On 4 January 1941 a merchant convoy was slowly picking its way through the icy waters of the Thames Estuary. Crew members on board one of the ships, HMS Hazlemere, were surprised to see a parachute dropping gently from the heavy overcast into the water. As the Hazlemere neared the scene, the crew heard a woman’s voice calling ‘Hurry, please hurry.’
She was unable to catch hold of the lines thrown to her and she slipped out of reach of a crewman who leaned out to her from the ship. The vessel’s captain jumped into the water in an effort to rescue her but as he did so, a wave lifted Hazlemere’s stern and she disappeared under the spinning propellers.
Despite further efforts, her body was never found. The crew was at that point unaware that the woman they had so narrowly failed to rescue was Amy Johnson, Britain’s most famous aviatrix.
Amy Johnson’s remarkable career started from amazingly modest beginnings. Although the daughter of a well-to-do Hull businessman, Johnson’s start in aviation was almost accidental. After moving to London to work as a typist in 1927, she happened to visit the Stag Lane airfield in north London. Inspired by what she saw, she took flying lessons and soon gained her licence. Perhaps prompted by the death of one of her sisters, she decided to attempt to become the first woman to fly solo to Australia.
To this end, she purchased a second-hand de Havilland Gipsy Moth, which was painted bottle green and christened Jason, (Johnson always referred to Jason as ‘he’), in addition to a new flying suit from Lilywhites in the same colour. Friends at home and from the world of aviation helped generously and by 5 May 1930, both Johnson and Jason were at Croydon, ready for the start of their epic journey.
Achieving the dream
Although merely flying across Europe at that time was arduous enough, her real adventures began later. Flying in thick cloud over the Taurus Mountains in Turkey, she became disorientated and narrowly avoided flying straight into a vertical rock face. Later, she became lost over Iraq and was forced to land in a sandstorm, where she huddled in Jason’s cockpit, cradling her revolver as she listened to the barking of a nearby pack of stray dogs.
By the time she arrived in India, Johnson was exhausted – she crash-landed in a parade ground in Jhansi, then, two days later, did so again at a football ground in Rangoon. A few days later, with darkness and poor weather closing in, she became temporarily lost over the Java Sea.
Eventually, Jason and his exhausted pilot arrived in Darwin. Johnson had done it, becoming an overnight sensation. Congratulations and tributes poured in: as well as money and gifts, songs were written about her, hairstyles named after her and she even received more than one proposal of marriage.
Although the Australian flight made her name, Johnson knew that any flyer was only as good as their last flight and in a sense she would struggle to leave the shadow of this first and most epic fight for the rest of her life.
Soon afterwards, she married the noted aviator Jim Mollison. However, the marriage was not a happy one, punctuated by the east-west transatlantic crossing they made together in 1933, which ended in a crash in New York; and an unsuccessful entry in the 1935 MacRobertson Air Race. In addition, the marriage was further strained by Jim Mollison’s dependence on alcohol and his suspected philandering.
In 1932 she successfully broke the existing London–Cape Town record (held by her husband), before doing so again in 1936. By this time, however, the ‘Golden Age’ of aviation was coming to a close. In 1938, her divorce to Mollison was finalised and the following year she began to work as a pilot for the Portsmouth, Southsea and Isle of Wight Aviation Company: the press pointed out that one could now fly with Amy Johnson for a mere five shillings.
When the women’s section of the Air Transport Auxiliary was formed in 1939, Johnson may have assumed she would be appointed to its head. However, she was not and it was some months before she could bring herself to join the organisation, ferrying military aircraft around the UK.
A tragic end
In January 1941, Johnson was detailed to ferry an Airspeed Oxford aircraft from Prestwick to Kidlington. After an overnight stop in Blackpool, she took off the following day, in spite of a suspect compass and worsening weather conditions. After hours of flying over thick cloud, unsure of her position and running low on fuel, Johnson decided to take to her parachute, after throwing her luggage out of the aircraft. Her subsequent death in the freezing waters of the Thames Estuary was tragically unlucky.
Here the life of Britain’s most famous female pilot came to an end – a life marked by amazing triumphs, failures bravely overcome and, in the end, the tragic role of chance.
Today, Amy’s most famous aircraft, her little Gipsy Moth, Jason, can still be seen in his bottle green paint at the Science Museum in London, where he provides a lasting reminder of Britain’s ‘Queen of the Skies’.
Julian Hale is a history graduate whose MA focused on the RFC and RAF in the Middle East during the First World War. In 2012, he joined the RAF Museum, becoming Assistant Curator for its Centenary Programme for 2018, and he is the author of Shire’s The RAF: 1918-2018. Women in Aviation is his most recent book, published by Bloomsbury Publishing on 27 June 2019.