History Hour: First woman flies from Britain to Australia
Amy Johnson, the first English female aviator, dreamed of being a professional pilot, but encountered many obstacles along the way. Determined to prove that women could be as competent as men, in 1930, she chose a spectacular objective, to be the first woman to fly from Britain to Australia.
Holding a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics, Amy Johnson was working as a secretary when she was introduced to flying as a hobby. She gained her pilot’s license on the 6th of July 1929 at the London Aeroplane Club. She dreamed of being a professional pilot, but as a woman, this was near-impossible at the time.
The flying secretary
Determined to prove that women could be as competent as men, the Briton set her sights on a spectacular goal, to be the first woman to fly from Britain to Australia. With financial help from her father, she purchased a De Havilland Gipsy Moth biplane and gained the support of oil magnate Lord Wakefield, who provided the fuel for her adventurous feat.
Johnson set off on her adventure from south London on the 5th of May 1930. The first legs of the journey took her from Istanbul via Aleppo to Baghdad. Shortly before reaching Baghdad, Johnson and her Gipsy Moth encountered a sandstorm. The plane drifted off course, forcing her to land in the middle of the desert and wait for conditions to clear.
Despite this delay, when she arrived in Karachi the next day, she was already two days ahead of Australian pilot Bert Hinkler’s record for the same route. The ‘flying secretary’ became a heroine overnight, and in Allahabad she was already greeted by the press.
At the next stop in Rangoon, Johnson suffered a major setback after crash-landing on a rain-soaked airfield. Luckily, students from the local university helped her repair the plane, so that she was soon back in the air.
However, Johnson had lost valuable time, which she was unable to make up. Following stormy stops in Singapore and Java, she touched down at her destination in Darwin on the 24th of May. She had failed to break Hinkler’s record, but still became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia.
Johnson’s achievement brought a new-found popularity. In Australia, the song ‘Johnnie’s in Town’ was composed in her honour, in England it was ‘Amy, wonderful Amy’. When she arrived back in the UK, she was awarded a CBE by King George V.
Having become something of a celebrity, Johnson escaped the media attention in her own special way, setting off on her next record flight to Japan in a Puss Moth in July 1931. She flew the 16,000 kilometres from London to Tokyo, setting a new record of ten days.
Aviation had become Johnson’s all-consuming passion, so it came as no surprise that she fell in love with an aviator who was just as daring as she was. In 1932, Johnson met record-breaking pilot ‘Jim’ Allan Mollison and the two married the very same year.
Soon after the wedding, Johnson took off for Cape Town, breaking her new husband’s record for the flight from London. In July 1933, ‘the flying sweethearts’ – as they were dubbed by the press – made New York their goal. They crossed the Atlantic in 29 hours, but were forced to make an emergency landing in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
This attempted record failed, as did their marriage a few years later. After her divorce in 1938, Johnson joined the Royal Air Force and flew ferry flights. One of these trips would prove to be her last, on the 5th of January 1941, she went off course in adverse weather conditions and bailed out as her plane crashed into the Thames Estuary. She did not survive.
Johnson escaped the media attention in her own special way, setting off on her next record flight to Japan.
She said: “I shall fly until I die, and I hope I shall die flying.”
Amy Johnson was born on the 1st of July 1903, she was died on the 5th of January 1941 (aged 37).
Previous History Hour installments:
First Class of Women Naval Aviators
How NASA intentionally crashed a Boeing 720
First jet landing on aircraft carrier
First England to Australia flight
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