Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer
Well, the American women were setting records right and left through the 1920s and 30s, but they were not the only ones. Amy Johnson was a pretty amazing young lady in Britain.
Born on July 1, 1903, to John and Amy Johnson, who were fish merchants in Hull, England. She was an attractive, slender, blue-eyed girl, but a bit of a tomboy. She loved rough and tumble boys games, and loved to compete. In one cricket game, the ball struck her in the mouth, and she lost her front teeth. Throughout her life, she was self-conscious about her false front teeth. After that accident, she became a bit introspective and withdrew, she said, “farther and farther into a protective shell of my own making.” In the fall of 1922 she headed to Sheffield to attend the university, primarily a school for men. She graduated in 1925, with bachelor’s degree in economics. Her first job was in an accountant’s office, but she had to leave after three months due to a nervous breakdown. It was during this period that she took her first airplane ride. She wrote to a friend, “Mollie and I went up in the aeroplane. We both enjoyed it, but I would have liked to have done some stunts.” Her emotional problems and disagreements with her parents eventually persuaded her to leave home and move to London. She was hired by a firm of city solicitors, and would most likely have become a solicitor herself if she had not fallen in love with flying.
In the 1920s, aviation was becoming a popular sport. With a good job, she was able to afford flying lessons. She joined the London Aeroplane Club at the de Havilland Aerodrome in Stag Lane. Her first flying lesson, in a duel controlled Cirrus II Moth with tandem cockpits, was a disaster. Her helmet did not fit properly and she could not hear her instructor. She described that lesson, saying, “ When I was up in the air I could only hear a confused sound in my neck instead of what should have been lucid instructions . . .I was scared stiff of my instructor, who never seemed to lose his first idea that I was a born idiot.” However, the club had two instructors, and the other worked well with Amy. After taking her first six lessons, she wrote home, “I have an immense belief in the future of flying.” She was not a ‘born flyer,” and struggled to learn. Her landings were awkward, and she had a heavy hand at the controls. Her solo was delayed due to bad winter weather, and the holidays. She soloed on June 9, 1929, after 15 hours and 45 minutes of instruction. From then, it became the most important thing in her life. After earning her pilot’s license, #1979, on July 6, she was spending so much time flying that her work at the solicitor’s office suffered. They finally told her to choose between her work and her flying. She chose flying and left the solicitor’s office to work full-time as a mechanic at Stag Lane. With a knack for mechanical things she was able to qualify as a “ground engineer” in December, 1929, the first woman in the world to do so. While working as a mechanic, some of the guys began calling her “Johnnie,” and the nickname stuck with her.
Amy was able to persuade her father, and Lord Wakefield, to share the cost of buying a De Havilland Gypsy Moth airplane, which she named ‘Jason’ after the family fishing business. So many records were being set, and she wanted her share. Her plan was to break the 15 day record, set by Bert Hinkler, flying from the UK to Australia. On May 5th, she took off from Croydon Aerodrome on her second attempt. The plane had only an airspeed indicator, an altimeter, a turn and bank indicator, and one compass. There was little interest, and only her father and a few others were present to see her off. That quickly changed.
It was certainly an eventful flight, with many problems along the way. She had the airplane fitted with extra fuel tanks, which added weight. She also strapped an extra propellor to the outside of the plane, which added weight and changed the aerodynamics. She carried a revolver (in case of bandits), a letter offering ransom (in case of kidnapping bandits), a cooking stove, and a parachute (at her mother’s insistence). She didn’t need the gun, stove, letter, or parachute, but she did use the extra fuel and propellor!
In order to use the fuel from the extra tanks, she would have to hand pump it from one tank to another. She pumped 50 gallons a day. Each gallon required 40 strokes on the pump – my arm aches just thinking about that! She stated in a lecture, “The only thing that kept me pumping was the ignominy of giving up the flight.” By the second leg of the trip, one of the fuel lines had sprung a leak and spurted fuel into the cockpit with every stroke. “I had to do all my pumping with my face over the side of the ship,” she explained.
She flew without incident to Vienna, but red tape in Constantinople was her first serious delay and caused her to stop in Aleppo, Syria, instead of Baghdad. On the 4th day of the flight, she was almost in sight of Baghdad when she encountered a dust storm with severe turbulence. She explained that the plane stalled twice, and went into a dive. She said, “The engine choked and then picked up, only just in time for still a further dive downwards. In less time than it takes to tell I had dropped to within a few feet from the ground, and was helplessly being blown hither and thither . . . Sand and dust covered my goggles, my eyes smarted, and I couldn’t control the machine . . .I had never been so frightened in my life.”
She managed a bumpy landing in the desert. As soon as she got out of the airplane it began to be blown backwards. She grabbed some luggage to use as wheel chocks then sat on the tail to keep it down. She heard desert dogs barking and quickly grabbed her gun for protection. After about three hours, the storm died down and she was able to resume her flight to Baghdad. Landing there one of the undercarriage struts broke and one wing sank into the ground. The mechanics at the Royal Air Force base were able to work all night and have her plane ready the next morning.
Her troubles continued with more mishaps along the way. The strut gave way again when she landed at Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf. She was still 2 days ahead of Hinkler’s time when she landed at Karachi, and she was now receiving world wide attention. British newspapers were vying for “exclusive” rights to her story. Her father made a deal with The London Daily Mail for 2000 pounds on Amy’s behalf.
She departed Karachi on May 11, but became lost enroute to Allahabad and landed on a military parade ground in Jhansi. Again, the airplane was damaged. She made quite an impression when she climbed out of the airplane wearing a shirt, an ill-fitting pair of shorts, shoes and socks, and a flying helmet. She was very tired and near tears. The men quickly went to work to repair “Jason” for the next day’s flight.
From there she flew to Calcutta, but ran into a monsoon on the way to Rangoon. There she landed on a playing field at Insein Engineering Institute. On landing, “Jason” nosedived into a ditch, damaging the propellor, strut, a tire, and ripping up a wing. She replaced the propellor with the one she had brought. The strut and tire were repaired, but that left the wing. A Forestry Inspector was able to craft a new wing, but there was no fabric to cover it. Apparently, fabric had been left there after World War I. However, the women had made shirts from the material. She was able to find about 20 of the shirts and tear them into strips and cover the new wing. A local chemist was able to make up a fresh batch of dope for the wing.
From there she flew to Bangkok, then arrived in Singapore on the 18th. All hope of besting Hinkler was now gone.
She landed on the Dutch East Indies’ island of Java and bamboo stakes tore through her wings, which she was able to patch up with plaster. During this long ordeal, she slept very little, about 3 hours at a stretch, and drank tea from a thermos, eating sandwiches and fruit while flying. Fatigue was taking its toll on her. She wrote her parents, “I am getting very tired of my trip and a wee bit discouraged because everything seems to be going wrong. However, in many things I have been awfully lucky.”
On may 22, she landed on Timor after a 1,000 mile leg. It had been a good day, however, as the sun went down while she was still over the water. She could not see the airport at Atamboea. Her fuel was almost gone. She flew lower and lower and finally found a grassy and bumpy clearing where she landed. As soon as she landed she realized the bumps were ant hills. She could see a village nearby with straw huts. As soon as Jason stopped, a “horde of yelling natives, with hair flying in the wind, and knives in the hands or between their red-stained teeth” came rushing up and surrounded her and the plane. She thought about reaching for her revolver, but the native headman was able to communicate with her and took her to a missionary’s house in the forest. The missionary offered her a nice meal with cheese and wine. Shortly after, an official from the Atamboea aerodrome came. He had seen her approach and knew she was trying to reach the airport. Because of a recent brushfire, the airport was impossible to see from the air.
All the bad weather, mechanical problems and her lack of experience, kept her from breaking the 15 day record. It took her 19 days. She landed in Darwin on May 24th. She was, however, the first woman to fly solo to Australia. After resting a few days, she spent six weeks touring Australia and attending events accompanied by cheering crowds. It was during this tour that she first met James Mollison, her future husband.
Her life was forever changed. She returned to England by boat to Egypt, then flown back to Croydon where she was met by a huge crowd of fans. She was driven through the streets of London in an open topped car. The jubilant crowd was estimated at one million people lining the streets to get a glimpse of their heroine. When Amy arrived back in Hull, she attended a reception at City Hall. She suggested that a trophy could be awarded each year to a Hull child who had shown ‘exceptional bravery.’ The ‘Amy Johnson Cup’ is still awarded each year.
She inspired songs and fashions. People loved her direct manner of speaking. When she married Jim Mollison, one of England’s most celebrated aviators, in 1931, they became fodder for the society pages. He had proposed to her during a flight.
Together they made several epic flights; once across the Atlantic, and once to Africa. On the flight across the Atlantic, they ran out of fuel and crashed in Bridgeport, Connecticut. After recovering from their injuries, they were given a ‘ticker tape‘ parade down Broadway in New York City as the first married couple to fly the Atlantic.
Theirs was a rocky marriage from the start, partly because of his philandering ways and drinking, and partly because she was the better aviator. Nearly every record he set was soon broken by her, frequently in the same aircraft. After divorcing, she enlisted with the Air Transport Auxiliary and flew airplanes from factories to Royal Air Force bases.
On January 5, 1941, she took off in terrible weather, including snow and freezing fog, to fly to Blackpool RAF Base, in Kidlington, Oxfordshire. It should have been a routine 90 minute flight, but she never arrived. Instead, four and a half hours after take off she crashed in the Thames Estuary, 70 miles from her intended destination. The question remains, how could someone with her experience get so lost on a routine flight. She was the first member of the ATA to be killed in service. Well, perhaps weather contributed, but some say she was shot down. Some report that she ran out of fuel and bailed out before the crash. The crew of the HMS Haslemere spotted the parachute coming down and saw her alive in the water. The weather was awful, heavy seas with a strong tide current, and falling snow in freezing conditions. Lt. Cmdr. Walter Fletcher dove into the water in a attempt rescue her. Unfortunately, he died in his heroic attempt. He was posthumously awarded the Albert Medal in May of 1941.
In 1999, Tom Mitchell, from Crowborough, Sussex, reported that he had shot her down when she twice gave the wrong identification code. He said that she was spotted and contacted by radio. A request was made for the identification code. She gave the wrong one twice. Assuming that she was an enemy aircraft, sixteen rounds were fired, and the plane dived into the Thames Estuary. “We all thought it was an enemy plane until the next day when we read the papers and discovered it was Amy. The officers told us never to tell anyone what happened.”
Her body was never recovered.
In 1942, the movie, “They Flew Alone,” was made of her life. In the United States the movie is called, “Wings and the Woman.”
In addition, in 1931 Amy was the first pilot to fly from London to Moscow in one day, flying the 1,760 miles in approximately 21 hours. She flew from Moscow to Tokyo in 10 days. In 1932 she set a new world record for a solo flight from London to Cape Town. In 1936, she regained her London to Cape Town record.