Black Magic was an iconic, trailblazing 1930s aircraft, flown by Amy Johnson and the envy of the world. Now, a team at Derby Airfield are using their passion and expertise to bring the plane back to life – and back to flight.

Nestled off Hilton Road next to the small village of Eggington, seven miles southwest of Derby, something extraordinary is quietly happening.

Here, among the beautiful rolling vistas of South Derbyshire, you will find Derby Airfield, a small, privately-owned grass airfield, home to Airspeed Aviation Ltd and Derby Aero Club.

The only Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) aerodrome in the county, the three-runway airfield was built to replace Burnaston Airfield in the early 1990s.

And since 2004, it has been home to the remains of a hugely significant aircraft which is gradually being brought back to life.

It’s in this wooden aircraft that the famous aviatrix, Amy Johnson, took part in a race from England to Australia many years ago.

Indeed, the history of both the aircraft, and its famous pilot, is quite staggering.

Mention the celebrities of our time and many respond by naming pop stars or football players.

Back in the 1930s, however, attention was focused on a small group of hot favourites – the record- breaking pilots.

Great British Life: Derby Airfield, Eggington Photo: AlamyDerby Airfield, Eggington Photo: Alamy

With the first powered flight being in 1903, the 1930s saw flying come of age, with the glamour and excitement catching the public mood in those years following the horrors of the First World War.

Hardly a month went by without records being broken for distance, speed and endurance. And when Britain’s Amy Johnson flew solo to Australia in 1930 in a de Havilland Gipsy Moth open cockpit biplane, she really hit the headlines.

With several adventures on the way - and packing a revolver in case she came down in an unsafe area - her sheer pluck and endurance caused huge excitement.

Despite crashing more than once, she survived and met her future husband in Australia, Jim Mollison, also a pilot.

When the residents of Melbourne, Australia, came to celebrate their centenary in 1934 (97 years after Melbourne had been name after William Lamb, 2nd Viscount of Melbourne whose seat was in Melbourne, Derbyshire), the lavish plans included a Royal visit and an air race to Melbourne from the mother country.

An ex-pat Scotsman, Sir MacPherson Robertson, having made his fortune there in confectionary, offered a prize of £10,000 for the winning aircraft; equivalent to almost one million pounds today.

Organised by the Royal Aero Club, the race and huge prize attracted international attention and was known as ‘The Great Air Race’.

Just when it seemed likely the winner might come from overseas, the aircraft manufacturer, Geoffrey de Havilland, set about designing and building an aircraft capable of winning.

Great British Life: Black Magic in its heyday Photo: Charles M. Daniels CollectionBlack Magic in its heyday Photo: Charles M. Daniels Collection

Inevitably this was going to be expensive and though his co-directors were less than enthusiastic, Sir Geoffrey persisted with the famous words: ‘We’ll do it anyway.’

So it was that in an incredibly short time - and only months before the race - the design team came up with a radically new type of high-speed aeroplane with increased range to minimise en-route stops.

Better still, de Havilland built not one but three aircraft; the dH 88s, branded ‘Comets’.

By this time, Amy Johnson and Jim Mollison were married and, unbeknownst to Amy, Jim purchased the first Comet (G-ACSP) for £5,000.

Jim had become famous for his own record-breaking exploits and so, as a husband-and-wife team, they became favourites to win the race.

And what about the chosen name, ‘Black Magic’? It seems Jim Mollison’s favourite colour was black and even Amy’s wedding dress was black!

Incidentally, in 1934 Rowntree’s (now part of Nestlé) registered the Black Magic trademark and used the name for their famous chocolates.

In the race, Amy and Jim successfully set a new speed record to Karachi and led the race into India. Sadly, at Allahabad, they had to retire with engine trouble and mournfully watched as other flew onwards.

The public’s expectation was for the winning aircraft to reach Melbourne in a week, at a time when the journey by sea took at least six weeks.

Great British Life: Volunteers at Derby Airfield Photo: Derby Aero ClubVolunteers at Derby Airfield Photo: Derby Aero Club

Imagine the shock and excitement when the winning aircraft arrived in less than three days; a herculean effort by British pilots Scott and Black flying another Comet.

The third Comet brought back the Pathé News film of the Melbourne celebrations for cinema goers in Britain within a week. The public could barely grasp that they could watch moving images taken so recently from the other side of the world.

The Great Air Race made as big an impression on the world's public in the pre-war 1930s as did the moon landings of the 1960s. Though in 1934 there was no television of course.

What happened to Black Magic and how did this wonder of the skies end up in South Derbyshire many decades later?

After repairs in Allahabad, it was flown back to England and sold to prime minister Salazar of Portugal, who had plans for an airmail route to the former Portuguese colony of Brazil.

Twice it was returned to England for repairs and on both return flights to Lisbon it broke speed records, but 1939 brought other problems for the world.

Both Amy and Jim joined the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) early in the Second World War, tasked with ferrying military aircraft to and from the factories to the RAF Airfields.

Tragically, on January 1 1941, Amy was shot down by friendly fire from a convoy mustering in the Thames estuary.

Great British Life: Jim Mollison and Amy Johnson with Black Magic Photo: Charles M. Daniels CollectionJim Mollison and Amy Johnson with Black Magic Photo: Charles M. Daniels Collection

She parachuted into the Thames but, when one of the merchant ships sent a boat to rescue the pilot, she was dragged under becoming entangled with the propeller.

A gallant officer dived in to try to rescue her but he too perished. Amy’s death was hushed up at the time – the Government could hardly admit the Navy had killed a national heroine.

After being ‘discovered’ in a derelict state in Portugal in the late 1970s, Black Magic was repatriated but restoration was hampered by a workshop fire.

The remains were eventually acquired by Martin Jones of Airspeed Aviation at Derby Airfield, where the long task of restoration began.

‘Our’ Comet G-ACSP ‘Black Magic’ is notable as the first British aircraft to fly with a combination of innovative technical features, now common enough – flaps, retractable undercarriage, variable pitch propellers and a monocoque construction.

Comets were game changers. 200+ mph at 10,000ft with a 2,900-mile range. Unbelievable in 1934.

Later, faced with a new war, de Havilland’s design team came up with another wooden, faster, twin engine aircraft but the Air Ministry felt wood was inappropriate for modern aircraft.

Fortunately, Sir Geoffrey said those magic words again: ‘We’ll do it anyway.’ They produced a prototype as a private venture which was so good the Air Ministry placed production orders for large scale production in England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Great British Life: The Amy Johnson Comet Restoration Centre at Derby Airfield Photo: William Morris, CC BY-SA 4.0The Amy Johnson Comet Restoration Centre at Derby Airfield Photo: William Morris, CC BY-SA 4.0

This was, of course, the incomparable Mosquito, the ‘Wooden Wonder’ - one of the greatest British aircraft of the Second World War.

So, the Derby Airfield Comet G-ACSP is rightfully famous for technical reasons but also for its provenance. It will be the only Amy Johnson aeroplane to be airworthy.

The Comets were designed as ‘peace planes’ not ‘warplanes’, to shrink the world and that is exactly what they did in style.

The restoration continues at Derby Airfield, Egginton, under the technical supervision of Martin Jones, giving Derbyshire – a county with such rich engineering heritage - a key and integral role in the future of this magnificent plane.

Airspeed Aviation Ltd incorporates the facilities of workshops, engine overhaul, drawing office and of course an airfield.

This is a philanthropic project of a national treasure. Why restore it? ‘Because we can.’ It will be difficult but, in those immortal words: ‘We’ll do it anyway.’

Great British Life: Thanks to the hard work at Derby Airfield, Black Magic will take to the skies once more Photo: Getty ImagesThanks to the hard work at Derby Airfield, Black Magic will take to the skies once more Photo: Getty Images


The restoration team has access to some of the original drawings and, fortunately, one of the volunteer team is able to re-engineer the necessary detail.

Enough of the original is available to count as a restoration project but the major structural items have had to be made from scratch.

The fuselage is structurally complete, as are the tailplane, elevators, fin and rudder. The timber is Sitka spruce imported from Canada and bought in rough sawn baulks, then selected for grain density, straightness and freedom from obvious defects.

The baulks are machined to the necessary dimensions with samples tested at Egginton for strength, moisture content, grain orientation and freedom from knots, pitch pockets and mechanical damage.

The spars are built by laminating individual strips using a two-part resin glue originally developed by CIBA Geigy for wartime wooden aircraft like the de Havilland Mosquito.

Every time a joint is made, a sample of glue and wood is retained to make a test piece. When the glue is hardened the test piece is overloaded (hammered) to establish that the glue holds in preference to the already selected wood.

Records of every glue joint and test are made. Should the test reveal a problem, the associated aircraft component is rejected. Happily, this seldom happens!

Metal parts are made from the material specified on the drawings or modern equivalent. TIG welding is carried out by a welder approved by the UK regulator.

Derby Airfield has some machine shop capability, with hardware – nuts, bolts, screws - available to original specifications, a tribute to the British Standards quality specifications laid down many years ago.

So far, most of the hundreds of metal parts necessary have been made, including the retractable undercarriages.

The engines used in the 1934 race were tuned up versions of a new de Havilland engine introduced that year. Only ten race engines with a suffix ‘R’ were built and all gave various problems experienced by Black Magic.

The Derby Airfield team has opted to use a much later variant of the engine type, which allows the fitment of fully featherable, controllable pitch propellers - a significant safety advantage should an engine fail in flight.

The main outstanding item is the one-piece wing. At 44ft span, it is the biggest wing being constructed anywhere in the UK - save for the Airbus wings being built in Chester.

The structure is well advanced and will soon be moved to a new hangar, built last year. This will allow the wing to be fitted to the fuselage. Once done, the wing will head back to the woodwork shop for completion.

The restoration team is seeking some experienced labour, with all work currently done by volunteers. To this end, donations would be gratefully received, allowing the employment of some full-time labour.