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Start Amy Johnson, the Pioneer of British Aviation
27 June 2018

Amy Johnson, the Pioneer of British Aviation

Estimated reading time Time 3 to read

Nothing seemed to indicate that the young Amy Johnson, after graduating in Economics from the University of Sheffield (United Kingdom) and working in a routine office job, would find her vocation thousands of metres in the air. She must have felt something special on her first flight as a passenger in 1926 that made her change course completely and become one of the pioneers of aviation. At the controls of her plane she performed a solo feat even greater than that of Amelia Earhart, and like the American, she also died flying through the air for reasons that are still unknown.

At the age of only twenty-six, Amy Johnson (July 1, 1903, East Yorkshire – January 5, 1941, Thames Estuary) became the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia. This was the first of her exploits in a world like that of aviation, dominated by men, which elevated her to the status of a media icon.

Amy Johnson in her Black Hawk Moth leaving Australia for Newcastle, 14 June 1930. Source: Wikimedia

Her love affair with the air was love at first sight. In a letter to a boyfriend at the time, the young woman described her first experience in an airplane: “Mollie and I went up in the aeroplane. We both enjoyed it, but I would have liked to have done some stunts.” While working as a secretary in London she joined the London Aeroplane Club to receive aviation classes, which would change her life.

After obtaining a pilot’s license, she decided to quit her job as a secretary to dedicate herself full-time to being a mechanic at the Stag Lane airfield and thus prepare for the ground engineer exam. In 1929, she made history by being the first British woman to pass this test and receive a ground engineer’s license from the Air Ministry.

The media publicised this achievement and also her desire to break the record for a solo flight from Great Britain to Australia, which was held at the time by the Australian Bert Hinkler. On May 5, 1930 she embarked on an adventure with a two-seater plane and, although she did not manage to break the record, she became the first woman to travel that distance (around 18,000 kilometres) flying alone.

Amy Johnson acclaimed by the public in Sydney in 1930. Credit: Sam Hood – State Library of New South Wales.

She had no radio connection or reliable weather data and her maps were very basic. In addition, to reach the refuelling points, she flew with the cabin open for eight hours a day and even had to deal with a sandstorm in the desert. It took almost twenty days to arrive, while Hinkler did it in sixteen.

A life of record

The feat earned her numerous accolades, including the Order of the British Empire, and marked the start of a long list of milestones: the speed record on the London-Tokyo route, another solo record on a flight from England to Cape Town, and being the first person to fly alone from London to Moscow in one day.

Amy Johnson and her husband, Jim Mollison. Credit: British government

Within this life of speed and high flying, her 1932 express courtship with the pilot Jim Mollison, whom she married only a few days after meeting him, delighted the society journalists.

The couple broke a record flying between the United Kingdom and the United States that almost cost them their lives, because only about 90 kilometres from their destination the plane ran out of fuel and they ended up hospitalized. A few years later, the couple separated and she continued with her solo career. But beyond the celebrated exploits, what the pilot longed for was to have a normal life flying commercial aircraft.

The outbreak of the Second World War gave her the opportunity to work as a pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary, transporting machinery and soldiers, which would end up being her last achievement. On January 5, 1941, the plane she was piloting crashed into the Thames estuary. It seems that the bad weather made the manoeuvres difficult, but her death is surrounded by mystery, since the corpse was never found.

Three theories about her death

So far three possible causes of her death have emerged, though none has been confirmed. The first theory asserts that the crew of a ship of the Royal Navy, the HMS Haslemere, saw her descend by parachute and fall alive into the water. The commander dove into the water to attempt a rescue, but after failing to find her he died a few days later in the hospital as a result of the icy waters.

A picture of Amy Johnson with one of her planes, Jason. Source: Wikimedia

The second theory is that of the historian Alec Gill, who suggests that Johnson’s body could have been cut up by the propellers of the HMS Haslemere and that’s why she was never found. Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Gill said: “The Royal Navy didn’t want to admit to a nation in the middle of war that they had killed Amy Johnson, the famous pilot.”

The third explanation is that her plane was shot down by friendly fire projectiles. A failure of communication between the pilot and the gunners who were stationed in the Thames estuary watching the sky could have caused them to mistakenly shoot down the aircraft thinking it was the enemy. Nothing has been confirmed, which increases the mystery surrounding this legend of aviation.

Laura Chaparro

@laura_chaparro

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