Believe nothing to be impossible.Amy Johnson. A quote from a speech she gave in 1936.
Amy Johnson was a pioneering aviator – the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia (5 May to 24 May 1930). This 11,000 mile journey across three continents, fraught with danger and drama, was the first of her several record-breaking world flights.
Johnson became a living legend; her achievements feted nationally and internationally.
But her life was cut short in 1941 when, aged just 37, her plane plunged into the Thames Estuary under contentious circumstances.
Here is her extraordinary story.
A passion for flying
Amy Johnson was born in Hull, 1 July 1903. Her father John was a partner in the family fish-processing business. Johnson was smart, rebellious and, after university, moved to London and took on a series of jobs, becoming a legal secretary.
For an unknown reason, in spring 1928, she visited Stag Lane Aerodrome in London’s Edgware, home of the London Aeroplane Club. She quickly became a member – her expensive fees paid for by her supportive father – took her first flying lesson in September 1928 and, after 19 hours flying, was awarded her pilot’s licence, July 1929.
This was a radical move at that time but, perhaps even more unusual, was her learning how to maintain an aircraft – taught by the club’s Chief Mechanic, Jack Humphreys – gaining her Ground Engineer’s licence 5 months later. Humphreys said she was a ‘born engineer.’
The record-breaking flight: From England to Australia
Amy was a very inexperienced pilot – the longest flight she had attempted was the 180 miles from Stag Lane Aerodrome to Hedon Aerodrome, Hull. Yet she had an iron resolve to fly 11,000 miles and break Australian Bert Hinkler’s speed record. He flew solo from from England to Australia in 1928, taking 15.5 days.
Amy pursued a long campaign to raise funds for her epic flight, finally getting the financial backing and support of the Castrol oil magnate, Lord Charles Wakefield. Her father also gave her money. She bought Jason, her second-hand Gipsy Moth bi-plane (now housed in London’s Science Museum), for £600 and secured petrol and oil supplies along her route.
Amy navigated using only a compass, plus basic maps with a ruler to plot the most direct routes. She had no radio link to the ground and no reliable information about weather conditions.
During the epic flight she narrowly missed flying into a mountain range, endured a forced landing in a desert sandstorm, another in a jungle among what she initially thought was a hostile tribe, flew through tropical storms and was caught up in shock waves from a volcanic eruption.
Amy battled engine problems, heavy landings, fear of flying over open water, fierce head winds, exhaustion, loneliness, extreme cold in the open cockpit where she flew for up to 12 hours a day, as well as realising halfway through the flight that she would not be able to beat Bert Hinkler’s record.
But, wherever she landed, there were enthusiastic local crowds to greet her, growing enormously in number as word of her journey spread.
Throughout Amy’s 20-day flight, her father and family sent her encouraging cables, always stressing safety over speed.
Hero’s welcome, publicity tours and a crash
Amy had landed at Darwin, Australia, 24 May 1930, to a hero’s welcome. She had become a worldwide celebrity.
Congratulatory telegrams poured in, including from King George V and Queen Mary, and from British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald. She was showered with gifts and fan mail. Songs were written about her. She was later awarded a CBE. The British press dubbed her ‘Queen of the Air.’
Amy’s publicity tour was a gruelling round of speeches, receptions and parades. With no time to rest, she was exhausted and crashed at Brisbane’s aerodrome in front of hundreds of spectators. Jason was virtually destroyed. She suffered only bumps and bruises.
The plan had been for her to fly round Australia in her plane. Now she had to be ferried as a passenger for the rest of her tour, including being piloted by the Scot, Jim Mollison, a rising aviation pioneer who was later to become her husband.
Amy returned to England on 4 August 1930. Huge crowds greeted her arrival. In London – more than one million people lined the parade route as she was driven through the streets in an open-topped car. Over 300,000 people welcomed her back to Hull, her home city.
The Daily Mail had bought her story and paid her £10,000. This sponsorship deal was on the understanding that she would undertake a 3 month publicity tour of Britain. However, after a month of exhausting public appearances, she collapsed. The tour was abandoned and she temporarily retired from public view.
Fame, marriage and breaking more records
Amy soon returned to flying, cementing her fame with more records. In July/August 1931, she and her old engineering instructor, Jack Humphreys, made a record-breaking 10-day flight from London to Japan in a Puss Moth named ‘Jason II’. Amy broke flight records again, flying solo to Cape Town, South Africa, in 1932 and regaining this record in 1936.
She married Jim Mollison in 1932. He had set flight records himself, including the first solo crossing of the Atlantic. They were a world-famous glamorous celebrity couple – the ‘flying sweethearts – often flying together on highly publicised trips, including attempting a long distance record by flying from Pendine Sands, Wales, across the Atlantic to New York.
However, their plane crashed in Bridgeport, Connecticut, short of their target. Amy and Jim were both injured. He was hospitalised. Despite this, they achieved the record and were given a huge ticker-tape welcome in New York, where they were entertained by President Franklyn Roosevelt, and met and became friendly with Amelia Earhart.
Amy and Jim’s tempestuous marriage, conducted in the full glare of publicity, faltered over the years. They divorced in 1938.
Amy became aviation editor for the Daily Mail in 1934. She was a commercial pilot for a short time in 1934 and 1939. She appeared in Vogue magazine in 1936, modelling a collection of flight wear designed for her solo flight from London to Cape Town by the leading Italian fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli. She took up motor rallying and gliding. She drove fast cars.
But the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 made her reconsider her very public life.
Joining the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA)
The civilian ATA took over all the ferrying of military aircraft from factories to RAF airfields during the war, as well as the ferrying between airfields. 188 of the 1,245 pilots were women. Pilots flew a range of aircraft, from bi-planes to Spitfires and heavy Lancaster bombers.
They flew the unarmed aircraft within sight of land below; they were not taught how to fly with instruments. They had no navigational aids or radios, just maps and a compass. They flew blind in all weathers.
Amy Johnson was perfectly qualified, joining up in May 1940.
Death in the Thames Estuary
On 5 January 1941 – snowy, freezing cold and foggy – Amy took off in a twin-engine Airspeed Oxford plane on a routine 90 minute flight from Blackpool Aerodrome to RAF Kidlington near Oxford. Four hours later she parachuted into the Thames Estuary, many miles off course. A ships’ convoy in the area made an unsuccessful attempt at rescue. Her body was never recovered. Parts of the plane, her travelling bag, logbook and chequebook washed up later.
Speculation about her death has continued over the decades. There was a rumour of two bodies in the water, giving rise to the theory that she was on a secret mission. There was talk that she had been shot down by friendly fire (in essence, by the British, after not acknowledging call signals). Maybe she just got lost in the extreme weather conditions, ran out of fuel and had to ditch her plane.
The RAF Accident Record Card of the time lists Herne Bay as the location of Amy’s final flight.
The Amy Johnson Project commissioned the pictured statue from Ramsgate artist Stephen Melton to commemorate the 75th anniversary of her death in 2016. A second identical statue was cast for the city of Hull, her home town. Both bronzes carry her quotes.
Amy V. Johnson’s name is carved within the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede, Surrey – a memorial for those in the Air Force who were lost during the Second World War and who have no known grave.
Written by Nicky Hughes