Described as a “slight young woman” with “a shy smile and a soft Yorkshire accent”, despite her shy appearance, her achievements in flying before the war were legendary and remarkable. A lawyer’s secretary (albeit one with an economics degree, a ground engineer’s licence and an aviator’s certificate), she became a national icon for her feats as a solo record-breaking pilot.
Originally learning to fly as a hobby, she gained (in the space of a few months in 1929) her aviator’s certificate, a pilot’s “A” licence and became the first British woman to obtain a ground engineer’s “C” licence. Amy’s first plane was a Gipsy Moth, the funds for which were put up by her father – a fishmonger – and Lord Wakefield, founder of the Wakefield Oil Company, which later became Castrol. The plane was named after her father’s business trademark – “Jason”.
Amy achieved worldwide recognition when she became the first woman pilot to fly solo from England to Australia. She left Croydon aerodrome on 5th May 1930 and landed at Darwin, Australia on 24th May – a journey of 11,000 miles, receiving a CBE in recognition of this feat.
In July 1931 she, with her co-pilot Jack Humphreys, became the first to fly from London to Moscow in one day, taking 21 hours, before continuing the journey across Siberia to Tokyo, setting the record time for Britain to Japan. Other records followed, often with her husband, Jim Mollison, as co-pilot; London to South Africa, Wales to New York and Britain to India, as part of the Britain to Australia Air Race.
Amy joined the ATA in late May 1940. The application asked: “have you any foreign experience?” to which she replied, “nearly all except S.America”. She quoted her flying experience as approximately 2,000 hours day, 500 hours night, and that she had flown about 50 light types of aeroplane. After some nervousness and reluctance, she joined on 25th May. Her initial instructor report states that she was “a good average pilot…should be suitable for single engine survive types and multi-engine trainer types”.
There is some evidence that she felt the ATA was beneath someone with her experience, and that she could have had Pauline Gower’s job, “if I had played my cards right and cultivated the right people”. However, she was still hard-working and conscientious, and by July had been promoted to First Officer.
On 5th January 1941, Amy Johnson was forced to bail out of her Airspeed Oxford into the Thames estuary near Herne Bay, after going off course in poor weather and reportedly out of fuel. What happened next is the subject on speculation and conjecture to this day. The flight was (and still is) a government secret, and attempts to rescue her from the waves in bad weather by the crew of a nearby Royal navy ship, failed, and a Royal navy officer died trying to rescue her from the sea.
Various theories have been put forward on the circumstances of Amy Johnson’s death have been put forward, but these have not been verified, and sadly Amy’s body has never been recovered.