Famous Aviators You’ve Never Heard Of: Amy Johnson, CBE

Amy Johnson, 1930.

Amy Johnson, 1930.

Secretary to a London solicitor, Ms. Amy Johnson was introduced to flying as a hobbyist in the winter of 1928.  Despite being told that she would “never make a flier”, she persisted under the tutelage of the London Aeroplane Club’s Captain Valentine Baker.  Not long afterward she became certificated as a private pilot (“A” License) on July 6th, 1929—five days after her 26th birthday.  Within the same year she also became Britain’s first female qualified ground engineer, receiving her “C” license in December.  Unable to find work as a pilot, Ms. Johnson decided to undertake some kind of record-breaking flight, in order to demonstrate that women could handle the complexities and demands of aviation as well as men.  All she had wanted was a “proper flying job”, but few men in the industry took the idea of women pilots very seriously.

CLAIM TO FAME

The late 20s were also a time of aeronautical daring; in 1927 Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic, and in 1928 Bert Hinkler flew solo from Britain to Australia in what was then an astounding 15 ½ days.  Ms. Johnson decided she would try to beat Hinkler’s time, in spite of the fact that her longest trip to date had been a mere two hours, between London and Hull.  She canvassed various public figures for support, but her most generous backers were her own father and Lord Wakefield of Hythe, founder of the Castrol oil company.  Wakefield offered to fund half the cost of an aeroplane and pre-position fuel supplies along the route.  Funds in hand, Amy purchased a second-hand, two-year-old Gipsy Moth (registry G-AAAH)—an open-cockpit biplane whose top speed was 78 knots (or 90 miles per hour).  Johnson christened the plane Jason, after her father’s company trademark.

aj-australiaAmy departed London’s Croydon Aerodrome on May 5th, 1930, attended by very little publicity; it seemed that the media didn’t take her all that seriously, either.  She made good progress though, and managed to fly the 4,000 miles to Karachi in only six days—improving on Hinkler’s time by two.  The media and public started to pay attention in earnest as her time kept improving, but then disaster struck.  Approaching Rangoon on the ninth day, she mistook a football (soccer) pitch for the landing area and crashed, damaging the Gipsy Moth.  It would require three days to repair, putting Hinkler’s record out of reach.  She pushed on anyway, arriving in Darwin, Australia on May 24th.  The field was blanketed with people, and Amy thought she had inadvertently arrived during an air show.

As it turned out, they were all there to see her, despite the failure to break the record.  Somewhat mystified by the crowd’s enthusiasm, she is reported to have said “I’m afraid I didn’t break the record, but you don’t seem to mind that – it’s jolly sporting of you.”  Her story was snapped up by the Daily Mail for £10,000, and Ms. Johnson received the Harmon Trophy as well as a CBE.  She was also awarded the No. 1 civil pilot’s licence under Australia’s 1921 Air Navigation Regulations (although the first Australian recipient, Sir Norman Brearley, had been flying with License No. 2 since 1921).

Jim Mollison & Amy Johnson

Jim Mollison & Amy Johnson

The fame and celebrity enabled her to meet other famous pilots; one of whom was Jim Mollison, who in 1931 beat both Johnson and Hinkler by flying from Britain to Australia in 9 days.  Mollison and Johnson would end up marrying in 1932.  The two aviators, jointly and separately, would go on to establish, break or regain several aviation records throughout the early 1930s.  In 1931, Johnson and Jack Humphreys became the first pilots to fly from London to Moscow in one day (21hrs).  They then flew on through Siberia to Japan, establishing a time record from Britain to Japan.  In 1932 Mollison established a time record from Britain to South Africa in 113 hours, which Johnson proceeded to break shortly thereafter.  She lost it in later years, and regained it with a much faster 78 hour flight in 1936.  She and Mollison attempted a joint nonstop flight from Wales to New York in 1933, but ran out of fuel and crash-landed in Connecticut, injuring both.

A PROPER FLYING JOB

Paradoxically all of the attention was detrimental to her hopes of landing an ordinary flying job.  Employers either tried to exploit her fame, or dismissed her as a mere glory-hound.  Amelia Earhart’s disappearance in 1937 during her around-the-world attempt with Fred Noonan soured Amy on the idea of further record-breaking flights.  They were in any event losing their glamour as flying became more and more ordinary and accessible for the general public.  Jim Mollison’s infidelities brought additional turmoil and, eventually, a painful divorce in 1939.  It would take the outbreak of war in September to bring Amy regular, attention-free flying.

In 1938 the British government established the Air Transport Auxiliary, meant as a civilian service to ferry mail and medical supplies to military installations.  As continental tensions gave way to war, the mission was changed to ferrying aircraft (and occasionally personnel) between manufacturers, assembly points, depots and front-line units.  In late 1939 the ATA opened a women’s section, and would eventually grow to include 166 women (1/8th of the entire ATA force) from Britain, the Empire (Canada, New Zealand and South Africa), the Netherlands, Poland and Chile.  One of these unsung, anonymous pilots was Amy Johnson; by all accounts she handled herself with aplomb and was considered “just one of the girls”.  In an interesting footnote, in 1943 the Women’s ATA became the very first British government organisation to receive equal pay for equal work.  In contrast its American counterpart (WASP) was still paying its women pilots up to 35% less than their male colleagues.

At 10:45am on January 5th, 1941, Amy departed Blackpool in an Airspeed Oxford Mk II, bound for RAF Kidlington.  The weather was far from favourable and she indicated to onlookers that she would “go over the top” (fly above the cloud layers), something not recommended for ATA pilots as they flew without radios.  The low clouds made navigation difficult and Amy’s aircraft wandered far off course.   She was spotted on air defence radars and aircraft were dispatched to guide her home, but it is presumed that the Oxford (which carried 4.75 hours of fuel) had by that time experienced fuel exhaustion, and Amy had to bail out some time between 1500 and 1537 GMT.

Her parachute and aircraft were spotted over the Thames estuary by lookouts on cross-Channel steamer HMS Haslemere, and air trapped in the parachute is reported to have kept her afloat for ten minutes.  Haslemere‘s captain, Lieutenant Commander Walter Fletcher, dived into the freezing river with a rope tied around his waist, in a bid to try and save the then-unknown pilot.  She was last seen disappearing under the Haslemere‘s stern and was presumed dead by drowning; her body was never recovered.   The gallant Lieutenant Commander Fletcher later died from immersion hypothermia in hospital at Sheerness.

TODAY

The name Amy Johnson is still relatively well-known in Britain and Australia, but otherwise forgotten (especially in North America, where Amelia Earhart tends to take pride of place, and where the name Amy Johnson conjures up the Pink Power Ranger).  Castrol oil survives as a brand of British Petroleum, of course, and Amy’s father’s company, Andrew Johnson Knudtzon, originally fish merchants, are now a cold storage company still headquartered in the family’s old hometown of Hull.

Gipsy Moth Jason G-AAAH, now 81 years old, remains on display at the Science Museum in South Kensington, London.

READ MORE: A fuller account of her life and times, including a reasonable reconstruction of the circumstances of her last flight, at the RAF’s History Section.

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