Amy Johnson stands with her hand on a plane's propeller
Historic photography Second World War

The Extraordinary Story of Pioneering Aviator Amy Johnson

Amy Johnson became a living legend after becoming the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia. Here we look at her extraordinary story.

‘BELIEVE NOTHING TO BE IMPOSSIBLE’

Amy Johnson. Quote from a speech she gave in 1936

Amy Johnson was a pioneering aviator – the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia (5-24 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.

Amy Johnson’s route from England to Australia
Amy Johnson’s route from England to Australia. Image courtesy of The Amy Johnson Estate.

Johnson became a living legend; her achievements feted nationally and internationally.

Archive postcard of Amy Johnson
Archive postcard of Amy Johnson – ‘The Wonder Airwoman’ – in her flying suit. Image via Creative Commons.

But her life was cut short in 1941 when, aged just 37, her plane plunged into the Thames Estuary under contentious circumstances.

5 January 2021 is the 80th anniversary of her death. Here is her extraordinary story…

A passion for flying

Amy Johnson at work on a de Havilland Gipsy Moth
Amy Johnson at work on a de Havilland Gipsy Moth. Image courtesy of The Amy Johnson Estate.

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.

Amy Johnson’s signed application for a pilot’s licence
Amy Johnson’s signed application for a pilot’s licence, 2 July 1929. Image in the Public Domain.

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.

Jason at Insein
Jason at Insein, Burma (now Myanmar), where Amy crash-landed, breaking the propeller, ripping a tyre, snapping struts and tearing the wing fabric. She was unhurt. Luckily she had landed in the football field of the local Government Technical Institute who were able to carry out repairs. Image courtesy of The Amy Johnson Estate.

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 Johnson flying in Jason
Amy Johnson flying in Jason. She flew in daylight hours, probably at about 1,000 to 2,000 feet, using her eyes to spot landmarks. Image courtesy of The Amy Johnson Estate.

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.

Amy Johnson’s family hold phones
Amy Johnson’s family in England (father John centre, mother Amy on the right) hearing the news of her successful flight. Image courtesy of The Amy Johnson Estate.

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

Pictured are the huge crowds who turned out in Melbourne as she travelled by cavalcade from the airport
Two days after her arrival in Darwin, Amy began a six-week publicity tour across Australia. Pictured are the huge crowds who turned out in Melbourne as she travelled by cavalcade from the airport, 23 June 1930. Image courtesy of The Amy Johnson Estate.

Amy had landed at Darwin, Australia, 24 May 1930, to a hero’s welcome. She had become a world-wide celebrity.

Congratulatory telegrams poured in, including from King George V and Queen Mary, and from the 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 crashed airplane
Amy’s tour included flying to Brisbane on 30 May. Coming into land, Jason’s engine cut out and she crashed heavily. Image courtesy of The Amy Johnson Estate.

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 taxiing to a standstill at Hedon Aerodrome
Pictured is Amy taxiing to a standstill at Hedon Aerodrome, Hull, 11 August 1930. Image courtesy of The Amy Johnson Estate.

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 posing with, to her left, comedian and film star Charlie Chaplin, the American-born British politician Lady Nancy Astor and Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw
Amy posing with, to her left, comedian and film star Charlie Chaplin, the American-born British politician Lady Nancy Astor and Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, following a luncheon party, 25 February 1931, held in honour of Chaplin. Shaw had a keen interest in aviation and, it was reported in the press, he and Chaplin were far more interested in Amy than each other. Image courtesy of The Amy Johnson Estate.

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 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.

Amy Johnson (left) and Amelia Earhart in New York,
Amy Johnson (left) and Amelia Earhart in New York, 2 August 1933. Amelia was America’s ‘first lady of the air’ – the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. She disappeared in mysterious circumstances while flying over the Pacific Ocean in 1937. Image courtesy of The Amy Johnson Estate.

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.

Life changes

Amy Johnson pictured during a modelling session
Amy Johnson pictured during a modelling session. Image courtesy of The Amy Johnson Estate.

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)

Portrait of Amy Johnson in flying gear.
Portrait of Amy Johnson in flying gear. Image courtesy of The Amy Johnson Estate

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

The Thames Estuary from space.
Image of the Thames Estuary from space. The coastline at the bottom is Kent, with Herne Bay about two-thirds of the way along eastwards. The Knock John Buoy on Tizard Bank – near where Amy Johnson was seen parachuting from her plane which then crashed into the sea – is roughly in the centre of the image. Image in the Public Domain.

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 ie: 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.

Bronze statue of Amy Johnson, back of helmet reads ‘Believe Nothing To Be Impossible.
The words around Amy’s helmet at Herne Bay reads: ‘Believe Nothing To Be Impossible.’

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.

Further Reading

11 comments on “The Extraordinary Story of Pioneering Aviator Amy Johnson

  1. Enjoyed – pity about wrong spelling of Edgware!

  2. Gail Prout

    Great to read about Amy’s incredible life. I believe my grandfather William (Bill) Trollope was her Chief Engineer for her flight to South Africa, do you have any information on that? It would be great to know more. Thank you

  3. This is fantastic. Check out my recent book #GipsyMOTH #Aviatrix at http://www.willymitchell.com that tells the story of Amy Johnson and her friend Nikki Beattie. #iuniversepublishing

  4. Vance Taylor

    My father Reg Taylor, served on board the Royal Navy Hunt Class Destroyer HMS Berkeley during the Second World War. He once told me that their ship was involved in the search for her in the Thames.

  5. Sue Lloyd

    My dad Alan Midgley was an engineer at Blackpool Airport & swung her propeller that fateful day.

  6. Amy Johnson’s Gypsy Moth was a key motif of Hull’s UK Capital of Culture festival

  7. Caroline Wilson

    Sewerby Hall Bridlington East Yorkshire has a collection of Amy Johnson memorabilia well worth a trip if your in the area once COVID restrictions are lifted

  8. Kevin Thurlow

    Not sure when Hendon became part of Hull as per one of the captions?

  9. Kevin Thurlow

    It might be Hull?

  10. Paul Hobbs

    She was indeed an incredible woman and should inspire all those women today who seek to fulfil their dreams ‘Believe nothing is impossible’ is a terrific and well-chosen quote from a remarkable pilot- Wonderful Amy, Queen of the Skies!

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