to the end of the line. Then I got a ride in a rowboat across the river and took my first flying lesson.
"It was love at first flight, and I have been flying ever since."
She was 34 when she took that first flight and continued flying until glaucoma restricted her vision and caused her to quit in 2006, the year she turned 97.
Johnson, who died May 10 at 102 in an assisted living facility in Jefferson City, Tenn., held the Guinness World Record for logging the most hours in the air for a female pilot. By the time she stopped flying, she had logged 57,635.4 hours, or more than 6 1/2 years in the air.
At the time of her death, Johnson had flown an airplane more hours than any living pilot.
Record holder Ed Long, who did most of his flying in a Piper Cub checking power lines for an Alabama utility, reportedly had amassed more than 65,000 hours before his death in 1999 at age 83.
Johnson, who first soloed on Nov. 8, 1944, earned a private license in 1945 and a commercial certificate a year later. She became a flight instructor in 1947 and a pilot examiner for what became the Federal Aviation Administration in 1952.
The following year, she began managing what is now known as Morristown Regional Airport in Tennessee.
Affectionately nicknamed "Mama Bird," because she treated her flying students as a mother bird does her babies, Johnson said she trained more than 5,000 student pilots and administered more than 9,000 flight checks for the FAA.
Johnson was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2007. She also was an inductee in the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame, the Flight Instructor Hall of Fame and aviation halls of fame in Tennessee and Kentucky.
"Evelyn loved flying, and she loved teaching," said Bob Minter, founder and chairman emeritus of the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame. "There are airline pilots today flying around the world that Evelyn trained, both men and women." "
Johnson, who also gave former Tennessee Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. his private pilot flight test, was a longtime member of the Civil Air Patrol and served on the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission for 18 years.
She participated in Powder Puff Derby — the annual transcontinental air race for women pilots — from 1951 through 1954 and in 1960, and she flew in a women's air race fromWashington, D.C., to Havana, Cuba, in 1955.
Among Johnson's many honors was an award from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission for saving the life of an unconscious helicopter pilot who was severely injured when he crashed during takeoff at the Morristown airport in 1958.
The badly damaged craft was tilted on its side, with dense smoke rising from the engine and gasoline leaking from the fuel tanks. Johnson, who was barely 5 feet tall, crawled beneath the remaining, still-spinning rotor blade and reached into the cockpit to turn off the engine. Using a fire extinguisher, she then sprayed foam onto the engine.
Johnson, who was one of the first women to obtain a helicopter license, was estimated to have flown 5.5 million miles over the decades. She never crashed but had her share of emergencies, including two complete engine failures and a fire.
In 2006, Johnson lost part of her left leg and injured her right leg in a car accident. But she learned to walk with a prosthesis and, with a walker, returned to her job managing the airport.
"She had a presence at the airport," said Ralph "Buddy" Fielder, the assistant city administrator who oversees airport operations. "A lot of folks flew into Morristown just to see her."
Fielder, who had known Johnson since he was a child, described her as a "spunky" woman who always spoke her mind.
"She was an example to not just all female aviators but all aviators in the accomplishments that she attained in her lifetime," he said.
She was born Evelyn Stone on Nov. 4, 1909, in Corbin, Ky., and moved with her family to Tennessee as a young child.
After graduating from Tennessee Wesleyan College in Athens in 1929, she taught sixth grade for a couple of years. She met W.J. Bryan, who became her first husband, while attending the University of Tennessee. They were married in 1931 and moved to Jefferson City near Morristown, where they started a dry-cleaning business.
Bryan died in 1963. Her second husband, Morgan Johnson, died in 1977.
Johnson is survived by two grandsons and three great-grandchildren.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun