The death-defying daredevil life and flights of Amy Johnson a pioneering English pilot who was the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia.
Amy Johnson crossed nearly 1000 miles on 22 May 1930 during one leg of her history-making, solo flight from England to Australia. Though the day's flight had been uneventful, she began to get edgy when the sun went down while she was flying over a large expanse of water between the islands of Flores and Timor in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Her fuel was almost gone when Amy finally sighted Timor and began to look for the island's aerodrome at Atamboea. 'I just couldn't see it,' she later wrote. Despairing, she flew lower and lower until she spied a bumpy, grassy clearing.
Upon landing, she realized the bumps were a range of anthills, and nearby stood a small village of mud and straw huts. As soon as she came to a halt, 'a horde of yelling natives, with hair flying in the wind, and knives in their hands or between their red-stained teeth' rushed from the village and surrounded the plane and Amy. She reached for her revolver, but after a brief council among the village leaders, the headman approached and made her understand that they would take her to a 'pastor.' Figuring this to mean a resident missionary and too weary to protest, she allowed them to lead her into the forest.
Eventually, they came to a large, wooden building where the missionary kindly offered her a meal of cheese and wine. Not long after, officials from the Atamboea aerodrome drove up; they had seen her plane approach and miss the aerodrome because a recent brushfire had made it indistinguishable from the air. As harrowing as that day had been, it was only one among many during that historic flight.
In 1930 Amy Johnson was a slender blue-eyed girl that stood 5 feet, 4 inches tall with wavy light brown hair that she wore in a bob. She was attractive but self-conscious about her false front teeth, which she wore because a cricket ball had knocked out her own teeth she was 14.
Amy was born on 1 July 1903, the eldest of John and Amy Johnson's four daughters. Though not wealthy, her family was well off, as Mr. Johnson presided over the prosperous family fishing business. Amy grew up in Hull Yorkshire, but she wasn't the typical English Rose. She preferred boys' games and loved to compete. But after the cricket ball accident, boys teased her and she reacted by becoming 'introspective and withdrew farther and farther into a protective shell of my own making.'
In the autumn of 1922, Amy headed for Sheffield to attend university. She graduated three years later with a bachelor's degree in economics. Afterward, she returned to Hull and worked brief, unsatisfactory stints at two local offices. Then in March 1927, she moved to London for a fresh start.
With only a little money from her father to start, Amy moved into a YWCA hostel and began to look for work. She took a brief job as a shop girl before starting work on 11 April for £3 a week as a secretary at the law office of Messers William Charles Crocker. Initially, she found the work so satisfying and performed so well, that the firm's partners considered training her as a solicitor.
Things went well for Amy until about a year later when she decided to take up flying. Her first enquires put her off the idea because of the expense. Then on 28 April, she took a bus ride to the Stag Lane Aerodrome on a whim. There she learned that she could join the club and learn to fly at a fraction of the cost put to her by the local flying school. However, the club had a five-month waiting list, which Amy tried unsuccessfully to circumvent by appealing to the club's secretary.
Amy finally took to the air for her first 30-minute lesson on 15 September 1928. She flew in a dual-controlled Cirrus II Moth, with tandem cockpits, and it was a disaster. Her helmet didn't fit properly, so she couldn't hear her tutor's instructions over the earphones. As Amy later recalled, '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.'
Luckily, the club had two instructors who shared her lessons, and the other pilot proved an exceptional teacher. Even so, Amy didn't take naturally to flying. She handled the controls with a heavy hand, and her landings were awkward. Nevertheless, she was happy. She took advantage of the social amenities entitled to members of the London Aeroplane Club and lost some of her shyness as she fraternized with and learned from the pilots at Stag Lane.
Amy made her first solo flight on 9 June 1929 after 15 hours and 45 minutes of instruction. Gaps in her lessons due to holidays and poor winter weather conditions may have contributed to the delay of her first solo, as the average student takes to the air alone after approximately 11 hours of lessons. According to instructor Frank Swoffer in 1929 Learning to Fly, if a student hasn't soloed after 16 hours with an instructor, 'he had better give up trying.' Amy refused to give up, and on 6 July she passed her tests and earned A Licence #1979.
But just as things began to look up at the aerodrome, Amy's supervisor at the law firm gave her an ultimatum that she must either quit her job or quit flying, as her work had suffered tremendously. Amy had already decided to pursue a professional flying career, but she couldn't afford to work. A month later Amy's father relented to her request for financial support, and Amy quit the law offices.
During her time at the aerodrome, Amy's enthusiasm for aviation had spilled over into the hanger where she met chief ground engineer Jack Humphreys. Her hunger to learn and willingness to work impressed him, and he began instructing her on aircraft mechanics. The other apprentices and ground engineers took to calling her 'Johnnie,' which delighted her, and on 10 December, Amy became the first woman in Britain to earn a ground engineer's license.
The idea to fly solo to Australia came sometime at the end of 1929. Amy was eager to earn publicity both for aviation and for herself, hoping that would lead to job offers. Bert Hinkler's 1928 record, 15 1/2 day flight from England to Australia stood, and no woman had yet attempted to better it. It was only a matter of time before someone did, and Amy decided it should be her. She set to work looking for a sponsor, and in the meantime earned a higher-grade engineer's license.
After her many appeals to wealthy potential backers proved fruitless, in March 1930 Amy wrote an impassioned plea for assistance to Sir Sefton Brancker, the Director of Civil Aviation. Despite the fact that Amy forgot to sign her letter, Brancker discovered her identity, talked with her, and wrote on her behalf to aviation benefactor Lord Wakefield of Wakefield's Oil. On 16 April Lord Wakefield met with her and agreed to provide backing. Her father had already agreed to chip in £500.
With her financial problems solved, she set to work for a 5 May departure. She found a suitable plane, a two-year-old de Havilland Moth already fitted with extra fuel tanks for £600. She christened it Jason after the registered trademark of her father's fish business and had it painted green with silver lettering.
Amy planned to shave miles off of her trip by taking a more direct route than Hinkler had used. Instead of flying over France and Italy to the Mediterranean, she decided to pass over the Balkan states, something pilots avoided because of the inevitable bureaucratic delays. At each of her 12 planned stops, Wakefield arranged to have fuel waiting. She took with her a revolver (in case of bandits), a letter offering ransom (in case of kidnapping bandits), a cooking stove, a spare propeller (which had to be lashed to the plane's exterior), and, at her mother's insistence, a parachute. 'There is certainly no need to worry now at all,' she wrote her mother, '. . . the engineers are working extremely hard on my machine and engine so you need have no fear. I'm taking every precaution, you may be sure.'
At 7:45 am on 5 May, Amy settled into Jason's open cockpit and took off after fumbling her first attempt down the runway in her heavily weighted plane. The plane featured only four instruments: an air-speed indicator, an altimeter, an indicator for turning and banking, and one compass. Throughout her journey Amy had to regularly pump petrol from the auxiliary containers to the main fuel tanks, and the fumes made her sick. 'The pump was a very old-fashioned one, the action being similar to pumping a bicycle tyre. I had to pump about 50 gallons [40 pump strokes/gallon] of petrol every day,' she explained in a later lecture. 'The only thing that kept me pumping was the ignominy of giving up the flight.' By the second leg of the trip the fuel line had sprung a leak that spurted petrol into the cockpit with every pump stroke, 'I had to do all my pumping with my face over the side of the ship.' Nevertheless, she flew without incident to Vienna, Austria, but red tape in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey, caused her first serious delay and forced her to make a shorter hop to Aleppo, Syria, rather than Baghdad.
On day four of her flight, 'All went well until I was almost within sight of Baghdad.' She was flying at 7,000 feet to avoid the worst of the hazy heat and accompanying turbulence, when she hit a dust storm. The plane stalled twice and went into a dive. '[T]he engine choked and stopped and again 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 to bring the plane to a bumpy landing, and as soon as she got out, the wind began pushing the small Moth backward. Amy used her luggage as wheel blocks and covered the engine with canvas. Then with the sound of dessert dogs barking in the distance, she grabbed her revolver,'sat down on Jason's tail to try to keep it down,' and waited out the storm. When the storm died down three hours later, Amy regrouped and took off 'in the direction in which I thought Baghdad would be.'
She guessed correctly, but upon touching down a short time later, one of the plane's undercarriage struts broke from the strain of her dessert landing, and Jason's one wing sank down to the ground. Luckily for Amy, the mechanics at a nearby Royal Air Force aerodrome worked all night to craft a new strut for her. The next morning, 'Jason was in excellent trim, with the engine overhauled and looking bright and tidy after a good wash.'
Amy's landing at Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf on 9 May was 'fast, as usual, and rather [heavy], also as usual,' and the bolt securing the new strut sheared in half. With no chance of their being a replacement at this remote site, Amy discouraged went to bed at the British Consulate's house. Again lady luck lent a hand. The consulate's car mechanic was fascinated with planes, and years ago when the Royal Air Force had used the aerodrome, he had watched and learned and accumulated a stash of spare parts, including a bolt that fit Amy's little Moth.
She set off the next day for the 700-mile leg to Karachi, India (now in Pakistan). Despite some engine sputtering, Amy made it there ahead of Hinkler's time. She wasn't so fortunate the following day. Departing Karachi on 11 May, she lost her way en route to Allahabad and had to set down on a military parade ground at a military installment in Jhansi. Landing very fast, she nearly ran into a group of men, before the plane 'came to rest wedged between two of the barrack buildings,' recalled one of the officers. One of the wings was badly damaged. Amy made a memorable impression climbing from the cockpit; she wore 'only a shirt, and ill-fitting pair of khaki shorts, socks, and shoes, and a flying helmet.' Her face, arms, and legs were sunburned and blistered and 'tears were not far from her tired eyes.' Nevertheless, she and the men set to work repairing Jason and preparing him for the next day's flight.
She flew to Calcutta on 12 May after a brief refuelling stop in Allahabad, Amy ran into a monsoon the next day on the way to Ragoon, Burma (now Yagon, Myanmar). She flew some 10 miles too far north, lost her way, and mistaking Insein for Ragoon, landed on the playing field of the Insein Engineering Institute. Sailing past goalposts, Jason did a nosedive into a ditch, breaking the propeller and an undercarriage strut, puncturing a tyre, and ripping up a wing. During the next two days, the institute's students repaired the strut and tyre, while a Forestry Inspector crafted a new wing. Amy replaced the propeller with the smaller spare she had brought along and cleaned the engine.
As the repairs on the plane neared completion and the new wing was mounted, a new problem arose -- no fabric to cover the wing's skeleton and no dope to harden the fabric. Miraculously, Amy's amazing luck held, because as it turned out, a surplus of airplane fabric had been left there after World War I, and the women had made shirts from the material. Amy noted later that with 'great glee about 20 of these shirts were produced which we tore into strips and joined together.' A local chemist made a fresh batch of dope from what was left in the tin Amy carried.
Amy had lost her two-day lead over Hinkler's time when she finally set out on 16 May for Bangkok in Siam (now Thailand). Once again Amy flew over perilous mountain ranges and briefly lost her way in driving wind and rain before arriving at the Siamese aerodrome. In such remote places or when Amy questioned the quality of the fuel, she used chamois leather to strain her petrol and oversaw the servicing of her plane. 'It was now quite dark and we had to work by the light of my small torch,' Amy recalled, 'which attracted enormous numbers of insects. It was dreadfully hot and everything was wet and miserable and I had the greatest difficulty in making myself understood.'
The next day she set off to fly the 900 miles to Singapore and lost her way in the rain again. Wisely, she stopped in Singora for the night and arrived in Singapore on 18 May. Even though Amy had lost any chance of besting Hinkler, by this time British newspapers were in a bidding war for exclusive rights to her story. Her father agreed to sell the story to the Daily Mail for £2000 on Amy's behalf.
When she landed on the Dutch East Indies' island of Java the next day, bamboo stakes pierced Jason's lower wings, which Amy mended with plaster. A reporter at her next stop further south on Java, on 20 May noted that Amy looked 'very much tired out, but also very sporting.' Throughout her trip, Amy slept approximately three hours at a stretch, and she drank tea from a thermos and ate sandwiches and fruit while flying. The gruelling schedule was taking a toll. Engine malfunctions prevented her departure the day following, and she took advantage of the time to write her parents. 'I am getting very tired of my trip and a wee bit discouraged,' she confessed, 'because everything seems to be going wrong. However, in many things I have been awfully lucky . . . .'
On 22 May, she made her harrowing stop on the Indies' island of Timor. When she failed to show up at Atamboea, however, the newspapers back home declared her missing. Things settled down the next day, when she and Jason finally arrived at Atamboea. She spent the day preparing Jason for the last and most challenging leg of the trip-crossing '500 miles of shark-infested sea.' to Darwin, Australia. And on 24 May, after flying 8,600 miles in 19 1/2 days, Amy safely arrived at the land down under to great fanfare there and in Britain. Congratulations poured in from King George V and Queen Mary, the British Prime Minister, and many other dignitaries. Song misters quickly composed ditties paying her tribute, and on 3 June she was awarded the CBE.
Two days later, after at least one good sleep and many congratulatory functions, Amy set out on a six-week Australian publicity tour full of parades, speeches, dances, and reception. She was supposed to have flown Jason to her many stops but exhausted and with no time to rest, she crash-landed at Brisbane's aerodrome in front of a large crowd of spectators. She was unhurt, but Jason ended on his back in a crumpled heap. For the remainder of her tour, she flew as a passenger. On one such flight, she met the young, dashing co-pilot, James Allen Mollison. Their brief meeting left a lasting impression.
Amy's return to England on 4 August brought more publicity. In addition to buying her story, the Daily Mail presented her with £10,000 with the understanding that she would do a publicity tour across the nation. Amy was near to exhaustion, however, and the tour was called off. She was allowed to keep the money as a gift.
The Australia trip was Amy's finest hour, although she later made record-breaking flights, namely to Japan in 1931, to Cape Town, South Africa in 1932, and again in 1936. But long-distance stunt flying was becoming familiar and the most noteworthy obstacles had been conquered.
She and Jim Mollison met again in March 1932 and married the following July. Jim was a playboy and a heavy drinker. They tried to keep their careers (and marriage) going with joint flights and solo endeavours, but Jim's infidelities, absences, and too much press drove the couple apart. Amy resumed her maiden name, and they divorced in 1938. Meanwhile, Amy tried to pursue a professional career in aviation with the Civil Air Guard or as a test pilot, but nothing panned out.
Amy's passion for flying cooled considerably after learning that friend Amelia Earhart had disappeared while flying over the Pacific Ocean in 1937. 'No more flights so no need to worry! Poor Amelia!' she wrote to her mother. Money was tight, and she tried to live a quiet lifestyle in the country. She took up gliding and became an ardent supporter of the sport. 'The silence,' wrote Amy in an article on gliding, 'broken only by the soft swish of the wind in my hair, is rapture after the deafening roar to which I have been accustomed for so many years.'
Flying once again dominated her life, though, in 1940 when she began work for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Hitler had invaded Poland the year before, so she did her part for the war effort by delivering military aircraft from factories to air bases for a weekly salary of £6. Amy soon settled into her new job and began enjoying it and her new life.
Sunday 5 January 1941 dawned snowy, bitterly cold, and foggy. Nevertheless, at 11:45 am Amy took off from the Blackpool aerodrome in a twin-engine Airspeed Oxford and headed for Kidlington Airbase in Oxfordshire, a 90-minute flight. According to newspaper accounts, she was not seen again until nearly four hours later when she parachuted out of her plane over the frigid waters of the Thames estuary, more than 70 miles off course.
It is speculated that she flew above the clouds to escape the weather-then she either lost her way or her windshield iced over and she couldn't break through the fog to get her bearings--and ran out of gas. She ditched her plane near a convoy of British ships, and the H.M.S. Haslemere lost no time in getting to her. Sailors threw lines to her, but she couldn't grasp them. The ship's commanding officer Lieutenant Commander Walter Fletcher dove over the side, but he was unable to help Amy and succumbed to the cold and lost consciousness before he was picked up. He died of exposure without ever coming to. Amy's body was never recovered.
The mysterious circumstance of how she came to be so far off course and her disappearance under the waves has lead to various theories. One maintains that she was flying a spy mission and was shot down by either friendly or enemy fire, while another speculates that she staged her own death.
But reports from two men associated with the Haslemere offer two different, but feasible, scenarios. From statements given for Probate Court proceedings soon after her disappearance, one Haslemere seaman said Amy drifted to close to the ship's stern and the heaving seas brought the ship down on top of her. And more recently, during a BBC interview, a wartime clerk at the RAF flight office at Sheerness says that he prepared a report for 5 January 1941 for another of the ship's seaman. In it the seaman claims that because Amy couldn't reach the ropes tossed to her, someone threw the engines in reverse and accidentally drew her into the propeller.
Whatever the circumstance of her death, nothing can diminish what Amy Johnson accomplished as a pioneer aviator. Despite her achievements, though, Amy clearly demonstrated that she was not a gifted or natural pilot. Her success sprang from an iron will and sheer determination to carry on, as well as masses of luck. And it would seem that good fortune turned her back on Amy that bitterly cold Sunday in January. Yet, perhaps that was the way Amy would have wanted it. She once told a friend, 'I know where I shall finish up-in the drink. A few headlines in the newspapers and then they forget you.' The 1930 hit song Amy says differently: 'Yesterday you were a nonentity/Now you name will go down to posterity./Amy, wonderful Amy.'
* Originally published in June 2006.