Amy Johnson – the short life and tragic end of an incredible aviator

Amy Johnson CBE was a pioneering English pilot predominantly operating during the 1930s but was sadly killed in the early years of WW2 and so in light of her extraordinary career which included many “world firsts” (Amy was the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia for example – more on this later) she certainly deserves inclusion within the nostalgic years of the 1940s.

Flying solo or with her husband Jim Mollison, she set many long-distance records during the 1930s. She flew in the Second World War as a part of the Air Transport Auxiliary and died during a ferry flight. The cause of her death has been a subject of discussion over many years.

Born in 1903 in Kingston upon Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire, England Amy Johnson was the daughter of Amy Hodge, granddaughter of William Hodge, a former Mayor of Hull. She was the eldest of three sisters.

Johnson was educated locally in her formative years and then went on to attend the University of Sheffield, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics. She then worked in London as a secretary to a solicitor and whilst living there she was introduced to flying as a hobby, gaining an aviator’s certificate in  January 1929 and a pilot’s “A” Licence later the same year, both at the London Aeroplane Club under the tutelage of Captain Valentine Baker. In that same year, she became the first British woman to obtain a ground engineer’s “C” licence.

Johnson was a friend and collaborator of Fred Slingsby whose Yorkshire based company, Slingsby Aviation of Kirbymoorside, North Yorkshire became the UK’s most famous glider manufacturer. Slingsby helped found Yorkshire Gliding Club at Sutton Bank and during the 1930s she was an early member and trainee.

Johnson obtained the funds for her first aircraft from her father, who was always one of her strongest supporters, and Lord Wakefield. She purchased a second-hand de Havilland DH.60 Gipsy Moth G-AAAH and named it Jason after her father’s business trade mark.

Amy first achieved worldwide recognition when, in 1930, she became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia. Flying G-AAAH Jason, she left Croydon Airport, Surrey on 5 May and landed at Darwin, Northern Territory on 24 May around 11,000 miles later. Six days later she damaged her aircraft while landing downwind at Brisbane airport and flew to Sydney with Captain Frank Follett while her plane was repaired. Jason was later flown to Mascot, Sydney, by Captain Lester Brain.

She received the Harmon Trophy as well as a CBE in King George V’s 1930 Birthday Honours in recognition of this achievement, and was also honoured with the No. 1 civil pilot’s licence under Australia’s 1921 Air Navigation Regulations.

Her second aircraft was a de Havilland DH.80 Puss Moth G-AAZV which she named perhaps not surprisingly, Jason II. In July 1931, she and co-pilot Jack Humphreys became the first people to fly from London to Moscow in one day, completing the 1,760 mile journey in approximately 21 hours. From there, they continued across Siberia and on to Tokyo, setting a record time for Britain to Japan.

In 1932, Johnson married Scottish pilot Jim Mollison, who had proposed to her during a flight together some eight hours after they had first met. In July 1932, Johnson set a solo record for her flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa in Puss Moth G-ACAB, named Desert Cloud, breaking her new husband’s record. This made such news that both the De Havilland Aircraft Co and Castrol Oil featured this flight in their own advertising campaigns.

In July 1933, Johnson together with Mollison flew the G-ACCV, named “Seafarer,” a de Havilland DH.84 Dragon I nonstop from Pendine Sands, South Wales to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York. The aim was to take “Seafarer” to the starting point for the Mollison’s attempt at achieving a world record distance flying non-stop from New York to Baghdad.

Running low on fuel and now flying in the dark and at night, the pair made the decision to land short of New York. Spotting the lights of Bridgeport Municipal Airport (now Sikorsky Memorial Airport) in Stratford, Connecticut they circled it five times before crash landing some distance outside the field in a drainage ditch. Both were thrown from the aircraft but suffered only cuts and gashes. After recuperating, the pair were feted by New York society and received a ticker tape parade down Wall Street.

The Mollisons also flew, in record time from Britain to India in 1934 in G-ACSP, named “Black Magic“, a de Havilland DH.88 Comet as part of the Britain to Australia MacRobertson Air Race, but were forced to retire from the race at Allahabad because of engine trouble.

In September 1934, Johnson (under her married name of Mollison) became the youngest President of the Women’s Engineering Society, having been vice-president since 1934. She was active in the society until her death.

Amy’s last record-breaking flight was made on 4 May 1936, when she flew from Gravesend Airport in the UK to South Africa in G-ADZO, regaining her Britain to South Africa record. The same year she was awarded the Gold Medal by the Royal Aero Club.

In 1938, she divorced Mollison and soon afterwards reverted to her maiden name.

In 1940, shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, Johnson joined the newly formed Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which transported Royal Air Force aircraft around the country and quickly rose to the rank of First Officer. she later described a typical day in her life in the ATA in a humorous article (published posthumously in 1941) for The Woman Engineer journal.

On 5 January 1941, while flying an Airspeed Oxford for the ATA from Prestwick in Scotland via RAF Squires Gate (Blackpool) to RAF Kidlington near Oxford, Johnson went seriously off course in adverse weather conditions. Reportedly out of fuel, she bailed out as her aircraft crashed into the Thames Estuary near Herne Bay. A convoy of wartime vessels in the Estuary spotted Johnson’s parachute coming down and saw her alive in the water, calling for help. Conditions were poor – there was a heavy sea and a strong tide, snow was falling and it was intensely cold.

Lt Commander Walter Fletcher, the Captain of HMS Haslemere, navigated his ship to attempt a rescue. The crew of the vessel threw ropes out to Johnson but she was unable to reach them and was lost under the ship. A number of witnesses believed there was a second body in the water and so Fletcher actually dived in and swam out to this, rested on what was merely debris for a few minutes then let go. When the lifeboat reached him he was unconscious and as a result of the intense cold he died in hospital a few days later.

A memorial service was held for Johnson in the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London on 14 January 1941. Walter Fletcher was posthumously awarded the Albert Medal for his selfless bravery and courage in May 1941.

In 1999, it was reported that Johnson’s death may have been caused by accident. Tom Mitchell, from Crowborough in Sussex, claimed to have shot Johnson’s aircraft down when she twice failed to give the correct identification code during the flight. Mitchell explained how the aircraft was sighted and contacted by radio. A request was made for the signal. She gave the wrong one twice. “Sixteen rounds of shells 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.”

In 2016, the historian Alec Gill also claimed that the son of a crew member from HMS Haslemere had stated in later life that Johnson had died because she was sucked into the blades of the ship’s propellers; the crewman did not observe this to occur, but believes it to be true and of course we will never know. What does seem likely however, is that by a strange twist of irony, this iconic figure may well have died through what is known today as “friendly fire” one way or another.

As a member of the ATA with no known grave (her body was never recovered) Johnson is commemorated (under the name Amy V. Johnson) by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede.

Amy’s name and renown have remained synonymous with aviation and the British sense of adventure ever since and across the UK there are still many reminders of her short but incredible life.

A collection of Amy Johnson souvenirs and mementos was donated by her father to Sewerby Hall near Bridlington in 1958, about 40 miles from where she was born. The hall now houses a room dedicated to Amy Johnson in its museum. In 1974, Harry Ibbetson’s statue of Amy Johnson was unveiled in Prospect Street, Hull where a girls’ school was named after her (the school closed in 2004). In 2016 new statues of Johnson were unveiled to commemorate the 75th anniversary of her death. The first, on 17 September was at Herne Bay, close to the site she was last seen alive, and the second, on 30 September was unveiled in Hull, close to Johnson’s childhood home.

In 2017 The Guardian newspaper in the UK, listed that Amy Johnson bronze as one of the “best female statues in Britain”.

What an incredibly inspirational character she was and remains today for many.

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