Amy Johnson (1903-1941), CBE, was a record breaking pilot and engineer, most famous for being the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia in 1930. She grew up in Hull and was a tomboy with an obsession for sport, forward thinking, unconventional and adventurous.
After obtaining a degree in Economics from Sheffield University, Amy’s restless spirit drove her to seek freedom and independence and in 1927 she moved to London. She found a secretarial role working for William Crockers firm of solicitors.
In 1928, she found lodgings in Maida Vale, where a visit to Stag Lane Aerodrome one Saturday afternoon changed everything. Fascinated with the little biplanes taking off and landing at the aerodrome, Amy envied the pilots and became obsessed with flying.
Bored with office life and devastated after a failed seven year love affair, Amy turned her back on her steady job and hopes of marriage, and went in pursuit of her first love of speed and adventure; she decided to learn to fly.
In 1929 Amy obtained her pilot’s licence and in the same year became the first British female ground engineer; at one time the only one in the world.
In January 1930 Amy announced her plans for a solo flight from England to Australia. She wanted to beat Bert Hinkler’s 15.5 day record.
When Amy Johnson took off from Croydon Airport on 5th May 1930 in a second-hand, open cockpit, wood and fabric biplane she called ‘Jason’, the furthest she had flown was from London to Hull, and she had held her pilot’s licence for only ten months.
With no radio or long range weather information and only the most basic maps, Amy embarked on an epic journey over uncharted land, shark infested seas, in blistering sun, torrential rain and a sand storm. Flying on average 10 hours a day then spending 3 hours overhauling her engine before a little food and sleep and then doing it all over again.
It is not unfair to say Amy crashed her way to Australia, pushing herself to the very limits both physically and mentally. She did not beat the speed record after encountering appalling monsoon weather, but she never gave up.
On 24th May, 19.5 days after she left Croydon, a battered and blistered Amy Johnson touched down in Darwin, Australia and flew into the history books. The 26 year old typist from Hull had become the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia and the world fell in love with her.
Amy became an overnight international celebrity. People could identify with her, an ordinary woman who had done an extraordinary thing, and she inspired a whole generation battling a global depression.
Amy spent the 1930s breaking more aviation records and was a fierce advocate for women’s role in aviation and engineering. But she struggled to balance the celebrity lifestyle that funded her dangerous career with a desire for privacy and love.
One of the very first ‘influencers’, at the height of her fame the world hung on her every word. In 1932, she married fellow dare-devil pilot, Jim Mollinson; it was not a happy marriage and they divorced in 1938.
When the war came, Amy joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian organisation attached to the RAF tasked with ferrying aircraft from the factories where they were built to airfields around the country where they were flown into battle.
On 5 January 1941, Amy took off in an Airspeed Oxford on a ferry flight from RAF Squires Gate, Blackpool, heading for RAF Kidlington, near Oxford. She never arrived.
Later that day, a wartime convoy of ships in the Thames Estuary witnessed a plane crash into the sea. A dramatic rescue attempt failed to save the pilot and also claimed the life of the captain of the vessel that went to their aid.
A proof of death case held in December 1943 ruled the pilot lost in the Thames Estuary that day was Amy Johnson. Her body and the wreckage of the plane were never found. She was just 37 years old.
The RAF Accident Record Card for Amy Johnson’s crash records Herne Bay, Kent, as the end point of her final flight. She is commemorated in the town by a life size bronze statue on the seafront.
The circumstances surrounding Amy’s death remain a mystery to this day. Various experts have speculated as to why Amy was off course and the reasons she crashed, but many questions remain unanswered.
Amy Johnson was one of the world’s greatest female pilots and an icon of her era. She died serving her country during a World War. Amy’s Australia flight remains one of the most outstanding solo achievements of all time. Despite her story has been largely lost to history, she leaves an enduring legacy. Her bravery, voice and contribution inspired a whole generation and has helped pave the way for women in aviation and engineering worldwide.