Trail Blazing Over the Oceans: Amy Johnson

Amy Johnson was born in Hull down St George’s Road in 1903. Her Parents, John William Johnson and Amy Hodge had married the previous year at Sculcoates Register Office. Amy’s mother came from an old Hull family: her great grandfather, Alderman John Hodge, had been sheriff then later mayor of Hull in the 1860s. Her father’s family, however, hailed from Denmark. Amy’s grandfather, Anders Jorgensen, was born on the island of Fyn but had moved to Britain, settling in Hull and in 1881, he set up a fish merchant’s business with a Norwegian called Knudtzon; today, Andrew Johnson Knudtzon Ltd. (A.J.K.) is a division of A. M. I. Cold Stores Ltd. and is today a wholly owned subsidiary of the Andrew Marr International Group. Amy’s father, John, who was born in Denmark but became a naturalised British citizen, entered the family firm and by the time his daughter was born he was already a successful fish merchant and owner of a fish processing factory.

A sultry portrait of Amy Johnson, C.B.E. – Pioneering British aviatrix
Source: Check Six

The family lived at various addresses in Hull including South Boulevard, Alliance Avenue and Park Avenue whilst Amy was growing up. She was a bright child and attended Boulevard Secondary School where she was considered by some to have a rebellious streak. She went on to Sheffield University where she read Economics and graduated in the 1920s with BA.

After university, she returned to Hull and although she worked for some time as a secretary down Bowl Alley Lane in the Old Town, she developed a passion for flying. She took up a secretarial position in London so that she could pursue her interest in flying. Her first flying instructor apparently told her she would never become an aviator but she brushed this aside and learned to fly partly with the help of the renowned comedian, Will Hay, who was already an experienced pilot. In July 1929, after sixteen hours of flying – twice as long as was usual at that time – she obtained her pilot’s licence at the London Flying Club. She yearned to fly aeroplanes for a living but at that time men dominated the skies and she was unable to make a living from flying. Frustrated but undaunted, she continued training in the field of aeronautics and later the same year she became the first woman in England to gain an Air Ministry ground engineer’s qualification.

Her heart, however, was set on flying: Amy was driven by a dream of blazing a trail for women in the skies. She wanted to show that women could be every bit as good as men in the field of aviation. With the aid of her father, always one of her strongest supporters, and Lord Wakefield she purchased a second-hand De Havilland Gypsy Moth biplane which she named Jason after her family fish firm’s trade mark. Her plan was to use the little plane to challenge the record for flying from England to Australia which had been set by Hinkler back in 1928. With only seventy five hours of flying experience she set off from Croydon Airport on the 5th May 1930 watched only by her father, a few friends and the occasional onlooker.

The flight proved hair-raising in the extreme. On the first day she reached Vienna but was almost overcome with nausea due to fumes escaping from the fuel tanks. Nevertheless, she flew on; her next leg took her to Constantinople, then on to Aleppo and Baghdad where the little Jason had to be repaired after a bad landing. Next, she reached the Persian Gulf. By now her exploits were making world news and she received a hero’s welcome on landing at Karachi. She took off again, making for Rangoon in Burma where her little plane had to have further emergency repairs after running into a ditch. Upwards and onwards her quest continued: the little Tiger Moth, flew on to Singara, around 450 miles from Singapore and then made for Java, then Sourbaya. She made a forced landing at Timor when she ran out of fuel and by this time her plane was in need of much attention but a Portuguese aerodrome commandant was able to help her repair the Tiger Moth’s engines. After being fed by a French missionary, she was able take off once more for the last leg of 450 miles over shark infested waters. She touched down at Port Darwin in Australia on 3.30pm on the 24th May 1930. Little Jason and the intrepid pilot had covered 9,960 days in nineteen and a half days.

Although she hadn’t broken Hinkler’s record she had become the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia: her feat had captured world headlines and made her an international celebrity. She received a CBE and was also honoured down under with the No 1 Australian civil pilot’s licence. After she returned to England, she flew little Jason up to Hull and attended a reception at Hull City Hall. At her suggestion an Amy Johnson Trophy was set up to be awarded each year to a Hull child who shows exceptional bravery.

Amy Johnson flying over Sydney circa 1930
Source: Gipsy Moth Collection

Over the next few years she continued to blaze new trails across the skies and over the world’s oceans and land masses. The following year she attempted to fly to China by way of Siberia but had to give up after crash landing near Warsaw in Poland. A few months later, however, with her co-pilot, Jack Humphreys, she set a record for a flight from England to Japan and in 1932 then set another for a solo flight from England to Cape Town. In 1936 after the time she set for the Cape Town flight had broken by another aviator, she again flew solo to South Africa, this time in a Percival Gull aircraft, to recapture her record once more.

In 1932 Amy had married the famous Scottish aviator, Jim Mollison, and made a number of ground breaking flights with him. In 1934, for example they flew from Britain to India in record time as part of a Britain to Australia Air Race, although they were afterwards force to retire from the race due to engine trouble. In 1938 Amy divorced Mollison and reverted to her maiden name and after the Second World War broke out she joined the newly formed Air Transport Auxiliary and ferried aircraft from the factories where they were built to the RAF airfields. In January 1941, however, her plane went missing on a routine flight from Prestwick in Scotland to Kidlington in Oxfordshire. Her plane went off course and crashed into the Thames.
Amy was gone. Her body was never found but the memory of her sheer determination and trail blazing successes has proved an inspiration to many who have come after her.

Select Bibliography

Anon, Silvered Wings: A Commemorative Brochure: Amy Johnson Festival (UK: Kingston upon Hull City Council, 1980

Charles Dixon, Amy Johnson (UK: S.Lowe Marston & Co. Ltd., 1930)

Bob Finch, Amy Johnson: Global Adventurer (UK: Local History Archives Unit, 1989)

Midge Gillis, Amy Johnson (USA: Phoenix, 2004)

Judy Lomax, Women of the Air (UK: Dodd, Mead, 1987)

Constance Babbington-Smith, Amy Johnson (UK: Collins, 1967)

On-line References

Amy Johnson, Local History, BBC Humberside

Amy Johnson