SURREY GREATS: Who was Amy Johnson?

Amy Johnson in 1936. Image: The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo

Amy Johnson in 1936. Image: The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

The pioneering aviator set off from Croydon Airport on the first solo female flight from England to Australia

On January 5, 1941 the pioneering aviator Amy Johnson set off on what proved to be her final flight. Her death was widely mourned. Yet only 11 years earlier she had set off as a virtual unknown from Croydon Airport on the flight that was to make her name.

Amy Johnson was born in Hull on July 1, 1903, the daughter of a successful local businessman, whose company specialised in fish processing. Having studied at Sheffield University, she moved to London in 1927 and found work as a typist at a firm of solicitors.

Following a visit to the Stag Lane Aerodrome in North London, home to a popular flying club for would-be pilots, Amy began to learn to fly and in July 1929 was awarded her pilot’s licence. Amy also became interested in aircraft mechanics and that December became the first woman in Britain to obtain a ground engineer’s licence.

Amy lost her job because of the time she devoted to her new obsession. She became keen to increase her profile in the aviation world in the hope that it would lead to paid job opportunities. As no woman had previously attempted the long solo flight to Australia, she decided to make this her goal, but faced two major stumbling blocks – she did not have her own plane, nor the funds to purchase one.

She persuaded her father to give her some of the money and the rest she obtained from Lord Wakefield, the founder of the Castrol lubricants company. In April 1930 she purchased a secondhand de Havilland Gipsy Moth, which she called “Jason”.

On May 5, 1930, Amy took off from Croydon Airport, with only a handful people on hand to wish her well. She had never flown further than Hull on a solo flight. Armed with only a basic map, she took the decision to fly via a more direct route than had been previously attempted and reached India in a new record time. By the time Amy reached Darwin at the northern tip of Australia on May 24, news of her exploits had spread and she was greeted by a huge crowd. Only adverse weather conditions towards the end of her flight had prevented her from making the journey in a world record-breaking time. Amy only returned to her homeland in early August.Thousands of people turned up at Croydon Airport to welcome her.

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She went on to break many other aviation records. As well as being an accomplished pilot and navigator, she proved to be a highly capable mechanic, able to look after her own plane and maximise its efficiency. She also possessed a character of great courage and endurance. Most importantly, she had an innate love of flying. On returning from that first record-breaking flight to Australia, she told the crowd: “I am never so happy as when I am alone in the silent, wide open spaces of the sky.”

In late May 1932 Amy attended the official opening of the distinctive Art Deco-style Aero Clubhouse at Brooklands. Also invited was Scottish pilot, Jim Mollison, with whom Amy had recently begun a relationship. Two months later, the couple were married. Jim was also a highly accomplished pilot and together they set more records over the next few years.

Sadly the marriage soon ran into difficulties. On several occasions Amy was reported to be suffering from nervous exhaustion and Jim was drinking heavily. In 1936 Amy made her last record-breaking flight from England to South Africa. Two years later the couple divorced.

Shortly after the start of World War II Amy began working for the newly formed Air Transport Auxiliary. On that fateful morning in January 1941 she set off from RAF Squires Gate, near Blackpool, on what should have been a routine 90-minute flight to RAF Kidlington in Oxfordshire. She is thought to have flown off course in adverse weather conditions and was not seen again until four hours later when she had to parachute out of her plane over the Thames Estuary. Despite desperate efforts to reach her (one brave man died in the attempt), Amy was lost at sea.

Jim ended up running the Carisbrooke Hotel on St Philip’s Road in Surbiton. He had lost his pilot’s licence as a result of his heavy drinking. In the end he was admitted to the Priory, where he died in October 1959. These days he is not widely known, while Amy’s fame has lived on. She is best remembered as that intrepid young woman setting off on her epic solo flight to Australia from Croydon Airport in May 1930.

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