Amy Johnson was barely 27 and had been flying for less than two years when she undertook her epic solo flight from Britain to Australia on May 5, 1930—covering almost 14,000 km in 19 days. Prior to this trip, she had never flown a distance greater than that between London and Hull, approximately 250 km.
Amy Johnson was England’s answer to America’s pride Amelia Earhart. Focused and determined, Johnson overcame innumerable obstacles to notch up some impressive aviation records. Born on July 1, 1903, in Hull, UK, she had her first taste of flying in September 1928. It was not a happy experience. I was scared stiff of my instructor who never seemed to lose his first idea that I was a born idiot, she later recalled. The tutor attempted to dissuade her from continuing, predicting that she would never make it. Fortunately, another instructor proved more patient. Even so, Amy didn’t take naturally to flying. She handled the controls with a heavy hand, and her landings were awkward. Persisting valiantly in her attempts, she finally earned her A Licence in July 1929. However, the law firm where she was employed gave her an ultimatum—quit flying or quit the job.
Some soul-searching later, Amy decided she wanted a professional aviation career more than anything else. Her enthusiasm for aircraft was so great that flying itself was not enough. She began to learn aircraft mechanics and, in December 1929, became the first woman to earn a ground engineer’s licence. That was when she decided to fly solo to Australia and attempt to break the existing record of 15-and-half days for the journey. After much pleading with potential wealthy backers she succeeded in scraping together enough money to buy a twoyear-old de Havilland Moth already fitted with extra fuel tanks for £600. Suffering no illusions about the grim dangers she would face on her long journey, Johnson carried a revolver against bandits, a letter offering ransom should she be kidnapped, a stove and a spare propeller. Yielding to her mother’s persuasions she took a parachute, though she rued the extra weight.
Johnson’s epic flight began on May 5, 1930. The only instruments she had were an airspeed indicator, an altimeter, an indicator for turning and banking, and a compass. Throughout the journey she had to regularly pump petrol from the auxiliary containers to the main fuel tanks, and the fumes made her sick. A dust storm approaching Baghdad nearly brought her adventure to a disastrous end. She lost control of the aircraft, the plane stalled twice, the engine choked and quit before she managed to restart it and put the machine down. Later, she confessed, I had never been so frightened in my life! When the storm subsided she resumed her journey. She got lost several times, made some crash landings and needed many emergency repairs. Her knowledge of mechanics came in handy, as did the spare propeller. Finally, after dodging the monsoon over South East Asia, Amy safely landed in Australia, to great acclaim there and in Britain—she had flown almost 14,000 km in 19 days. Though she did not succeed in breaking the record, she was the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia, making her a worldwide celebrity. Amy was barely 27 and had been flying for less than two years. Prior to this trip, she had never flown a distance greater than that between London and Hull, approximately 250 km.
The expedition to Australia was Johnson’s best-known feat, although she later made other record breaking flights. In spite of her fame, she found it almost impossible to earn a regular living as a commercial pilot. For a time there was a lull, since long-distance stunt flying was becoming commonplace and most obstacles had already been conquered. Then, in 1940, flying once again dominated Johnson’s life when she took up a job with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA)—ferrying military aircraft from factories to air bases. However, her happiness was short-lived. On January 5, 1941, Amy took off on a ferry. The weather was freezing, cloudy and murky. She was not seen again until nearly four hours later when she parachuted out of her aircraft over the frigid waters of the Thames estuary, more than 70 miles off course. A rescuer dived in to try and save her but she perished. Her body was never found and she was eventually declared dead.