Amy Johnson – Life, Career & Death

Amy Johnson soared to fame in the 1930’s for her record-breaking aviation exploits. Her flying adventures made her the first woman to fly around the world.

Page Contents:

Growing Up

On the 1st July 1903, Amy Johnson was born in Hull. She was relatively privileged as her grandfather was a successful industrialist and the Mayor of Hull in the 1860’s. Her parents on the other hand ran their own fishing business which was very successful.

The Beginning of Amy Johnson’s Career

Amy Johnson attended Sheffield University in 1923 where she completed a BA in Economics. Shortly after a brief return to her home city in 1925, she gained employment as a secretary at a solicitor’s office in London.

It was during her time in the capital that she first became interested in flying aircraft. She joined the London Aeroplane Club and started lessons under the tutelage of Captain Valentine Baker in 1928. After her first six lessons, she wrote home to her family in Hull saying “I have an immense belief in the future of flying.”

Her hobby soon became an obsession and began studying for her pilot’s licence. In 1929, she left her secretarial job to become the first ever female mechanic and engineer. In a very male-dominated industry, Johnson was determined to prove that women were just as capable of flying aircraft as her colleagues.

The First Woman to Fly

Amy Johnson and her first plane "Jason", with which she intended to break records with.
Amy Johnson and her first plane “Jason” (Image source: Wikipedia)

In 1930, Amy Johnson decided that she wanted to try and beat the record set by Queenslander Bert Hinkler. Bert had flown from London to Darwin, Australia in sixteen days just two years earlier.

To achieve this feat, Amy realised that she needed an aeroplane of her own. Her father bought her one with a bit of help from philanthropist Lord Wakefield. It was a Gipsy Moth model which she called Jason after the family company’s trademark.

On the 5th of May in 1930, Amy Johnson took off from an airfield in Croydon to little acclaim. Nineteen days later on the 24th, she landed in Darwin, Australia. Although this attempt failed to break Hinkler’s record, she still became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia which is a distance of 11,000 miles.

Her maiden record breaking attempt brought her worldwide attention including the attention of the king who awarded her a CBE. As a result, Amy Johnson became more determined to try and break other aviation boundaries.

Breaking a Record

The following year, Amy managed to achieve a record by flying to Moscow in 21 hours which was the first time this had been achieved within one day. Not satisfied, she carried on across Siberia to land at Tokyo ten days later, thus breaking the record for a flight between England and Japan in the process.

The Flying Sweethearts

Amy with fellow aviatorJim Mollison. Together they were known as the flying sweethearts.
Amy & Jim Mollison (Image source: taylorempireairways.com)

In 1932, Amy Johnson found a co-pilot in the shape of fellow aviator Jim Mollison who soon became her husband. It was alleged that after only eight hours of meeting her, Mollison decided to propose to her when they were several thousand feet above the ground.

Jim Mollison himself was also an aviation record breaker and held the record for flying from England to South Africa. Together, the two soon became known as The Flying Sweethearts which further established Amy Johnson’s celebrity status.

In the same year they got married, Amy beat her husband’s record by 10.5 hours from London to Cape Town. This was achieved in a new plane that was known as “Desert Cloud.”

Up until 1938, the married couple would often undertake numerous flights together. However, despite them being experts at what they do, not all of them were successful.

Their attempts to fly to the USA from South Wales ended up with them crash-landing in Connecticut. They both sustained injuries just 55 miles short of their destination because of a fuel shortage. Despite this, the couple were given a ticker tape reception in New York, one of only seventeen that decade.

Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly around the world.
Amy Johnson (Image source: Wikipedia)

Competitive Flying

In some of the early air competitions, the couple started to fly competitively. This included the MacRobertson Air Race of 1934. Unfortunately, the duo had to retire halfway across the route from East Anglia to Melbourne over Northern India due to engine trouble.

Finally, two years later in May 1936, Amy Johnson retained her England to South Africa record. However, this was to be the last of her long distance flights.

World War II

The year of 1938 didn’t get off to a good start when Amy Johnson overturned a glider at Walsall aerodrome and within the same year divorced her husband. The following year, World War II broke out.

Amy Johnson decided to put her aviation skills to use during the conflict and joined the Air Transport Auxiliary department of the RAF. Her job was to transport aircraft to army bases around the country.

The Death of Amy Johnson

On the 5th of January 1941, Amy Johnson died during one of her routine missions when her plane crashed into the Thames Estuary. Her body was never found and the tragic circumstances of her death are still inconclusive.

It was said that her parachute came down and Amy landed in the water where she was calling for help. At the time, the weather conditions were awful as it was snowing, extremely cold, and there was a strong high tide.

A rescue trip had heard her and tried to throw Amy a rope to grab hold of it. However, despite this she was unable to and ultimately lost under a ship.

The tragic circumstances of her death are still inconclusive. One theory suggests that it was the bad weather that caused her to crash her plane whereas other people argue that she was shot down after being mistaken for enemy aircraft. Either way, she became the first person in the Auxiliary to die on duty.

The Amy Johnson statue which resides in her home town of Hull.
The Amy Johnson statue which resides in her home town of Hull. (Image source: flickr.com)

Accolades, Achievements & Awards

Amy Johnson received many accolades and awards during her short life. Along with her celebrity status and recognition she received wherever her plane landed in the world, she was also a heroine and role model to women of her generation.

Along with her CBE in 1930, she was the President of the Women’s engineering society from 1935 to 1937. Amy was one of England’s first celebrities and opened up the first Butlins Holiday Camp in Skegness as well as appearing in early radio broadcasts.

Amy Johnson’s Legacy

This Yorkshire woman’s feats have been recognised ever since in her home city of Hull, London, and Australia. The song “Amy, Wonderful Amy” was performed by Harry Bidgood after her flight to Australia.

In 1932, the Amy Johnson Cup of Courage was inaugurated and awarded to a Hull school child each year. A bust of her still remains at her old school which is now known as Kingston High.

In Hull City Centre on Prospect Street, a statue was unveiled of her in flying gear in 1972. Many of her memorabilia, trophies, and souvenirs are on display at Sewerby Hall in Bridlington. In Herne Bay, Kent, an air show is held each year in her memory.

Amy Johnson was a pioneer in so many ways. Not only was she one of the few people to have set the pace for the future of aviation, she was the first female to achieve such feats in a male dominated world. Her courage, determination, and tragic ending have made her a true Yorkshire great.