The record-breaking pilot vanished on a short, apparently simple UK flight in January 1941. What happened to the talented flyer?
Britain’s most famous aviatrix, Amy Johnson, was born 1 July 1903, in Hull, Yorkshire where she lived until she went to Sheffield University in 1923 to complete a BA in Economics. Following graduation, she moved to London, working as a secretary to a solicitor where she also became interested in flying. Her flying career began at the London Aeroplane Club in the winter of 1928-29 and her hobby soon became an all-consuming determination to prove that women could be as competent as men in a hitherto male dominated field.
Her first important achievement, after flying solo, was to qualify as the first British-trained woman ground engineer, the only woman in the world to do so at that time.
Early in 1930, she set her objective to fly solo to Australia and to beat Bert Hinkler's record of 16 days. At first, her efforts to raise financial support failed, but eventually her father and oil magnate Lord Wakefield shared the £600 purchase price of a used DH Gypsy Moth (G-AAAH), which was named “Jason” after the family business trademark.
Amy set off alone from Croydon on 5 May 1930, and landed in Darwin on 24 May, a flight distance of 11,000 miles. She was the first woman to fly alone to Australia, and came home to the UK to a hero’s welcome which culminated in her award of a C.B.E.
In July 1931, she set an England to Japan record in a Puss Moth with Jack Humphreys, followed in July 1932 with a solo flight from England to Cape Town. In May 1936, she set a record from England to Cape Town, solo, in a Percival Gull, a flight to retrieve her 1932 record.
She married Scottish Aviator, Jim Mollison, in 1932, with whom she flew in a DH Dragon non-stop from South Wales to the United States in 1933. Competing in the England to Australia air race, they flew non-stop in record time to India in 1934 in a DH Comet. The couple were divorced in 1938.
After her commercial flying ended with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Amy joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, a pool of experienced pilots who were ineligible for RAF service. Her flying duties consisted of ferrying aircraft from factory airstrips to RAF bases.
It was on one of these routine flights on 5 January 1941, that Amy crashed into the Thames estuary and was drowned; her body was never recovered.
She was the first person from the Air Transport Auxiliary to be killed in active service.
A memorial service for Amy was held at the St Martins in the Fields church in Trafalgar Square on 14 January 1941.
Mystery still surrounds her death as the reason for the journey remains a government secret. In 1999, it was reported that Tom Mitchell from Crowborough, Surrey, claimed to have shot down the plane.
He claimed that Amy failed to say the right identification code, which was changed every day for all British forces so troops on the ground would know they were British. Apparently, she failed to give the code twice and was shot down as an enemy aircraft.
During her lifetime, Amy was recognised many times. She was the guest of honour at the opening of the first Butlins holiday camp in Skegness in 1936. Amy was also the president of the Women's Engineering Society between 1935 and 1937.
After her death, several tributes were made. In 1974, Harry Ibbetson's statue of the pilot was unveiled in Kingston Upon Hull, while the University of Sheffield named the building that houses its department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering after her.