Heroes in Flight: Amy Johnson

Amy Johnson

Photo: The Independent

Amy Johnson

We’ve all heard of Amelia Earhart, but how much do you know about Amy Johnson?

Amy Johnson has been named one of the most inspirational and influential women of the twentieth century, and her story is one of those that blends grit, determination, achievement, and tragedy.

Early life

Amy Johnson was born in 1903 in Kingston upon Hull, a town in East Riding of Yorkshire, England. Her parents were John William Johnson (who came from a family of fish merchants) and Amy Hodge (whose grandfather was the Mayor of Hull back in 1860).

Johnson was a bright student who went on to earn her degree in Economics at the University of Sheffield, before moving to London to work as a solicitor’s secretary. So how did she get into aviation?

A hobby becomes a career

Johnson first took up flying as a hobby, achieving her certificate in aviation in 1929. Ever ambitious, she quickly followed this with a pilot’s “A” Licence and a ground engineer’s “C” Licence (the first British woman to ever do so!).

With these achievements in hand, Johnson knew her calling lay in aviation and, with the support of her father, she bought her first airplane. She curiously called this second-hand gypsy moth Jason in honor of the family fish business trademark!

The first solo female flight to Australia

It wasn’t long before Johnson and Jason achieved global notoriety on a landmark solo flight from England to Australia in 1930 – just one year after she earned her pilot’s certificate! The first female pilot to achieve this mammoth feat, Johnson made the flight in just 19 days – only one day behind the record at the time.

Johnson’s daring nature meant she plotted the most direct route, using the straightforward (but questionable!) method of laying a ruler on a map. This flight involved encountering some incredibly inhospitable terrain and completing legs of eight hours at a time (in an open-cockpit aircraft too!).

She broke her first record when she reached India in just six days, despite having to make a forced landing in a sandstorm in Iraq. From India, she headed towards Burma, where she faced treacherous monsoon conditions, damaging Jason’s wing and propeller and slowing her progress.

However, when she finally landed in Australia, it was to cheering crowds. She was an overnight icon, with women copying her hairstyle, people writing songs about her, and fans writing hundreds of letters to her in adoration.

More records to come

There was no way Johnson could return to normal life now. The following year, she flew to Tokyo with her mechanic Jack Humphreys as co-pilot, setting flight-time records to both Moscow and Japan.

She later met Jim Mollison, a Scottish pilot who proposed to Johnson just eight hours after meeting her! The pair married and went on to fly together, including across the Atlantic in 1933. The journey was dangerous and ended with a crash in Connecticut, but the American public loved these “flying sweethearts,” who were even entertained by President Roosevelt during their visit.

As records became harder to break, Johnson diverted her attention to other opportunities in business and fashion. She modeled for Elsa Schiaparelli and even designed and sold her own traveling bag.

The outbreak of war and a controversial death

When war broke out in 1939, Johnson joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, taking the role of flying various aircraft around the country for the Royal Air Force. She soon became a First Officer – an excellent achievement for a female at that time.

Her story ends sadly, however. In January 1941, she took off from Blackpool in an Airspeed Oxford to fly to RAF Kidlington in Oxfordshire. Disaster struck when Johnson hit adverse weather conditions, and, apparently out of fuel (or perhaps having been shot at), she had to bail out as her plane went on to crash in the Thames Estuary.

The crew of the passing HMS Haslemere saw her descending by parachute and hitting the water. Despite the terrible weather conditions, including heavy snow and a strong tide, the commander of the Haslemere jumped in to save Johnson. Unfortunately, he failed, dying in hospital days later due to the terrible cold he’d experienced. Johnson’s body was never found.

In 2016, a historian hit the headlines with claims that the Haslemere had gotten too close to Johnson and she was sucked into the propellors. He suggests the official story was a cover-up as the Armed Forces wouldn’t want to admit to causing the death of one of the country’s icons, particularly at a time of war. However, what the real story is, we’ll likely never know.

Despite this very tragic end, Johnson’s life has inspired many to fly and continues to do so today.

If you’re feeling inspired, why not make the first step today? Book your Discovery Flight to see if a future in aviation is for you.

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