Amy Johnson – A Brief Biography

by Midge Gillies

amy-portraitAmy Johnson CBE (1903-1941) was one of the most influential and inspirational women of the twentieth century. She was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia in 1930 and set a string of other records throughout her career.

Amy was the eldest of four sisters and grew up in Hull, where her father ran a fish export and import business. She studied at Sheffield University, before a failed love affair persuaded her to try a new life in London.

She worked as a typist for a firm of solicitors until, at a loose end one Sunday afternoon, she boarded a bus that took her to Stag Lane Aerodrome in North London. She was immediately captivated by the primitive biplanes she watched taking off and landing. Soon she started to spend all her spare time at the aerodrome.

During the 1920s and 1930s aviation was dominated by the rich and famous and most female pilots were titled women such as Lady Heath, the Duchess of Bedford and Lady Bailey. But Amy gained a ground engineer’s “C” licence and, with the financial help of her father, took flying lessons. In 1929 she was awarded her pilot’s licence.

Although her flight was meticulously planned her gender remained the main point of interest for the Daily Mail, whose headline mistakenly announced, that she had set off with a, “Cupboard Full of Frocks”.

Amy left Croydon Airport on 5 May, 1930 in a second-hand Gipsy Moth called Jason.  Unlike today’s pilots, Amy had no radio link with the ground and no reliable information about the weather. Her maps were basic and, on some stretches of the route, she would be flying over uncharted land.  Until her Australia trip, her longest solo flight had been from London to Hull.

Daringly, Amy had plotted the most direct route – simply by placing a ruler on the map. This took her over some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain and meant she had to fly the open-cockpit for at least eight hours at a time. It was essential that she kept to her route because fuel was waiting for her at each stop.

Despite a forced landing in a sandstorm in the Iraq desert she reached India in a record six days and the world’s press suddenly started to pay attention. She became the “British Girl Lindbergh”, “Wonderful Miss Johnson” and  “The Lone Girl Flyer”.

In India she surprised an army garrison by landing on a parade ground and, when she reached Burma (modern-day Myanmar), she faced her biggest challenge: the monsoon. Outside Rangoon a bumpy landing ripped a hole in Jason’s wing and damaged its propeller. A local technical institute repaired the wing by unpicking shirts made from aeroplane fabric salvaged from the First World War.

indiaAlthough the monsoon robbed her of her chance to beat Hinkler’s record, Amy landed in Australia on Saturday, 24 May to tumultuous crowds. Over the next six weeks she was treated like a superstar. Women asked their hairdressers for an “Amy Johnson wave” and the affectionate way in which she described Jason – “But the engine was wonderful” – became a catchphrase.

At least ten songs were written about her, the most famous, “Amy, Wonderful Amy” performed by Jack Hylton. Fan mail poured in and such was her fame that an envelope addressed to “Amy wat flies in England” reached its destination.

She was exhausted by the physical and mental strain of her flight and found it impossible to return to normal life. In July 1931 she flew to Tokyo with her mentor and mechanic, Jack Humphreys, as co-pilot.  They set record times to both Moscow and Japan.

After a short courtship, Amy married Scottish pilot Jim Mollison in 1932, and they became known as the “flying sweethearts”.  Later that year Amy set a solo record from London to Cape Town and in 1933 she and her husband crossed the Atlantic – a journey made more dangerous by the need to carry large amounts of fuel and by the fact that for most of the journey they were out of reach of land.  Although they crashed in Connecticut they nevertheless established another world record and America took them to their hearts. They were given a ticker tape parade in New York and entertained by President Roosevelt.

The following year the couple flew the revolutionary new de Havilland DH.88 Comet in the Britain to Australia MacRobertson Air Race. Although they achieved a record time to India they were forced to retire due to engine trouble. Amy’s last major flight took place in May 1936 when she regained her England to South Africa record.

amy-modelingIt was becoming harder to break records and, instead, Amy turned her attention to business ventures, journalism and fashion. She modelled clothes for Elsa Schiaparelli and created her own travelling bag, until the outbreak of the war in 1939 made her reconsider her public role.

In 1940 Amy joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, an organisation set up to ferry planes around the country for the Royal Air Force. On Sunday 5 January 1941 she left Blackpool in an Airspeed Oxford, which she had been ordered to deliver to RAF Kidlington, near Oxford.

At about 3.30pm a convoy of ships was approaching Knock John Buoy on Tizard Bank, off Herne Bay when a seaman spotted an aeroplane and then a parachute floating down through the snow. Several sailors then reported seeing two bodies in the water. One was described as fresh-faced and wearing a helmet. This figure called out for help in a high-pitched voice as it drifted dangerously close to the ship’s propellers.

Once it became clear that there was no hope of saving the helmeted pilot Lieutenant Commander Walter Fletcher, captain of the HMS Haslemere, dived into the icy water to try to save what he took to be a passenger. He was seen to reach the spot and rest beside a floating object, before attempting to return to the ship. He was rescued from the water, but died later from exposure and shock at the Royal Naval Hospital at Gillingham and is buried in Woodlands Cemetery. Neither the so-called “second body”, nor Amy’s body were ever recovered. Parts of her plane and some of her possessions, including a travelling bag, a cheque book and her logbook, later washed up nearby.

Speculation about what exactly happened that afternoon and why she was so far off course has ranged from rumours that she was on a secret mission to the more mundane theory that she got lost and simply ran out of fuel. The idea of a secret mission was probably sparked by a statement issued by the Admiralty which mentioned two bodies. Although this was later corrected, other newspapers picked up the idea of  “Mr X”. In 1999 a former member of the 58th (Kent) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment expressed a fear that Amy may have been shot down by “friendly fire”. This theory, however, seems unlikely, given the unit’s distance from the plane.

The mystery surrounding Amy’s final hours has only added to the mystique attached to her life. However, while the exact details of her death may never be known Amy’s bravery and pluck continue to inspire.

Midge Gillies is the author of the 2003 biography, ‘Amy Johnson, Queen of the Air’.