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'Queen of the Air': the remarkable life of pioneering English aviator Amy Johnson

Your guide to English aviator Amy Johnson, who was the first woman to make a solo flight from England to Australia...

English pilot Amy Johnson sat in a plane and wearing a helmet
Published: March 3, 2022 at 12:00 pm
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On 4 August 1930, English aviator Amy Johnson made her triumphant return to the aerodrome in Croydon – the starting point of her monumental journey across the world. She had just become the first woman to make a solo flight from England to Australia. The pioneer pilot had left England virtually unknown, with just a handful of well-wishers to wave her off, but the scene upon her return was very different, as thousands gathered to share in Johnson’s historic moment.

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Who was Amy Johnson?

Born in 1903, Johnson later graduated from Sheffield University with a degree in economics, Latin and French, and had her first experience of flying during a joy ride at the Hull Fair. After moving to London and securing work as a secretary, Johnson indulged her love of flying and spent every spare moment at Stag Lane Aerodrome in north London; she was awarded her pilot’s licence in 1929. Men may have dominated the skies in the early days of aviation, but Johnson was determined to prove that flying could be more than just a hobby and that women were as capable pilots as men. That same year, Johnson became one of the first women to earn a ground engineer’s ‘C’ licence.

Johnson was determined to prove that flying could be more than just a hobby and that women were as capable pilots as men

Little attention was given when Johnson declared her intention to beat the England-to-Australia record set by Bert Hinkler in 1928 – at the time Johnson’s longest solo flight was between London and Hedon, near her hometown of Hull. Hinkler had completed the mammoth flight in just under 16 days. Johnson’s flight path – which she chose simply by putting a ruler on a map and drawing a straight line – took her across extremely dangerous terrain and required her to fly non-stop for at least eight hours a time in an open top plane before stopping for fuel. But it was the fact that she was a woman that fascinated the media the most, with one newspaper erroneously reporting that she would be taking a cupboard full of dresses with her on the flight.

With limited weather information and no way to contact those on the ground, Johnson set off on 5 May 1930 in her de Havilland Gipsy Moth. While a monsoon in Burma (now Myanmar) destroyed her chances of beating Hinkler’s record, she reached India in a record six days. On 24 May, Johnson landed in Darwin after an epic 11,000-mile journey, missing the record by just four days.

Fame awaited her. The British press dubbed her 'Queen of the Air'. In Australia, too, shortly before her 27th birthday, Johnson was a celebrity, with towns petitioning for her to visit and women asking their hairdressers for the 'Amy Johnson wave'. Songs were even written about her, including Amy, Wonderful Amy.

Johnson would spent a lot more time in the skies on long-distance flights. In 1931, she set a record with co-pilot Jack Humphreys for a flight from England to Moscow and then across Siberia to Tokyo. In 1932, Johnson married Scottish pilot Jim Mollison, and together they continued beating records until their divorce in 1938.

How did Amy Johnson die?

During the Second World War, Johnson joined the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which moved planes from factories or between air bases for the Royal Air Force, and she rose through the ranks to First Officer. Then, in 1941, she crashed her plane during a flight over the Thames estuary in Kent; her body was never recovered.

Due to Johnson being off course from her intended destination of Oxford at the time of the crash, conspiracy theories have since run rife. Some newspapers at the time proposed she had been on a secret war-time mission, while others suspected that Johnson’s death was covered up after she had been accidentally killed during a rescue attempt. The mystery remains.

DID YOU KNOW?

Johnson named the second-hand Gipsy Moth she flew to Australia ‘Jason I’ – a reference to the trademark of her father’s business.

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This article was first published in the May 2020 edition of BBC History Revealed

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