Amy Johnson is perhaps Britain’s most famous aviatrix. Her famous solo flight to Australia was only one of her many achievements during her flying career, which also saw her become the first ever fully-qualified female ground engineer; become the first pilot to fly from London to Moscow in one day; and cut 10.5 hours off the previously held record for flying solo to Cape Town.
From Earthly Beginnings
Born in Hull in 1903, Amy received a B.A. from the University of Sheffield and then went to work in a typing pool. She started her flying lessons in 1928 at the London Aeroplane Club in Edgeware.
Only 25 months later, at the age of just 26, Amy set off on her flight to Australia. Before this, the furthest she had flown was between London and Hull. 20 days and 10,000 miles later, she landed her Gipsy Moth plane, called ‘Jason’, in Darwin.
Amy with Jason, the plane in which she flew to Darwin in.
The Air Transport Auxiliary
Amy flew during the Second World War. Although women were not allowed to take part in combat, a civilian organisation called the Air Transport Auxiliary recruited female pilots to ferry planes around the country, freeing up RAF pilots for combat duty.
The ATA was one of the first organisations to give women equal pay for doing the same job as men. It also recruited pilots who had physical disabilities.
The women (and men) who worked the ATA flew everything from Lancasters and Hurricanes, to Barracudas and Spitfires. They had no weapons, no radios (and so couldn’t use any radio navigation aids) and weren’t taught how to use the instruments inside the planes.
Amy, ready to take off.
They also didn’t get any instruction on how to fly specific planes – they only received training on broad classes and once they’d passed, could be asked to fly any aircraft within that class. All they’d have for each individual plane would be a set of notes listing essential statistics such as the take-off speed, landing speed and stall speed.
Even though its pilots didn’t take part in combat, flying for the ATA was really dangerous and nearly 10% of the women died. Not only did their lack of weapons make them an easy target for the Luftwaffe, they were shot by friendly fire and got snarled up in barrage balloons.
The weather also was a major problem – because they didn’t have radios, they couldn’t get any updates while in the air and the lack of instrument training meant they couldn’t navigate through cloud.
Amy’s Final Flight
Amy died whilst flying for the ATA, less than a year after she joined the service. Because very little is known about her last flight, and because her body was never found, there were quite a few conspiracy theories about the circumstances leading to her death.
Amy, rocking some aviation attire!
Some people think she committed suicide, while others say she was carrying a passenger on a clandestine trip. There have also been reports that she may have been shot down by friendly fire.
However, it is most likely that she died down to awful weather and bad luck. On Sunday 5th January 1941, heavy cloud had kept most of the ATA pilots on the ground. However, Amy decided to risk it and took off at 11.49 a.m.
So What Happened?
Well, Amy flew over the top of the heavy cloud and must have being hoping for a gap to appear. However, no gaps appeared and after three and half hours, her fuel ran out. She put on her parachute and jumped…
When she finally made it though the cloud bank, she realised, in what must have been a devastating moment, that she was over water, not land. She then plunged into the freezing waters of the Thames Estuary.
A nearby convoy of ships saw her land and one of the boats headed towards her at full speed. She was still alive when they reached her. They heard her shout ‘hurry, please hurry’ but she wasn’t able to reach any of the lines the sailors threw to her.
RIP Amy Johnson
Even worse luck followed – in the middle of the rescue, the ship ran aground. By the time it was released, ten minutes later, Amy had drifted. The captain started to dive in after her but a wave lifted the boat and pushed Amy under the propellers. She was never seen again.
Sadly, her death saw her break another record – she was the first member of the ATA to be killed while on duty. Her body was never found but her flight bag was recovered and is now held in the Amy Johnson room at Sewerby Hall in Yorkshire.