Spotlight On: Amy Johnson, Breaking Records in Aviation

Amy Johnson, first woman to fly solo from London to Australia
Source: Amy Johnson Arts Trust 

Amy Johnson was an aviation pioneer who broke a series of flight records throughout the 1930s but is most well known for being the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia in 1930. 

A Growing Love for Aviation

Born in 1903 in Kingston-Upon-Hull, England Amy had no obvious background in flight. Her father ran a fish import and export business and she studied Economics at Sheffield University. She moved to London and worked as a typist for a solicitors firm. In an attempt to rid herself of boredom, one day Amy hopped onto a bus to take a visit to the Stag Lane Aerodrome in North London. Captivated by watching the biplanes take of and land, Amy found herself spending more and more time there.  

Johnson gained her Pilot's A licence and her Ground Engineer's C licence in 1929, becoming the first woman in the UK to gain the engineer's licence of this type. Johnson traded in her secretarial job for a full time engineering role at the aerodrome. Her success mean that she was noticed by the Women's Engineering Society and was soon elected as a member. Across the course of her career, Johnson rose as a prominent member of the Society eventually becoming its president.

Amy's First Flight 

Unlike other female pilots of the time, Amy did not have a great deal of wealth or a title. In order to pursue her passion of flight, she had to gain financial assistance from her Father and Lord Wakefield, who was a strong supporter of Johnson's, to help her to purchase her first plane. It was a second hand G-AAAH de Havilland DH.60 Gipsy Moth which she named, Jason.

Having only previously conducted a flight from London to Hull, on 5 May 1930 Johnson set out on a solo flight from Croydon to Australia with the intention of breaking the time record. However due to bad weather and mechanical issues, Amy did not break the record but she did become the first woman to conduct a solo flight from London to Australia, taking a total of 19 and a half days. 

British Pilot Amy Johnson with her plane named Jason
Fairfax Corporation. Amy Johnson with her Aeroplane, Jason, New South Wales 16 June 1930. National Library of Australia: nla.obj-162255730

Whilst her gender remained a point of interest for the press Johnson's flight was hardly an easy, fun filled expeditions. Amy set off with no radio link with the ground, a lack of reliable information regarding the weather and would sometimes we flying over uncharted lands. She decided to take the most direct route which she was unable to make changes to since fuel and supplies would be waiting for her at each stop. Remember, at this time planes still had an open cockpit so Amy had to battle the elements whilst flying. Going over Iraq, this did become too much as she got caught up in a sandstorm.By the time she reached India after 6 days of flying, Amy started to receive the attention she deserved. By the time she reached Australia, she had made quite the name for herself and was greeted by crowds. As a result of her success, Amy was awarded a CBE by King George V. 

Following her flying success, Amy had become somewhat of an icon. Women asked their hairdressers for the 'Amy Johnson Wave' and at least 10 songs were written about her. 

The Record Breaker

Following her first success, Amy continued to break records on numerous occasions. In July 1931, Amy and her co-pilot C.S. Humphrey became the first people to fly from London to Moscow in just 1 day, travelling 1760 miles in 21 hours. Together, they continued onto Siberia and then Tokyo setting the record time for a flight from UK to Japan, travelling 7000 miles in 10 days. 

In November 1932, Johnson set the world record for a solo flight from London to Cape Town in just 4 days, 6 hours and 54 minutes. The following year she flew to America with her husband in an attempt to conduct a non-stop flight. However, they crashed in Connecticut due to a lack of fuel. Amy remained in America in order to study aviation design and manufacture, continuing her love for all things flight.
In 1934 Johnson became a pilot for Hillman Airways, conducting daily flights from London to Paris but this did not stop her from continuing to break records. In October of the same year, she set the record time for a flight to India during the London-Melbourne Air Race. In May 1936, she once again set a record for London to Capetown, doing the flight in 3 days 6 hours and 26 minutes. This was Amy's last major flight. 

Now a national figure, Amy also dabbled in other ventures including modelling and fashion. She model clothes for the Italian fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli and even created her own travel bag.

A Woman of War

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Amy decided to do her part in the war effort and joined the new Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) which flew aircraft from their factories to RAF bases across the country. Amy held the title of Senior Pilot in the women's section and rose to First Officer. 
Portrait of British Pilot Amy Johnson by Sir John Longstaff
Amy Johnson by Sir John Longstaff, Oil on Cavas 1930 NPG: 4201

Unfortunately this is where Amy's story ends. On 5 January 1941, Amy Johnson set off in a thick fog whilst working for the ATA. However she went off course and her plane crashed in the Thames Estuary. It is reported that the HMS Haslemere saw her parachute but due to terrible weather conditions they were unable to reach and rescue her. Amy's body was never recovered but some of her items such as travel bag and log book washed up later.

Amy Johnson was an incredible figure in aviation, breaking records and breaking gender stereotypes. Amy's achievements even encouraged women in Australia to put pressure on flight clubs so that women could also gain membership.

Further Reading
"Amy Johnson 1903-1941" The Institution of Engineering and Technology. Accessed 01/06/2020
Midge Gillies "Amy Johnson - A Brief Biography" Amy Johnson Arts Trust. Accessed 01/06/2020
Mel Bondfield "Amy Johnson - Our Aeroplane Girl" NFSA. Accessed 01/06/2020


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