Reflecting on Flight Training’s Matriarch

By Scott Spangler on May 16th, 2012

Evelyn Bryan Johnson died May 10, 2012 in her 102nd year. She was a flight instructor. She stopped counting the number of people she’d taught to fly when the number passed 3,000. A designated pilot examiner since 1952, when I met her in 1997 at her induction to the NAFI Flight Instructor Hall of Fame, she’d given more than 9,000 checkrides.

Diminutive, whippet-thin, with all seeing eyes that didn’t miss much, Evelyn was one of the most unpretentious people I’d ever met, in aviation or out of it. She’d be, I think, as surprised at whose reporting her passing. Google News lists 398 outlets, from NPR and and all the major newspapers, to local Tennessee medial outlets and Sky News Australia. And I’m sure she’d shake her head at the focus of their reports, her total flight time, 57,625.4 hours, according to the The New York Times.

You see, the teacher many called Mama Bird, who finally retired in 2005 at age 95, didn’t really care about numbers. What mattered most was flying, and flying safely, whether she was teaching a newcomer the ways of aviation or examining their skills and knowledge at the end of training. Every flight, she told me later, was an educational opportunity, and that’s what kept aviation compelling.

Evelyn lived most of her life in and above Morristown, Tennessee. In my waning years at Flight Training one of my unfulfilled goals was sitting down with her and the patriarch of flight training, William K. Kershner, who lived, until his death in 2007, a couple of hours to the southwest, in Sewanee, Tennessee. Another unpretentious teacher for whom flying safely and making the most of every educational opportunity mattered most, we talked about getting together often. But our respective schedules never coincided for what I’m sure would have been an epic conversation.

What set these historic teachers of flight apart from the rest was a fundamental tenet of education that seems missing today. At its core, education, aviation or otherwise, really isn’t about curricula or technology. What matters most is the personal, human connection between teacher and student, united in a shared passion for learning. And that the best teachers are really still students who eagerly share what they’ve learned with others. –Scott Spangler

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5 Responses to “Reflecting on Flight Training’s Matriarch”

  1. Bob Minter Says:

    Wonderful article Scott. You hit the nail right on the head about Mama Bird and Bill Kershner…. it was all about the personal, human connection between teacher and student. Both had a passion for flying combined with a passion for people, especially for those who wanted to learn to fly. I founded the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame motivated by Miss Evelyn and Bill who I believed should be recognized by their home state. I knew and loved them both and was there Wednesday evening and yesterday to lay Evelyn to rest. These are lives to be celebrated and emulated. THank you for your marvelous words.

  2. David Says:

    Very well written Scott. That is one of the things I love most about aviation. There is always a chance to talk about experiences fun, scary, or educational. There is always something to be learned, and chatting with those who have an abundance of experience is one of the best ways to spend a day.

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