Johnson, Amy (1903–1941)
Johnson, Amy (1903–1941)
British aviator who was the first woman to fly solo to Australia in 1930 and who subsequently broke many records in pioneering flights around the world. Name variations: Amy Mollison. Born Amy Johnson on July 1, 1903, at no. 154, St. George's Road, Hull, England; died on January 5, 1941, after parachuting from a plane she was ferrying for the Air Ministry over the Thames Estuary; eldest daughter of John William Johnson (a herring importer) and Amy (Hodge) Johnson (granddaughter of William Hodge, sometime mayor of Hull); educated at the Boulevard Secondary School, Hull, and at Sheffield University where she graduated in 1925; married Jim Mollison (a fellow pioneer pilot), in July 1932 (divorced 1938); no children.
Intended to become a teacher, instead took a secretarial post in a firm of London solicitors; interest in flying kindled, joined the London Aeroplane Club based at Stag Lane airport (1928); was first woman in Britain to qualify as ground engineer as well as pilot; shot to fame after solo flight to Australia (1930); continued to engage in record-breaking flights until the outbreak of war (1939); joined the Air Transport Auxiliary (1939); killed while on active service with this unit (1941).
Pioneering and record flights:
soloed to Australia (May 5–24, 1930); co-piloted, with her engineer and mentor Jack Humphreys, record-breaking flight from England to Tokyo (July 1931); made record-breaking solo flight to Cape Town and back (November 1932); made non-stop flight from London to New York with her husband which narrowly failed (July 1933); made record-breaking flight with her husband from London to Karachi (October 1934); soloed to the Cape and back, beating both records (May 1936).
For the first three days of a solo flight to Australia in her airplane Jason, Amy Johnson had encountered minor problems and one bad fright. When dropping through clouds over the Taurus mountains in Eastern Turkey, she found herself heading straight for a mass of rocks; only quick maneuvering saved her from a crash. After spending the night at Aleppo in Syria, Johnson set off to cross 500 miles of featureless desert on May 8, 1930, despite the fact that it was stiflingly hot and visibility was poor. Her destination was Baghdad. Suddenly, she hit a patch of haze much thicker than she had previously encountered—a dust storm. "My machine gave a terrific lurch," she wrote later. "The nose dipped and Jason and I dropped a couple of thousand feet… Sand and dust covered my goggles, my eyes smarted, and I couldn't control the machine sufficiently to keep it straight… I have never been so frightened in my life… All at once I felt my wheels touch ground although I could see nothing."
Johnson had no idea where she was, but her first concern was to protect her plane from the swirling dust. Hastily covering the engine as best she could, she was then forced to seat herself on Jason's tail to stop the machine from blowing away altogether. "Once, I heard dogs barking," she wrote, "and my terror broke out afresh as I had heard that these desert dogs wouldn't hesitate to attack and tear their victims to pieces. I therefore pulled out my small revolver and waited." Fortunately, the storm abated, her engine started on first try, and Johnson was able to continue on to Baghdad. Later, however, she remarked casually, "If I had gone in the wrong direction I should have headed into hundreds of miles of trackless desert." Such were the hazards that confronted the pioneer pilot between the World Wars—and Johnson was to encounter many more before she touched down in Australia in just over two weeks' time.
Amy Johnson claimed a happy childhood. She had an affectionate and supportive family and got on well with her three younger sisters, particularly her more outward going sister Irene Johnson . Her father was to become her lifelong confidante and adviser; without his unflagging support, none of her later adventures would have materialized. Though rather shy and often put into the shade by Irene, Amy was something of a roughneck in her teens. She revelled in outdoor sports such as swimming and bicycling. Indeed, she would compete with the more daring boys at school, riding her bike full tilt at a brick wall and at the last moment skidding violently sideways, like a speedway rider skids round a cinder track. It was around this time that she was hit full in the face by a cricket ball which smashed her front teeth—a disfigurement she was acutely self-conscious of for the rest of her life, though nobody else seemed to notice.
In 1922, just before enrolling at Sheffield University, 19-year-old Amy fell in love. The young man, a Swiss called Franz, was eight years her senior and accustomed to success with women. For the next six years, the affair would continue on and off, and there is no doubt that Johnson hoped they would eventually marry. It was not to be. When the couple broke up in 1928, Johnson was devastated. Said her closest friend, Winnie Irving , Amy "threw herself onto her bed and sobbed as though the storm of tears would never end."
By this time, Johnson, who had graduated from Sheffield, was in London, working as a secretary in a firm of solicitors under Vernon Wood (later to become one of her staunchest supporters in her flying career). The job, however, was humdrum, and not at all suited to someone of Johnson's adventurous temperament. Her unsatisfactory employment situation, combined with her disappointment in love, was one reason why Johnson became smitten with flying. By the late 1920s, flying as a sport, with races and "pageants" and aerobatic contests, was in the news. It appealed to the poetically minded, with its sense of exhilaration and freedom. Flying also seemed to be the transport of the future, and to the early pioneers it became almost a duty to pit their wits, skills, and endurance in opening up routes across the continents and the oceans. On a more mundane level, joining a flying club guaranteed an instant social life—and this is what Johnson felt she desperately needed in 1928.
I admit that I am a woman, and the first one to [fly solo to Australia]… but in the future I do not want it to be unusual that women should do things; I want it to be recognized that women can do them.
Amy Johnson's first flying lesson was not a success, and her brusque young instructor did not hesitate to tell her so. Even so, she persevered, and, once she was deemed capable enough to go solo, she flew whenever she could. As the more perceptive of her instructors admitted, however, Johnson was never a natural-born pilot: her landings were often akin to dropping a ton of bricks on the runway. It was her determination and courage that led to her achievements.
Johnson also became fascinated with the mechanics of flying. What keeps an airplane in the air? Why does the engine sometimes falter? How do the compass and instruments work? She was determined to find out. By constantly pestering her club authorities, she managed to get herself apprenticed to the ground engineers. This was not easy, for theirs was very much a masculine world. Arriving on her first morning at the aero workshop, Amy found herself ignored. "At last I asked outright for a job of work," she later recalled. The reply: "You can sweep out the hangar." Within a fortnight, Johnson was "one of the boys" and given the nickname "Johnnie"—a name soon to be famous throughout the world. Her mentor was Jack Humphreys, the kindly chief engineer, who was to give her enormous encouragement and support throughout her flying career. By the end of 1929, she had qualified both as pilot and ground engineer.
Johnson was determined to make aviation her full-time career. She was, however, fully aware of the obstacles that would be set in the way of a woman becoming a professional flyer. As she lamented this fact to an instructor, he cautioned that to be accepted a woman would have to "win her spurs." "How?" asked Johnson. With a laugh, he cracked, "Oh, by flying to Australia for instance." The seed was sown.
By the beginning of 1930, Johnson's plans were beginning to take shape. She had gained the support of Lord Wakefield, an aviation enthusiast; he and her father put up the money for her to buy a second-hand Gypsy Moth airplane. Johnson's aim was to try to beat Australian test pilot Bert Hinkler's record of 15½ days for the flight from London, England, to Darwin, Australia. Meticulous planning was needed to cut through red tape and work out suitable airfields where Amy could refuel. As far as India, this was not too great a problem, but beyond the subcontinent she would be flying over vast stretches of ocean and jungle that had barely been mapped, at a season when the monsoon might well be beginning, and where there was little hope of rescue if things went wrong. Undeterred, Johnson completed her preparations by her deadline of May 5. Witnessed by a small group of friends on a chill, spring morning, the 26-year-old ex-typist, who had never flown farther than from London to Hull, took off for a flight of 11,000 miles to the other side of the world.
Despite a spluttering engine and a gas leak that allowed nauseating fumes to escape into the cockpit, and her hair-raising adventure in the Iraqi desert, Johnson's flight went relatively smoothly as far as British India. She reached Karachi safely and landed in triumph. She had improved on Hinkler's 1928 record for the same distance by two days. The world's press was suddenly interested. THE LONE GIRL FLYER, proclaimed the headlines. THE BRITISH GIRL LINDBERGH. It was only after a cheerful send-off from the Karachi airport that Johnson's troubles began to start "in earnest." Failing to reach her next stop at Allahabad because of a lack of gas, she was forced to set down on the barrack square in Jhansi. An officer who witnessed her landing described it:
The plane was down. Down on the regimental parade ground, and charging at high speed towards the barracks. It twisted its way round trees, barely missed an iron telegraph pole, scattered a group of men waiting to mount guard, smashed into the name board outside the regimental offices, and then came to rest wedged between two of the barrack buildings. There was a race to reach it. From the cockpit climbed a figure—it was a girl—young, almost a child, fair, wearing only a shirt, an ill-fitting pair of khaki shorts, socks and shoes, and a flying helmet. The skin on her face, arms and legs was burnt and blistered by the sun, and tears were not far from her tired eyes. "I am two days ahead of Bert Hinkler's time so far," she said "and now I'm afraid everything is ruined."
Her pronouncement was premature. As was to happen again and again on this extraordinary journey, Johnson received help from the most unexpected quarters. Skilled workers from among the soldiers soon straightened her bent wing, and, after acceding to the request of a group of Indian women, delighted by her adventure, that "Miss Sahib would just touch them with her hand," Johnson was on her way again.
Flying on over the dense jungle of Burma (now Myanmar), Johnson was due to land at the racecourse at Rangoon but came down with a bang on the playing fields of the Government Technical College instead. "Jason ran smoothly past the goal-posts head on for a ditch, into which he buried his head and came to a standstill with a loud noise and a great shudder," wrote Johnson. "This was too much for me.… I cried like a baby." The damage proved to be a broken propeller, a ripped tire, a broken under-carriage strut, and a much-damaged wing. Again help was at hand. A local forestry officer was able to make a new strut overnight, and the boys at the college surrendered their shirts with much glee to improvise a covering for the torn wing.
There were several other such incidents. While flying over Thailand on her way to Singapore, Johnson had to make an unscheduled landing at Singora on the coast. Again, her machine needed attention. By this time, exhausted and feeling very weak, she turned to a strong-looking man in the crowd to help her undo the nuts and bolts. "But," as she later wrote, "so soon as he had undone one plug, or nut, or bolt, he ran away as though extremely shy, so that when I wanted something else undone, I had to look round for him and ask for the 'Strong man.' This happened so often that the crowd learned these two words, and so soon as I looked around there was a general outcry for 'Strong man, Strong man,' to everyone's intense amusement.… Though I was hot and tired I found myself laughing with them." A new hazard occurred when it was time for Amy to take
off again. The crowd of had become so dense that she only just avoided piling up into them.
Landing in untracked country in Java, Jason's wings were again torn. This time Johnson had to resort to sticking plaster to repair them. On the island of Timor, she landed in a field of ant-heaps miles from anywhere, miraculously hitting none of them. A few minutes later, she wrote, "I was surrounded by a horde of yelling natives, with hair flying in the wind, and knives in their hands or between their redstained teeth. I pulled out my revolver, but I had no need at all to worry. With a deep salute, the leader came forward and gingerly touched first the machine, then me." It was during these few days that Johnson lost touch with the outside world, and the London placards were shouting, FLYING GIRL MISSING.
Johnson was now on the last lap. Only the Timor strait—500 miles of shark-infested sea—lay between her and her goal. The Shell Company had thoughtfully stationed an oil-tanker halfway across, and it was with great relief that Amy swooped low over its decks. The last few hours seemed interminable. "At last," wrote Johnson, "I saw a dark cloud on the horizon.… The cloud slowly assumed shape and after half an hour's flying I made out an island, which I knew to be Melville Island and I was sure of my exact whereabouts. In another half an hour my wheels were touching Australian soil."
Because of bad weather and her various mishaps, Johnson did not beat Hinkler's record, but the world did not seem to care. Despite the fact that there had been no public relations build-up before the flight, the public went wild with spontaneous enthusiasm. The newspapers were ecstatic; the public succumbed to hero-worship: "Amy, wonderful Amy/ How can you blame me for loving you?" went a popular English song. The Australians loved her for her modest gaiety, and she was feted across the continent in verse and song:
"Johnnie!" There's a shouting goes up and down the land
"Johnnie's over Darwin!" And millions breathe anew
There's a plane in the offing and a little waving hand
Johnnie's making Darwin! Johnnie from the blue!
Johnson was appointed Commander of the British Empire (CBE), the Daily Mail newspaper made her a gift of £10,000, the children of Sidney raised a sum of money with which she bought a gold cup, still offered annually at Hull for the most courageous juvenile deed of the year, and when she returned to England she was met on arrival by the secretary of state for air, Lord Thomson. News of her exploit even reached the remote corners of Tibet. On being told of the flight, the Dalai Lama considered the news gravely and then with a puzzled frown asked, "Why was the Honorable Lady in such a hurry?"
After the amazing success of her Australian flight, Johnson's subsequent career may seem something of an anti-climax. However, during the 1930s, she was never far from the news and went on to make some astonishing record-breaking flights. Although at first amazed and thrilled by her fame, Johnson was not always comfortable with it. At times, she came close to having a nervous breakdown. She particularly resented being exploited by the press and publicity firms. In an outburst to her father, she fumed, "I strongly resent interference and efforts to rule my life or control my actions.… I've lived my own life for the last seven years and I intend to continue doing so."
But fame brought her financial independence. She could now choose from the best planes available to make her flights, and sponsorship was no longer a problem. After an abortive attempt to fly solo across Siberia in the depths of winter (1930–31), Johnson successfully broke the London to Tokyo record in the summer of 1931, accompanied by her loyal engineering mentor, Jack Humphreys. (He had taught her engineering; she taught him to fly.) Flying across the vast Russian steppes, they found airport facilities primitive, but the Russians in charge—often women—were very friendly. Arriving in Tokyo, she danced with General Nagaoka, the distinguished president of the Imperial Aviation Society, whose whiskers were claimed to be the longest and whitest in the world.
It was at this point that a new love entered Johnson's life. Like Amy, Jim Mollison was a pioneer long-distance pilot. Their paths had crossed briefly when Mollison, as a humble airline pilot, had flown Johnson on one leg of her Australian tour in 1930. They met again in Cape Town in March 1932. Mollison, by now famous, landed at the Cape on March 28, incoherent with exhaustion after making the first light-plane flight across the Sahara to the tip of the African continent. Johnson, in Cape Town to recover from a stomach operation, was at the airport to meet him. Four months later, during which they had only been in each other's company for about 24 hours, they were married.
Jim Mollison had a charming manner and was a brilliant pilot. He was also an inveterate womanizer and a hard drinker. (Indeed, as his flying career progressed, his brandy-influenced performances evoked incredulous surprise at his survival.) These latter two traits were to ruin the marriage in the end, but in the beginning these two "Lovers of the Air," as the press gleefully christened them, were just that—very much in love.
The married couple were soon planning flights they would do together. First, however, Johnson set out on a long-planned solo flight to South Africa in a new Puss Moth, Desert Cloud, to return by the West coast route. "I'm going to try and beat Jim's Cape record—just as a sporting effort," she wrote to her parents. And she did, though she frightened herself badly on the way. "My worst stretch was Douala-Benguela, all by night," she wrote to Mollison. "I must admit it's frightened me of that coastline by night. It took me thirteen hours to fly 800 miles, following the ins and outs of the coast with no forward visibility at all."
After one abortive start when they crashed on take-off, Johnson and Mollison set off on their first attempted record-breaking flight on July 3, 1933. They were determined to fly their black twin-engined de Havilland Dragon, Seafarer, around the world. The "Flying Sweethearts" would head first for New York, then on to Baghdad (the record-breaking attempt), and then, with hardly a pause, straight back to London. It was an ambitious, some would say foolhardy, venture.
Taking off from Pendine Sands in South Wales, the couple took 24 hours to reach the coast of Newfoundland. Fuel was now running low and gave out completely over Connecticut. Jim, almost blind with exhaustion, attempted to land at the Bridgeport airport, 50 miles from New York. Unfortunately, he overshot the runway, and Seafarer crashed. Rescuers found Johnson moaning over the unconscious body of her husband. By the time the two arrived at a hospital, souvenir hunters had stripped Seafarer of every movable part and left it an empty shell.
Neither was seriously hurt, however. Johnson enjoyed recuperating in New York, where she and Mollison were given a ticker-tape welcome, and she soon fell in love with America. As long as "the blonde adventuress of the skylanes" remained in the news, this love affair was reciprocated by the American public. But husband and wife were now moving apart. When they returned to England after seven months, Johnson retreated to the country, leaving Mollison to indulge himself in the bars and nightclubs of London. They were to have one more adventure together: the England to Australia air race in October 1934, for which they acquired a Comet racer—a fast twin-engined monoplane, much likened to a streamlined gas tank and christened Black Magic. Jeffrey Quill, an RAF flying officer, recalled seeing the couple take off: "I saw Jim and Amy climb into their Comet. He looked as white as a sheet and as if he had been sloshed for forty-eight hours—which I suspect he was. She looked very nervous and apprehensive and I felt desperately sorry for her having to climb in behind that rather raffish character for such a venture as this."
Nevertheless, the first half of the race was a success. Theirs was the only Comet to reach Baghdad non-stop and on schedule, and their time to Karachi was just 22 hours, halving the existing record. Then things went wrong. Through their own fault in using the wrong kind of fuel, one engine seized up at Allahabad, and the couple were stuck there for three weeks waiting for it to be repaired, while another British twosome, Charles Scott and Tom Campbell, went on to win the race. After this failure, Jim drifted off around the world, leaving Amy very much on her own. Despite a brief reconciliation in 1936, the marriage was now clearly doomed. They were finally divorced in 1938, and Johnson reverted to using her maiden name.
These were difficult times for Johnson, but she was still determined to continue her flying career. After purchasing a Percival Gull machine, she decided to attempt to beat the round-trip London-Cape Town-London records once again—this time by flying over the Sahara. Her first effort in April 1936 failed when the Gull hit a boulder on take-off on the edge of the desert, and the plane collapsed. Undeterred, Amy set off once again a month later. This time her venture was a resounding success, and she beat the records for both flights and the double journey. The London Times commented: "Her last flight is no mere flash in the pan but an achievement in keeping with a distinguished aeronautical career."
This was the last of Johnson's long-distance flights. She spent the years up until 1939 alternating between Paris and country cottages in England, taking up gliding, riding, and writing. At one time or other, she was a contributing aviation correspondent to the Daily Mail, Cosmopolitan, the Sunday Graphic, and Lady Driver. She also wrote several books—Myself When Young and Sky Roads of the World being the most widely read.
June 1939 saw her working as a professional pilot for the first time, ferrying passengers to the Isle of Wight. "Folks, you've got the chance of being flown by a world famous pilot for five bob a time!" proclaimed the Daily Mirror. With the outbreak of World War II, Johnson and her fellow pilots came under orders of the military, and she was eventually enrolled into the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). This meant ferrying military aircraft to different airfields when they were required. Although initially frustrated by the restrictions of military life and the prejudice against women pilots (even famous ones), Johnson was soon enjoying her new role. Indeed, her sister Molly Jones , with whom she spent her last evening, recalled that she had never seen her looking so happy and well.
Amy Johnson died in the Thames Estuary on January 5, 1941, after parachuting from a plane she was ferrying for the Air Ministry. The crew on the trawler H.M.S. Haslemere desperately tried to rescue her. As they approached the figure in the water, a seaman on board heard a voice shouting, "Hurry, please hurry." "It sounded like a boy's voice at first," he said, "then I realized it was a woman." Life lines were thrown to her, but it appears that Johnson was too numbed by cold to reach them. "The ship was heaving in the swell," said the seaman, "and then the stern came up and dropped on top of the woman. She did not come up again." "Her death was in character with the Amy Johnson legend," wrote her biographer, Constance Babington-Smith , "the legend of a woman who, despite every obstacle, not only earned a permanent place in the history of aviation, but also became a world-famous symbol of adventure, tenacity, and courage."
Babington-Smith, Constance. Amy Johnson. London: Thorosons, 1967.
Johnson, Amy. Skyroads of the World. London: Chambers, 1939.
Jones, Molly, and Betty Falconer. Amy Johnson's Letters. London: British Museum.
Cadogan, Mary. Women with Wings: Female Flyers in Fact and Fiction. Academy Chicago, 1993.
Mollison, Jim. Playboy of the Air. London: Graphic, 1937.
Taylor, Sir George. The Sky Beyond. London: Oxford University Press, 1935.
They Flew Alone (96 min. film, released in America as Wings and the Woman), starring Anna Neagle as Amy Johnson and Robert Newton as Jim Mollison, produced by Imperator/RKO, 1942.
Christopher Gibb , a scholar of Oxford University, writer and author, London, England