In an extract from her book, Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines, Henrietta Heald celebrates aviatrix and engineer, Amy Johnson.
Amy Johnson’s Airspeed Oxford aeroplane mysteriously plunged into the icy-cold Thames estuary near Herne Bay in Kent in January 1941.
The circumstances of her death, at the age of 37, caused a storm of controversy that still refuses to die down. According to the official record, neither the body of this highly experienced airwoman nor the wreckage of her plane has ever been found.
In the popular imagination, Johnson was a brave, glamorous and largely lucky daredevil who finally overreached herself. She made history in 1930 by becoming the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia — the first of several extraordinary achievements — but she was not doing it only for thrills. “My flight was carried out for two reasons: because I wished to carve for myself a career in aviation, and because of my innate love of adventure,” she said afterwards.
In fact, her flying success depended on hard-won engineering expertise; knowing how to patch up and repair her planes when things went wrong. She was the first woman to gain a British Air Ministry ground engineer’s licence, and from 1935 to 1937, she served as president of the Women’s Engineering Society.
Johnson also betrayed strong feminist instincts, although she may not have acknowledged them as such. In a 1932 speech, she ridiculed the idea that men’s physical strength gave them a decisive advantage:
In engineering there are many jobs beyond a man’s strength. When faced with such a job, what does he do? He fetches an instrument. What did I do when I found a job beyond my strength? At first, I used to fetch a real man engineer, and if he couldn’t do the job he’d fetch some tool that would do it. I soon learned that it saved time to fetch the tool right away.
Amy was convinced that women shared with men the vital qualities needed in aeronautical engineering — “patience, skill, delicate fingers and a fertile mind” — and there was no reason that they could not succeed, whether it was in the design department, the workshops or the repair shops.
Born in Hull in 1903, Amy Johnson graduated with a BA from Sheffield University in 1925 before moving to London, where she worked as a secretary in a solicitor’s office and developed an interest in flying. During the winter of 1928–9 she learned to fly at the technical school of the De Havilland aircraft company at Stag Lane, Edgware.
She met Sir Charles Wakefield of Castrol, who, along with the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company, helped to finance her attempt to break the light-aeroplane record in a solo flight to Australia.
Johnson set off alone in a single-engine De Havilland Gipsy Moth, which she called Jason, from Croydon Airport on 5 May 1930 and landed in Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory 19 days later, on 24 May, after an epic flight of 11,000 miles.
Even though she had failed to break the England to Australia record of 15 and a half days set in 1928 by Squadron Leader Bert Hinkler, it was an astonishing triumph, which earned her the congratulations of King George V and the award of CBE; she also received a gift of £10,000 from the Daily Mail.
Reminiscing in a BBC radio programme about Amy’s courage and resilience, Caroline Haslett recalled their conversation when she was Johnson’s passenger during a flight along the Thames in the early 1930s: “The planes [she flew] would seem very frail to us. She said she used to nurse them and put patches on when things fell off.
“When she spoke of Jason, it seemed as if she was talking about a pet — not something in which you crossed oceans and deserts.”
Amy Johnson secured a succession of triumphs in the air, most of them in aircraft built by De Havilland. In July 1931, accompanied by a mechanic called Jack Humphreys, she achieved a record flight from England to Japan in a Puss Moth. A year later, flying solo, she set a record from England to Cape Town, also in a Puss Moth.
In 1933, with her husband, Jim Mollison, she completed a 39-hour nonstop flight in a Dragon across the North Atlantic — the first ever such flight from the UK to the USA — and in the England to Australia air race of 1934 the Mollisons flew nonstop in record time to India in a Comet.
Amy set another solo record on the England-to-Cape-Town route in 1936, on this occasion in a Percival Gull, designed by the new Percival Aircraft Company.
It was clear, however, that Amy was suffering from severe psychological stress at the time and she took a rest cure in Switzerland. There were hints of serious problems in her relationship with Jim Mollison, a Scottish aviator whom she had married in 1932, and in 1938 the Mollisons were divorced.
Johnson joined the ATA in early 1940 and rose to the rank of first officer. During a routine ATA flight on 5 January 1941, while flying an Airspeed Oxford from Blackpool to RAF Kidlington near Oxford, she went off course in bad weather and her plane, which may have run out of fuel, and crashed into the Thames Estuary near Herne Bay.
She bailed out and a parachute was observed floating downwards through the snow. Several sailors reported seeing two figures in the water and hearing calls for help. Lieutenant Commander Walter Fletcher, the captain of a nearby vessel, HMS Haslemere, dived into the icy water, but his rescue attempt failed and he died later from exposure and shock.
Neither Amy’s body nor the wreckage of the plane has ever been recovered, though some of her possessions, including a pigskin travel case, washed up nearby. Theories abound about what actually happened that afternoon, and it has never been satisfactorily explained why such an experienced pilot had strayed so far off course.
The identity of the ‘second body’ has prompted speculation that, against ATA rules, Amy could have been carrying a passenger — but, more plausibly, her travel bag may have been mistaken for a human shape. In 1999, Tom Mitchell, who served during the war with an anti-aircraft regiment in Kent, said that her plane was shot down by friendly fire — implying an official cover-up.
In 2014, at a ceremony in Herne Bay to celebrate Amy’s memory, David King, who had been based at nearby RAF Detling during the war, insisted that her aircraft had been secretly retrieved — and that, soon after she disappeared, he had seen the plane, “a yellow Oxford”, on a low-loader RAF truck in which he had hitched a lift near Maidstone.
Since her death, the story of Amy Johnson has been retold and reinterpreted in films, songs and fictional accounts, and her life has been commemorated in many different ways, from the erection of statues to the naming of buildings and aircraft.
While reflecting on her career in engineering in 1943, Caroline Haslett spoke about the peculiar satisfaction it had given her to work with the female adventurers who had set out to conquer the air. “The younger generation of women aviators personify the godlike quality of courage,” she said,”Utterly feminine, completely charming, strong, clear-visioned, without care but always careful, they have taken life calmly in their stride.”
Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines, published by Unbound, is available to buy, RRP £9.99