Amy Johnson CBE, (1 July 1903 – 5 January 1941) was a pioneering English aviatrix. Flying solo or with her husband, Jim Mollison, Johnson set numerous long-distance records during the 1930s. Johnson flew in the Second World War as a part of the Air Transport Auxiliary where she died during a ferry flight.
Johnson was born in Kingston upon Hull and was educated at Boulevard Municipal Secondary School (later Kingston High School). and the University of Sheffield, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in economics. She then worked in London as secretary to the solicitor William Charles Crocker. She was introduced to flying as a hobby, gaining a pilot’s A Licence No. 1979 on 6 July 1929 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.
Her father, always one of her strongest supporters, offered to help her buy an aircraft. With funds from her father and Lord Wakefield she purchased G-AAAH, a second-hand de Havilland Gipsy Moth she named “Jason”, not after the voyager of Greek legend, but after her father’s trade mark (he was a partner in the Andrew Johnson Knuditzon Fish Merchants).
Johnson achieved worldwide recognition when, in 1930, she became the first woman to fly solo from Britain, to Australia. Flying her “Jason” Gipsy Moth, she left Croydon, south of London, on 5 May of that year and landed in Darwin, Australia on 24 May after flying 11,000 miles (18,000 km). Her aircraft for this flight can still be seen in the Science Museum in London. She received the Harmon Trophy as well as a CBE in recognition of this achievement, and was also honoured with the No. 1 civil pilot’s licence under Australia’s 1921 Air Navigation Regulations.
In July 1931, Johnson and her co-pilot Jack Humphreys became the first pilots to fly from London to Moscow in one day, completing the 1,760 miles (2,830 km) journey in approximately 21 hours. From there, they continued across Siberia and on to Tokyo, setting a record time for flying from England to Japan. The flight was completed in a de Havilland Puss Moth.
In 1932, she married famous Scottish pilot Jim Mollison, who had, during a flight together, proposed to her only eight hours after they had met.
In July 1932, she set a solo record for the flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa in a Puss Moth, breaking her new husband’s record. Her next flights were as a duo, flying with Mollison, she flew G-ACCV “Seafarer,” a de Havilland Dragon Rapide nonstop from Pendine Sands, South Wales, to the United States in 1933. However, their aircraft ran out of fuel and crash-landed in Bridgeport, Connecticut; both were injured. 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 a de Havilland DH.88 Comet as part of the Britain to Australia MacRobertson Air Race. They were forced to retire from the race at Allahabad due to engine trouble.
In May 1936, Johnson made her last record-breaking flight, regaining her Britain to South Africa record in G-ADZO, a Percival Gull Six.
In 1938, Johnson divorced Mollison. Soon after, she reverted to her maiden name.
Second World War
In 1940, during the Second World War, Johnson joined the newly formed ATA, whose job was to transport Royal Air Force aircraft around the country – and rose to First Officer. (Her ex-husband Jim Mollison also flew for the ATA throughout the war.)
On 5 January 1941, while flying an Airspeed Oxford from Blackpool to RAF Kidlington near Oxford, Johnson went off course in poor weather. She drowned after bailing out into the Thames Estuary. Although she was seen alive in the water, a rescue attempt failed and her body was never recovered. The incident also led to the death of her would-be rescuer, Lt Cmdr Walter Fletcher of HMS Haslemere. There is still some mystery about the accident, as the exact reason for the flight is still a government secret and there is some evidence that besides Johnson and Fletcher a third person (possibly someone she was supposed to ferry somewhere) was also seen in the water and also drowned. Who the third party was is still unknown. Johnson was the first member of the Air Transport Auxiliary to die in service. Her death in an Oxford aircraft was ironic, as she had been one of the original subscribers to the share offer for Airspeed.
However, in 1999 it was reported that Tom Mitchell, from Crowborough, Sussex, claimed to have shot the heroine down when she twice failed to give the correct identification code during the flight. He said: “The reason Amy was shot down was because she gave the wrong colour of the day [a signal to identify aircraft known by all British forces] over radio.” Mr. 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.”
Honours and tributes
In June 1930, Johnson’s flight to Australia was the subject of a contemporary popular song, “Amy, Wonderful Amy”, composed by Horatio Nicholls and recorded by Harry Bidgood, Jack Hylton, Arthur Lally, Arthur Rosebery and Debroy Somers. She was also the guest of honour at the opening of the first Butlins holiday camp, in Skegness in 1936.
In 1958, a collection of Amy Johnson souvenirs and mementos was donated by her father to Sewerby Hall. 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, Kingston upon Hull where a girls’ school was named after her, but closed in 2004.
The “Amy Johnson Building” housing the department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering at The University of Sheffield is named after her. A primary school on Roundshaw Residential Estate (formerly Croydon Airport) is named after her.
The KLM McDonnell Douglas MD-11 named Amy Johnson.A KLM McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 is named in her honour. Other street names include”Amy Johnson Avenue”, a major arterial road in Darwin, Australia connecting the Stuart Highway to Old McMillan’s Road,”Amy Johnson Avenue” in Bridlington, East Riding of Yorkshire, “Amy Johnson Way”, close to Blackpool Airport, in Blackpool, Lancashire, “Amy Johnson Way” in the Rawcliffe area of York and “Mollison Way” in Queensbury, London are named in her honour.
In 1942, a film of Johnson’s life, They Flew Alone, was made by director-producer Herbert Wilcox, starring Anna Neagle as Johnson, and Robert Newton as Mollison. The movie is known in the United States as Wings and the Woman.
Amy Johnson inspired the song “Flying Sorcery” from Scottish singer-songwriter Al Stewart’s album, Year of the Cat(1976)
Amy! (1980) is the subject of and also is the title of a avant-garde documentary written and directed by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey and noted semiologist Peter Wollen.
Amy Johnson was the subject of a £500,000 question on the UK version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (2000). Contestant Duncan Bickley, ironically a pilot (she flew from Sherburn Aerodrome), failed by answering that the aircraft in which she flew solo from Britain to Australia was called “Pegasus” (the correct answer is “Jason”).