The 1930s were a decade of aviation records. Airmen and airwomen from across the globe pushed their aircrafts to the limit, travelling thousands of miles in pursuit of world firsts and fastest travelling times. And these men and women became the superstars of their day, bona fide celebrities alongside the stars of stage and screen.
Chief amongst the royalty of the air was Amy Johnson, Britain’s answer to Amelia Earhart. In this special blog, as part of aviation April on The Archive, we will celebrate her achievements, her dramatic rise to fame and the power of her celebrity, all using newspapers from The Archive. Finally, we will look at the headlines that greeted her tragic disappearance at the age of 37.
‘Just An Ordinary Flight’
In May 1930, at the age of 26, Amy Johnson emerged from almost total obscurity to become the first woman to fly from Great Britain to Australia, breaking as she did so the record flight time between London and India (Karachi).
When she was a £3-a-week typist in London she got off her bus one day near Stag Lane aerodrome and invited herself into the grounds of the Flying Club. From an instructor she learned that by spending almost the whole of her wages she could learn to fly, and she did.
With the support of her father, businessman John William Johnson, and Lord Wakefield, she purchased a second hand de Havilland DH.60 Gipsy Moth, which she named Jason after her father’s business trade mark.
‘Johnnie,’ as she was known, had no previous experience of long flights or navigation in unfamiliar areas. She had never crossed the Channel, and the longest journey hitherto had been one of 140 miles from London to her home in Yorkshire. She had only 90 hours’ flying on her log.
But this lack of experience did not deter Johnson, who departed from Croydon Airport on 5 May 1930. Her ‘six-day flight from Croydon to Karachi…set up a new record for a solo flight from London to India,’ as related the Illustrated London News on 24 May 1930. Upon her arrival at Karachi, she was presented with a bouquet by the chief of the Karachi municipality, and she was ‘given a reception for the first time during her enterprise,’ staying ‘at Government House as the guest of the Commissioner of Sind.’
But Johnson, feted by the authorities, was keen to play down her achievement, and reportedly stated:
This is just an ordinary flight, except that it is longer. Every woman will be doing this in five years’ time.
But Amy Johnson was clearly not ‘every woman,’ and from Karachi she flew to Allahabad, and thence to Calcutta (Kolkata), where she was pictured by the Illustrated London News reading ‘cables of congratulation’ at the Dum Dum Aerodrome. As she travelled the world, the world was taking notice of her.
‘Heroine of Empire’
When Amy Johnson left Calcutta, she intended to fly straight to Rangoon (Yangon), but this is when she suffered for the first time a ‘slight mishap’ in her journey, as reported the Illustrated London News.
The same newspaper reported how:
She intended to fly direct from Calcutta to Rangoon, but by mistake she landed at Insein, ten miles to the north, and damaged her machine, which ran into a ditch.
She had reportedly, ‘owing to bad visibility, mistook ‘playing-fields at Insein for the Rangoon racecourse,’ and this mistake proved to be a costly one. The Illustrated London News told of how the delay at Rangoon, whilst her aircraft was being fixed, made it ‘practically impossible’ for her to beat the record set by Bert Hinkler in his journey from London to Australia.
But this did not deter Johnson, she would be still the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia, and the Illustrated London News detailed how:
She left Rangoon in blinding rain and a difficult passage to Bangkok, on May 16. Thence she flew to Singapore, again in bad weather, and on 20th reached Sourabaya, in Java, after a forced landing through lack of fuel. Her plans were then Bima – Atamboea – Port Darwin.
She finally arrived in Australia on 24 May 1930, landing in Port Darwin, where she was greeted with ‘widespread enthusiasm…especially among women.’ A letter sent to Johnson at the Sydney Post Office summed up the mood of the time, as it was addressed to ‘Miss Amy Johnson, Queen of the Air.’ Indeed, The Graphic on 31 May 1930 hailed her as one of the ‘most-talked-of-English-women,’ picturing her ‘overhauling the engine of her aeroplane during her magnificent lone flight of 10,000 miles from England to Australia.’
More plaudits were to come, as the Illustrated London News reported. She was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (C.B.E) in the King’s Birthday Honours List, in ‘in recognition of her outstanding flight to Australia.’
Let us now praise famous women – but not to excess… It was Miss Amy Johnson’s misfortune that, during her flight to Australia, she became the victim of the dropsical dithyrambs of the daily news sheets. Her golden hair provoked a rush of heavy type to the headlines and her parents, her sisters, her instructors, her friends, her friends’ friends, and her friends’ friends’ friends told all they knew about her, and a good deal that they did not know.
It was Stewart’s opinion that Amy Johnson’s film-star good looks had fuelled the headlines and made her achievements more than what they were. In support of his opinion, he penned how:
Accomplished by a male pilot, Miss Johnson’s flight would have been meritorious, but not strikingly so. It would not have attracted much attention.
As a result Miss Johnson’s flight, regarded objectively as an aeronautical achievement and apart from the sex or age or personal appearance of the pilot, is of small merit.
Stewart’s bitterness is apparent, and his views were not shared by the crowds who flocked to greet Johnson as she made her journey back to Britain. Johnson’s looks, coupled with her achievements, were part of the Amy Johnson brand, which would catapult her to fame, and make her one of the most talked about celebrities of the 1930s.
The Daily Mirror chronicled her journey back to the United Kingdom, often on the front page of the newspaper. On 4 August 1930 she was pictured ‘in the rain at Vienna,’ and it was expected that she would ‘receive a tremendous welcome at Croydon’ later that day. And although she was three hours late, ‘owing to a gale,’ a crowd gathered to welcome the ‘air heroine of Empire’ home.
Upon her arrival, some time after nine o’clock in the evening, Johnson was greeted by the Air Minister Lord Thomson and Minister of Labour Margaret Bondfield, as well as her parents. She then addressed the crowd ‘through microphones without showing a sign of nervousness.’
Amy Johnson had, after her record-breaking flight, arrived on both the national and global stages in a dramatic way. Her home town of Hull, meanwhile, was quick to honour her, presenting her with a Cartier globe, ‘as part of a public testimonial from her native city, Hull, to commemorate the first woman’s solo flight to Australia.’ The Illustrated London News described the lavish gift:
The globe is of silver, with the countries stamped out in gold. The column, mount, and base are of silver, and the pedestal of lapis lazuli. Miss Johnson’s route to Australia is marked in red enamel, and the Arms of the Corporation of Hull in enamel of blue and gold.
And just as Johnson had completed her flight to Australia, advertisers were quick to seize on her as an ideal method of promoting their products. The Aberdeen Press and Journal on 30 May 1930 printed a supposed telegram from Johnson, sent during her journey, recommending Castrol XXL oil:
AM DELIGHTED WITH THE WAKEFIELD ORGANISATION AND CASTROL XXL MOTOR OIL GAVE MAGNIFICENT AND FAULTLESS LUBRICATION AMY JOHNSON
And in August 1930, as Johnson toured the United Kingdom, she was used to promote the new BP fuel, ‘the same wonderful petrol that you can buy from any pump with the shield-shaped BP globe.’ The advert, which appeared in the Eastbourne Gazette, advised readers to ‘take a leaf from [Johnson’s] notebook – run on the New BP.’
Whilst fuels and oils like BP and Castrol might be seen as a natural fit for Amy Johnson to promote, she also promoted other products, like typewriters. In an advert printed in the Daily Mirror on 21 August 1930, she is pictured alongside a Royal Portable typewriter, and she declares how:
I chose a Royal Portable for its ease of operation and its mechanical efficiency.
The advert recommends that ‘you too should choose a Royal Portable typewriter.’
Johnson’s appearance in such adverts was testament to her celebrity. She was a national darling, celebrated across the world. And newspapers of the time treated her very much like a star, for example picturing her on holiday in Juan-les-Pins on the French Riviera.
This study of two stage stars and two sky celebrities in an acrobatic pose was taken at Juan les Pins, where Miss Amy Johnson, heroine of the lone flight to Australia, and her air-record-making fiancé Mr. J.A. Mollison, have been holiday-making.
But what would the heroine of the air do next?
Not content with the achievement of being the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia, Amy Johnson set out to break more records. In 1931 she flew with co-pilot Jack Humphreys to Moscow, the Aberdeen Press and Journal relating how in ‘one day she covered 1650 miles’ to the Russian capital, in record time. From Moscow they travelled to Tokyo, completing ‘the journey in seventy-eight hours’ flying time,’ another record.
Then in July 1932 Johnson broke yet another record, setting the fastest solo time for a flight between London and Cape Town. Her new husband, Jim Mollison, who had proposed to her during a flight together after only having met eight hours before, had been the one to set the previous record. Johnson, as reported in the Gloucestershire Echo in May 1932, called Mollison’s flight ‘a fine effort.’
However, the same article in May 1932 reported how Amy Johnson had ‘lost patience’ with stunt flying, and it was stated that she would not undertake any more ‘long solo attempts.’ Arriving back from South Africa, where she had been on a ‘health trip,’ she told a reporter how:
I shall never make another long solo flight. My interests are now concerned with the development of commercial aviation. I have lost patience with stunt flights which have no other object than sensationalism.
Indeed, she went on to state how:
The flight that does not aim to make a definite contribution to the development of aviation has no interest for me. I shall never do anything of a spectacular nature again, unless, of course, by a fluke. The human element in aviation has proved itself. It is now up to the designer of machines. What is wanted is a 100 per cent efficiency machine capable of day and night flying, and one which enables the pilot to find his way to his destination no matter what weather is encountered.
But just a couple of months later Johnson made her solo flight between London and Cape Town, so something must have made her change her mind.
Meanwhile, having married a fellow aviator, Amy Johnson went on to break further records, the Dundee Courier reporting how the newly married couple’s trip across the Atlantic in 1933 broke seven of them:
It was the first Atlantic flight by husband and wife, and Amy’s share of the other records was that she was the first Englishwoman to fly the Atlantic, the first woman to fly it east-to-west, and the first woman to fly it as a co-pilot.
The couple were feted in America, just like Amy had been in Britain, receiving a ticker tape parade down Wall Street.
Other aviators, however, were after Amy’s records, the Dundee Courier relating how Flight-Leader Tommy Rose ‘smashed’ her ‘Cape record in both directions.’ But Amy was not to beaten, and she set off in April 1936 to try and reclaim her South African solo record flight time.
The Gloucester Citizen on 3 April 1936 describes how this attempt had been kept secret, although a crowd did gather to watch her depart from Gravesend Airport at 5.30 am. Johnson, going by her married name of Mollison, had arrived at the airport the night previously, getting some sleep before awaking at 2.30 am to make preparations for her trip. Taking ‘sandwiches and coffee with her,’ she was expected to fly the ‘West Coast route’ to Cape Town, and an official ‘expected that Mrs. Mollison would take a big slice off the existing record.’
And she did indeed, the Dundee Courier reporting how:
Amy set off from England and reached Cape Town in 3 days 6 hours 26 minutes, beating the record set up by Rose in February 1936 by 11 hours 9 minutes. Eleven days after she left England she was back again. Reaching Croydon in 4 days 16 hours 17 minutes, she beat Rose’s time by 11 hours 12 minutes.
This was to be Amy’s last record-breaking flight. After this, she worked in the journalism and fashion fields, modelling clothes for Elsa Schiaparelli. In 1938, she divorced her husband and reverted to being known as Amy Johnson once more. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Johnson worked for the Portsmouth, Southsea and Isle of Wight Aviation Company, piloting flights across the Solent. When war finally broke, however, Johnson was made redundant, all aircraft being needed for the war effort.
‘Missing Believed Drowned’
But Amy Johnson, with all her piloting skills, had much to contribute to the war effort, and in 1940 she joined the newly formed Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which was responsible for delivering aircrafts from factories to R.A.F. airfields. But it was in this role that she would ultimately meet her fate.
On 7 January 1941 the Dundee Courier reported how:
Amy Johnson, 37-year-old famous British airwoman, is missing and believed drowned. She baled out of her plane over the Thames estuary on Sunday and a speedboat failed to find her. Miss Johnson was a ferry pilot for Air Transport Auxiliary.
The aircraft was seen to dive into the sea, and after she had baled out a speedboat could not find her, although the flight authorisation papers from the machine were discovered.
Drew Middleton, an Associated Press correspondent, was an eyewitness to the accident, and the Aberdeen Press and Journal related his account of the moment Johnson may have tried to save herself:
Something white fluttered out and dropped into the sea. It might have been a parachute. If it was, it was a desperate jump, for the plane was less than 200 feet above the water.
Meanwhile, the Aberdeen Press and Journal told of the desperate attempts to save Johnson, a seaman having jumped into the icy waters of the Thames to try an rescue a figure in the water. This is again taken from Middleton’s testimony:
Two boats put out. They pulled slowly through the heavy seas towards the wreckage. As they neared the wreckage a figure jumped from one into the water. He clenched at another figure near and gestured towards the lifeboat, but the heavy swell rushed them past the two struggling figures. The lifeboats turned with agonising slowness. They pulled back towards the two figures, but suddenly there was only one man in the water, and he, receiving a terrific buffeting from the icy waves, was sinking fast. A ship came up, and two men dived in to save him.
After his heroic attempt at trying to save the person who had bailed out from the aircraft, thought to be Amy Johnson, the seaman was ‘lingering between life and death.’ Doctors doubted that he would live, having been in the water for nearly fifteen minutes.
Amy Johnson’s body was never recovered, and the cause of the crash was never determined. Theories attribute the accident to friendly fire, or to Amy’s failure to respond via radio with the correct identification code, which led to her being shot down, mistaken for an enemy plane. She is remembered on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede.
Meanwhile, newspapers paid tribute to the woman who had captured the world’s imagination with her flying feats, the Dundee Courier paying tribute to her by writing:
She was the world’s greatest airwoman. Heroine of record-breaking flights across the world – to Australia, to America, to Japan and China, and across Africa and the Equator to the Cape – British aviation owes her a debt…
Pioneer, celebrity, innovator, Amy Johnson ultimately lost her life in service to her country, and her sacrifice has not been forgotten.