Amy Johnson, CBE. Legendary Aviator and First Officer with the British ATA

by Jess Clackum

Amy Johnson, 1930 (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Amy Johnson, 1930 (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

"The mere wish to fly to Australia in record time rapidly grew into a firm determination. No one had faith in me except myself. And who could blame them? I knew somehow that I could do it and it was up to me to prove it." --Amy Johnson, May 1930

Amy Johnson was born in 1903 in Hull, Yorkshire, England.  Slender and short in stature, she was an athletic and fiercely competitive young woman who enjoyed boys sports.

Two years after completing her BA in Latin French and Economics at Sheffield University, Amy moved to London. There she trained as a teacher and worked as a solicitor’s secretary. It was in London that she pursued her interest in flying.

In 1928, Johnson joined the London Aeroplane club as it was less expensive to learn to fly in the club than attending the traditional flight school. During her training, Amy met a Chief Ground Engineer named Jack Humphreys. He was impressed by her eagerness to learn and agreed to instruct her in aircraft mechanics. In December, 1929 she became the first woman in Britain to earn the Air Ministry’s ground engineer license which was followed by her certification in full navigation a year later. 

In late 1929, Johnson came up with the idea of channeling Bert Hinkler’s 1928 record, flying England to Australia in 15 ½ days. No woman dared challenge the record but because Johnson knew at some point someone would, she wanted it to be her. Her many attempts to find sponsors failed until spring 1930 when Lord Wakefield of Wakefield Oil agreed to sponsor her.

Amy Johnson with a de Havilland DH-60 Gipsy Moth at Stag lane. (Photo: Women in Aerospace History)

Amy Johnson with a de Havilland DH-60 Gipsy Moth at Stag lane. (Photo: Women in Aerospace History)

On May 5, 1930, Johnson departed London in a two-year old De Havilland Moth “Jason”, purchased with help from her father. The plane contained four instruments: air-speed indicator, altimeter, indicator for turning and banking, and a compass. 

The journey was difficult and Johnson encountered severe weather, dangerous mountain terrain, vast expanses of desert and shark infested waters. She often felt sick from the fumes which escaped from her leaking fuel line and her plane suffered numerous mechanical problems and malfunctions. Also, she was physically and mentally exhausted. Despite all this, she persevered and arrived at her destination, Darwin, Australia on May 24th, having flown approximately 11,000 miles in 19 ½ days.

While she did not break Hinkler’s record, Johnson became the first woman in history to make that solo flight. She was welcomed by cheering crowds in Australia and upon returning home to England, she received a hero’s welcome and was honored with the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.).

(In her own words: Click here to listen to Amy Johnson talk about her historic flight.)

In July 1931, Johnson and copilot Jack Humphreys became the first pilots to fly from London to Moscow in a day, completing the 1,760 mile journey in 21 hours. One year later, she set the record for a solo flight from London to South Africa in a Puss Moth, G-ACAB.

In 1932, Johnson married pioneering Scottish aviator Jim Mollison, whom she’d met just after her flight to Australia. In 1933, they flew from Camarthen to New York, but disaster struck when they ran out of fuel and the De Havilland DH.82 Dragon crashed. While they were injured it did not stop them from flying and the following year, they competed in the England to Australia air race, flying a DH Comet non-stop in record time.

Husband and wife team Amy Johnson and Jim Mollison. (Photo: Pinterest)

Husband and wife team Amy Johnson and Jim Mollison. (Photo: Pinterest)

Amy Johnson kisses husband goodbye before his flight to South America. (Photo: Getty Images)

Amy Johnson kisses husband goodbye before his flight to South America. (Photo: Getty Images)

From 1935 to 1937, Johnson served as President of the Women’s Engineering Society. Her final record-breaking long-distance flight was took her from Gravesend to Cape Town in 1936. By this time, long-distance stunt flying was no longer as exciting and new to the public as it had once been and most noteworthy obstacles had been conquered. Also, her world had been thrown upside-down when pal Amelia Earhart disappeared.

In 1938, Johnson and her husband divorced and though she tried to pursue a professional career in aviation, nothing came of it.  

The outbreak of WWII prompted Johnson to join the newly formed British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) whose job was to transport Royal Force aircraft around the country. She became First Officer and ferried aircraft from factory airstrips to RAF bases. 

On the snowy, foggy morning of January 5, 1941, Johnson left Blackpool headed for Oxfordshire, ninety minutes away. She flew an Airspeed AS.10 Oxford Mk.II, V3540. Four hours later she was spotted by the crew of the H.M.S. Haslemere as she parachuted out of her plane over the freezing waters of the Thames estuary near a convoy of British ships. Sailors threw lines in an attempt to rescue her but they were unsuccessful. The ship’s Commanding Officer Lt. Cdr. Walter Fletcher dove in to save her but was unable to reach her and died later from exposure.

Amy Johnson perished in the icy waters of the Thames. She was the first ATA pilot to be killed in active service.

Harry Ibbetson's statue of Amy Johnson at Prospect Street in Hull, the city where Amy was born.

Harry Ibbetson's statue of Amy Johnson at Prospect Street in Hull, the city where Amy was born.

Amy Johnson was an aviation pioneer and her legacy endures as an inspiration and role model for future generations of women in the field of aviation.

Johnson is forever immortalized in the song Amy, Wonderful Amy composed by Horatio Nicholls and recorded by Jack Hylton and his orchestra in 1930, in honor of her record-breaking flight.

There’s a little lady who has captured every heart

Amy Johnson, it’s you

We have watched and waited since the day you made your start

Amy Johnson, it’s true

Since the news that you are safe has come along

Everyone in town is singing this love song

Amy, wonderful Amy

How can you blame me for loving you

Since you’ve won the praise of every nation

You have filled my heart with admiration

Amy, wonderful Amy

I’m proud of the way you flew

Believe me, Amy, you cannot blame me, Amy

For falling in love with you

Amy, wonderful Amy

How can you blame me for loving you

Since you’ve won the praise of every nation

You have filled my heart with admiration

May 1930, Amy Johnson waves to the crowds after landing in Australia.

May 1930, Amy Johnson waves to the crowds after landing in Australia.

Click here to view rare film footage of aviator Amy Johnson!