‘The Queen of the Air’ – An Irishman’s Diary on aviation pioneer Amy Johnson
Amy Johnson: in May 1930, she flew solo from England to Australia, the first woman to do so
Amy Johnson was born in 1903, the same year that the Wright Brothers made their first flight. It would seem that this was no mere coincidence. Johnson was a pioneering aviator who would go on to popularise the field of aviation and set a whole slew of flying records in the process.
At the start of the 20th century, flying was still the preserve of the wealthy and very much male-centred. Johnson, who was born in Hull, had a gradual entry into the business. She took flying lessons at the London Aeroplane Club and got her pilot’s licence in July 1929. Eager to understand the mechanics of flying as well as the art of it, she then became the first British woman to get a ground engineer’s “C” licence.
In May 1930, she flew solo from England to Australia, the first woman to do so. She covered the distance of 11,000 miles in 19½ days. Prior to taking on this mammoth global journey, the longest solo flight that she had undertaken was from London to Hull. The second-hand de Havilland DH60G Gipsy Moth biplane was named Jason.
Flying conditions were still extremely primitive, which makes her achievement all the more remarkable.
She stopped at Vienna, Istanbul, Aleppo, Baghdad, Karachi, and Singapore. Extreme weather conditions also dictated that she had to make several forced landings en route, including on a sugar plantation on the island of Java and on Timor. She was aged just 26. Newspapers referred to her as the “British Girl Lindbergh”, a reference to the American flying pioneer, Charles Lindbergh, who had become the first to cross the Atlantic west-east. A civic reception in her honour in Sydney brought thousands of people on to the streets who wanted to catch a glimpse of the record-maker.
Her feat firmly captured the public imagination back home. Women wanted to copy her hairstyle and songs were written about her exploits. She was in great demand to attend charity events and even officiated at the opening of a Butlins holiday camp.
Her new-found celebrity status earned her invitations to high-society parties, mixing with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Lady Astor and George Bernard Shaw. In the US, President Roosevelt invited her to lunch at his home in Hyde Park in New York state.
Johnson set yet another aviation record in July 1931, when she became the first pilot to fly from London to Moscow in a single day.
Together with her co-pilot, she made the 1,760 mile journey in just 21 hours.
In October of the same year, she travelled to Ireland and gave a talk entitled, “My Flight with ‘Jason’ to the Land of the Golden Fleece”, to audiences in Belfast and Baldonnell. A full-size model of the aircraft that she flew to Australia in was exhibited in Clery’s in Dublin’s O’Connell Street.
With so many records to her name, Johnson had the world at her feet. The “Queen of the Air”, as she was known, married the Scottish-born aviator Jim Mollison in 1932. He was known as the “playboy of the air” and together the press described them as “the flying sweethearts”.
In July 1932, they visited the Irish Aero Club at Baldonnell Aerodrome. They gave a talk about their experiences in the air and were made honorary members of the club. The following month, Mollison made a 33-hour flight from Portmarnock Strand to New Brunswick. It was the first solo east-west crossing of the Atlantic. He chose Portmarnock because no airfield in Britain was long enough for the take-off run.
He said that Portmarnock was one of the ideal landing spots in the world.
The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alfie Byrne, and a large crowd of spectators were there to see him off. He flew in a single-engined de Havilland Puss Moth named Heart’s Content.
He had planned to land in New York, but instead had to land near St John’s, Newfoundland, due to a strong headwind. Flying conditions were still primitive and he touched down with only 15 minutes of fuel remaining. He survived on coffee and chicken sandwiches. He stored the three pints of coffee in thermos flasks and the sandwiches in a space between his seat and the rear petrol tank.
Like that other great female aviation pioneer of her generation from the other side of the Atlantic, Amelia Earhart, Johnson lost her life pursuing her passion for flying. Johnson died in January 1941 while piloting an aircraft on behalf of the Air Transport Auxiliary, an organisation that was set up to repair and transport Royal Air Force aircraft around Britain during the war.
Mysteriously, her plane ditched into the freezing water of the Thames Estuary and her body was never recovered. She was just 37 years of age.