Amy Johnson CBE was a pioneering English aviator and was the first female pilot to fly alone from Britain to Australia. Flying solo or with her husband, Jim Mollison, she set numerous long-distance records during the 1930s. She flew in the Second World War as a part of the Air Transport Auxiliary and died during a ferry flight in WW2.
She was introduced to flying as a hobby, gaining an aviator’s certificate, No. 8662, on 28 June 1929, and a pilot’s “A” Licence, No. 1979, on 6 July 1929, both at the London Aeroplane Club under the tutelage of Captain Valentine Baker. In that same year, she became the first British woman to obtain a ground engineer’s “C” licence.
Johnson’s father, always one of her strongest supporters, offered to help her buy an aircraft. With funds from her father and Lord Wakefield she purchased G-AAAH, a second-hand de Havilland DH.60 Gipsy Moth she named “Jason“, not after the voyager of Greek legend, but after her father’s business trade mark.
Johnson achieved worldwide recognition when, in 1930, she became the first woman pilot, or in the language of the time, “aviatrix”, to fly solo from England to Australia. Flying G-AAAH, the first of two aircraft she named “Jason“, she left Croydon, south of London, on 5 May and crashlanded in Darwin, Northern Territory, on 24 May after flying 11,000 miles (18,000 km). This aircraft can be seen in the Science Museum in London. She received the Harmon Trophy as well as a CBE in George V‘s 1930 Birthday Honours in recognition of this achievement, and was also honoured with the No. 1 civil pilot’s licence under Australia’s 1921 Air Navigation Regulations.
In July 1931, Johnson and her co-pilot Jack Humphreys, became the first pilots to fly from London to Moscow in one day, completing the 1,760 miles (2,830 km) journey in approximately 21 hours. From there, they continued across Siberia and on to Tokyo, setting a record time for flying from Britain to Japan. The flight was completed in G-AAZV de Havilland DH.80 Puss Moth, named “Jason II“.
On 29 July1932, Amy Johnson married Scottish pilot Jim Mollison, who had during a flight together, proposed to her only eight hours after they had met. In July 1932, Johnson set a solo record for the flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa in a Puss Moth, “G-ACAB”, named “Desert Cloud”, breaking her new husband’s record.
Her next flights were with Mollison as a duo. In July 1933, they first flew G-ACCV, named “Seafarer,” a de Havilland DH.84 Dragon I nonstop from Pendine Sands, South Wales, heading to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York. Their aircraft ran out of fuel and crash-landed at Bridgeport Municipal Airport (now Sikorsky Memorial Airport) in Stratford, Connecticut; both were injured. After recuperating, the pair were feted by New York society and received a ticker tape parade down Wall Street.
The Mollisons also flew, in record time, from Britain to India in 1934 in G-ACSP, named “Black Magic“, a de Havilland DH.88 Comet as part of the Britain to Australia MacRobertson Air Race. They were forced to retire from the race at Allahabad because of engine trouble.
In May 1936, Johnson made her last record-breaking flight, regaining her Britain to South Africa record in G-ADZO, a Percival Gull Six.
In 1938, Johnson overturned her glider when landing after a display at Walsall Aerodrome in England, but was not seriously hurt. The same year, she divorced Mollison. Soon afterwards, she reverted to her maiden name.
On 5 January 1941, while flying an Airspeed Oxford for the ATA from Prestwick via Blackpool to RAF Kidlington near Oxford, Johnson went off course in adverse weather conditions. Reportedly out of fuel, she bailed out as her aircraft crashed into the Thames Estuary.
The crew of HMS Haslemere spotted Johnson’s parachute coming down and saw her alive in the water, calling for help. Conditions were poor – there was a heavy sea and a strong tide, snow was falling and it was intensely cold. Lt Cmdr Walter Fletcher, the commander of Haslemere, dived into the water in an attempt to rescue Johnson. He failed in the attempt and died in hospital days later. In 2016, Alec Gill, a historian claimed that the son of a crew member stated that Johnson had died because she was sucked into the blades of the ship’s propellers, although the crewman did not observe this to occur, but only supposed that it might. This claim has not been verified as Johnson’s body was never recovered.
A memorial service was held for Johnson in the church of St. Martin in the Fields on 14 January 1941. Walter Fletcher was posthumously awarded the Albert Medal in May 1941. As a member of ATA with no known grave, she is (under the name Amy V. Johnson) commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede.