Amy Johnson was amazing.
Born just a few months before airplanes, she was an avid and skilled pilot who set multiple records, a passionate advocate for aviation, and a fearless adventurer who never took no for an answer. She’s revered in the U.K., but not so well known here in the U.S. Comparisons with Amelia Earhart are inevitable — both were record-setting pilots who competed handily against men at a time when the idea of women doing things like voting was still a novelty. And both died young, though Amy is better remembered for her achievements than her death, just as Amelia should be but isn’t.
Amy had a bachelor’s degree in economics and worked for a while in an accounting office — as a secretary, because it was the 1920s. She and her sister Mollie took their first airplane ride in 1925.
“Mollie and I went up in the aeroplane,” she wrote to a friend. “We both enjoyed it, but I would have liked to have done some stunts.”
Amy had the bug, and started taking flying lessons — from a comedian — in the fall of 1928. Her instructor’s name was Will Hay, a prolific film star in Britain at the time. After her first few lessons, she wrote a letter home and said, “I have an immense belief in the future of flying.”
She got her pilot’s license just after her 26th birthday in 1929, quit her office, and went to work as a mechanic, becoming the first woman certified as a ground engineer by the U.K. Air Ministry. Then, with just 75 hours in her logbook, she decided to go on a long solo cross-country in a DH.60 Moth that she named Jason. In May of 1930, she took off from Croydon, near London, and landed 19 and a half days later in Darwin, Australia. She didn’t break the record for the flight — 16 days — like she’d hoped, but the world didn’t care, and she became an instant celebrity. The Daily Mail, a British tabloid that frequently offered prizes for aviation firsts, gave her £10,000, the equivalent of more than $600,000 today.
King George named her a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. There were songs written about her like the popular “Amy, Wonderful Amy.” It seemed that everyone in the world fell in love with her, and then, after knowing her just eight hours, one of them proposed. Amy married fellow record-setting-pilot Jim Mollison in August of 1932, but not before she, along with a copilot, made the first flight from London to Moscow in one day, followed by setting the record for flying from England to Japan.
If you need to sum up Amy Johnson, you could do worse than to simply tell the story of when she flew solo in a DH.80 Puss Moth named Desert Cloud from London to Cape Town, South Africa. On this 6,300-mile flight, undertaken shortly after her wedding, she beat the speed record by more than 10 hours.
And the previous record holder? Her husband Jim.
The press called theirs an “Aeromance,” and dubbed them “The Flying Sweethearts” and “The Air Lovers,” but the union wouldn’t last; they divorced in 1938.
In 1940, with World War II underway, Amy was eager to do her bit for King and country. She joined the British Air Transport Auxiliary, a group of about 1,300 civilian pilots, 166 of whom were women, that ferried airplanes in support of the war effort. In January of 1941, during what should have been a 90-minute flight in an Airspeed Oxford, she crashed in the Thames Estuary four and a half hours after she took off. The cause of the crash was never determined, though theories of all degrees of plausibility abound, and her body was never recovered.
Amy loved aviation, she believed in it, and she had the impassioned determination to go after it, and have some remarkable experiences along the way. In her 1936 book, Sky Roads of the World, she wrote “Difficulties technical, financial, and parental had no power to stop me once my mind was made up.”
In that same book, she wrote, “I think it is a pity to lose the romantic side of flying and simply to accept it as a common means of transport, although that end is what we have all ostensibly been striving to attain.”
It would be a pity to lose the romantic side of flying, true; thankfully, many of us have not, even eight decades later, when and as we fly solely for the love of it.
The real pity would be to forget the achievements of someone like Amy Johnson.