Aviator Amy conquered Sheffield and then the rest of the world

Amy Johnson was destined to become a 20th-century heroine and an inspiration to women's movements, fighting for female recognition in a male-dominated world.

Friday, 6th April 2018, 6:05 pm
Updated Friday, 6th April 2018, 6:11 pm
Aviator Amy Johnson was qualified as a mechanic

Amy, who was born on July 1, 1903, in St George’s Road, Hull, was brought up with a middle-class family. Her father, John, was the head of a family’s thriving fish sales company.

In 1922, at the age of 19, Amy, having gained a scholarship, entered Sheffield University to study for a BA degree.

A glamorous portrait of Amy Johnson, who became a popular heroine

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Arriving in Sheffield, Amy could never have visualised the differing contrast of the two places. Hull was a clean, bustling fishing seaport surrounded by low‑lying flat lands with the wide River Humber flowing out into the North Sea. Sheffield, by contrast, was dominated by large engineering firms and steel foundries, their tall chimneys belching out black smoke 24 hours a day, reaching up to the sky in defiance of the sun.

The university was an octagonal, Tudor-designed, red‑bricked building. A seat of learning.

The dark wooden panelled walls,where, through a maze of corridors, the dark brown tiled floors echoed to the tread of footsteps.

The chatter of the students as they paired off to lecture rooms of silent study.

Amy Johnson and husband, fellow long-distance aviator, Jim Mollison

Away from her studies, Amy became involved in many recreational activities.

She performed in plays produced by the university dramatic society.

During the traditional November ‘Rag’ day, when students paraded through Sheffield’s streets in fancy dress, rattling tin-cans collecting money for the local hospitals, Amy delighted in her role as the Indian Princess Hiawatha.

Her first digs were in leafy Grange Crescent Road situated in the ‘posh’ district of Sharrow.

Pioneering long-distance flier Amy Johnson

After 12 months she moved to nearby Thompson Road, then to Moncrieffe Road at Nether Edge and finally to Glossop Road, adjacent to the university.

Through her new-found friends, mostly Sheffield girls, Amy discovered the city possessed outlying areas of great natural beauty in the Peak District, known as Sheffield’s ‘Golden Frame’.

Sunshine or rain, Amy’s weekends were spent with her friends camping by the river at Baslow.

During the final months of her studies, Amy went to live in Hathersage.

A glamorous portrait of Amy Johnson, who became a popular heroine

Having obtained her BA degree in economics, she returned to Hull in 1925, taking a position as a shorthand typist in an accountant’s office.

Finding the work dull and uninteresting, Amy left after only three months to join an advertising agency.

Realising her opportunities for advancement very limited, she moved to London in 1922 to work as a sales assistant in a West End department store, before acquiring a secretarial position with a firm of solicitors.

In the spring of 1928 Amy joined a London flying club.

Her only previous flying experience had been in 1926 when, during the visit by Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus to Hull, she had paid five shillings (25p) for a five‑minute pleasure flight.

Now, keen and enthusiastic to fly, she joined the London Aeroplane Club, taking as many lessons as her limited finances permitted.

Amy Johnson and husband, fellow long-distance aviator, Jim Mollison

Within 12 months, in June 1930, Amy was making her first solo flight, gaining her pilot’s A licence in July 1929.

Believing a pilot should also be proficient on the mechanical side of aeroplanes, Amy took a mechanics course, and obtained a ground engineer’s licence.

This knowledge was to prove invaluable to her during her later long-distance flight to Australia.

Being the only female, she became affectionately known among the male mechanics as ‘Johnnie’, a name that remained with her during her life.

In 1930 Amy considered the time had now arrived for her to fulfil a long-standing ambition. She would fly solo in a small single‑engine plane halfway round the world from London to Darwin in Australia. The existing record of 15 and a half days was achieved in 1928 by Australian aviato, Bert Hinkler.

To raise the financial backing for the purchase of a aeroplane and flight expenses was proving difficult. Amy approached Hull City Council and numerous wealthy businessmen, also newspapers, but without success.

Finally the money came from her father and Lord Wakefield, the oil magnate.

Amy purchased a single‑seater open cockpit De Havilland Gypsy Moth for £600, naming it Jason.

On May 5, 1930, in a misty spring dawn at London’s Croydon airport, watched by Amy’s father and friends together with a crowd of reporters and photographers, the diminutive figure of a smiling Amy ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, wearing a brown leather flying jacket and a tight-fitting helmet with goggles pushed back over her head, climbed up into Jason’s cockpit.

In a swirl of dust blown up by the propeller, the small plane raced down the grass runway lifting off and rising into the sky.

The crowd stood silent, their hands clasped in prayer, as the sight of the plane grew smaller, disappearing into the mist, with the noise from its engine receding into the distance.

Many adventures were to come on route and reports reached Britain that Amy was missing.

Newsboys were shouting “Amy Johnson. The Girl of the Skies is Missing.”

The whole nation had followed daily reports of her flight by newspapers and wireless.

Now, ‘Johnnie’, having flown almost half way round the world, had disappeared so close to her objective. They prayed for her.

She landed in Atamboea on the island of Timor which, when reached, would put Amy within 500 miles of her destination, Port Darwin.

With daylight fading she had to make a landing at a missionary camp.

Groups of wild-looking natives came rushing towards her followed by a priest, who explained to Amy that they were quite harmless.

Flying into Atamboea, and after an overnight stop, Amy left at dawn for the last stage of her journey over the dangerous Timor Sea.

On Empire Day, May 24, 1930, 20 days after leaving Croydon airport, Amy, piloting a spluttering Jason, flew into Port Darwin, the capital of Northern Australia.

Although she had failed to beat Hinkler’s record, it did not diminish the magnitude of her achievement.

Amid unprecedented scenes of wild enthusiasm she was greeted and acclaimed by thousands of Australians.

The people of Port Darwin took Amy to their hearts. She attended receptions and presentations.

Back in Britain, the whole country, having learned of Amy’s safe arrival, were now impatiently awaiting the return of their heroine.

The song, Amy, Wonderful Amy, was being played by dance bands on the wireless.

Having, before the flight, requested financial assistance from the newspapers, and the city of Hull, but being ignored, Amy was now receiving front‑page publicity. She received an award of £10,000 from the Daily Mail for her contribution towards the advancement of aviation.

Leaving Port Darwin, she relaxed by travelling on an ocean liner to Port Said, in Egypt. From there she flew to Britain, and London’s Croydon airport, from which she had first set off on her long journey to Australia, but a more relaxed flight with Imperial Airways.

She landed on a sunny August Bank Holiday Monday 1930. Amy, now a celebrity, received a tumultuous welcome from thousands of people lining the streets from the airport to her hotel. She was honoured with the CBE.

Having rested, but still eager to attain further aviation records, Amy was presented with a new aeroplane, Jason 2, a similar type to the original Tiger Moth, bought through subscriptions donated by the readers of two national daily newspapers.

While on holiday in Capetown in 1932, Amy met aviator Jim Mollison, who had also made a number of record long-distance flights.

Returning to London in July, they married, being given the most popular and publicised wedding of the year.

In July 1933, flying a De Havilland Dragon Seafarer, Amy and Jim made the first direct flight from Britain to America. Arriving during the hours of darkness, they unfortunately overshot, the runway ending up in a swamp, both suffering minor injuries.

Success came for Amy and Jim in 1934. Flying a Comet Black Magic from England to India, they completed the flight in a record 22 hours. Later, having entered the London to Australia Air Race, they reached India with a big lead over the other competitors. On leaving Karachi the plane suffered engine failure forcing them to withdraw from the race.

This was to be their last flight together. In spite of their aviation interests, the Mollison’s marriage proved to be a failure ending in divorce.

In June 1939, Amy was transporting passengers between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight for a air travel company.

Within three months Britain and Germany were at war. Amy joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, a organization of women ferrying warplanes between aircraft factories and RAF airfields.

Amy’s final flight was on January 5, 1941, from Blackpool to Oxford. It ended with her death. In spite of the many theories and causes put forward, the truth still remains a mystery today. The plane was never found. Amy’s body was never found. A flying bag bearing the initials A M was recovered floating on the water.

Amy ‘Johnnie’ Johnson’s exploits in the air brought her fame and world acclaim.

She lived for flying. She died flying. She is installed in the history of aviation and is today remembered as Amy, wonderful Amy, the girl of the skies.

Pioneering long-distance flier Amy Johnson