Amy Johnson was your classic dreamer. Anybody who’s ever pushed back from the expected will recognize a little bit of themselves in her story. Well, except for the parts where Johnson became a world-renowned and record-setting pilot.
While working as a secretary in London, England, in the 1920s, she longed for something more than a desk-bound existence. Born in Kingston Upon Hull in 1903, Johnson was a talented student and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at Sheffield University, a rarity for women at the time. In 1928 she settled in for a comfortable life of paper shuffling and society life in London.
But then, the call of something more, something thrilling and maybe even dangerous took root.
Not long after taking her job Johnson became fascinated by airplanes, still a new and awe-inspiring technology that would not have seemed terribly far away from magic. She began taking flying lessons at the London Aeronautic Club in 1928 and by the next year, Johnson had earned a second but far more important bit of paper than her bachelor’s degree: a pilot’s license. Six months later, she became the first woman in the world to receive a Ground Engineer’s “C” license, awarded to pilots who were cleared to visually inspect an aircraft on the ground before a flight.
Once Johnson had her wings and her first solo flights under her belt, she immediately set out to prove that women were every bit the capable pilots men were.
In 1930, with the help from her well-to-do father and an oil magnate interested in her fledgling aviation career, Johnson purchased, for £600, her own plane, a de Havilland DH.60 “Gipsy Moth,” a sturdy, single-engined biplane that she named “Jason.” Johnson had a plan for Jason right away. She hoped to become the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, an 11,000-mile flight, and perhaps to break the record for speed on the way there. She’d had only 75 hours of flight time when she hatched her plan.
“The prospect did not frighten me, because I was so appallingly ignorant that I never realized in the least what I had taken on,” Johnson remarked.
Johnson took off from Croydon on May 5 and landed in Darwin on May 24. Along the way, she’d been forced down in a sandstorm, nearly ran out of fuel in Pakistan and landed in the middle of a military parade, and was declared missing after an unscheduled landing in Indonesia. She missed setting the record by four days, but she’d succeeded in becoming the first woman to solo that flight and immediately endeared herself to an English-speaking world obsessed with adventures.
The Daily Mail awarded Johnson £10,000 for her “feat of daring.” King George sent a telegram to Canberra meant for Johnson expressing his and the Queen’s delight and congratulations.
Johnson, however, went home dissatisfied that she hadn’t bested the speed record of Australia’s Bert Hinkler, who’d made the same journey between England and Australia in 15 days. So, she proceeded to set a laundry list of flight records.
In 1931 she set several records for speed and distance while flying with co-pilot C.S. Humphrey. Johnson, with Humphrey, became the first to fly from London to Moscow in one day, then later on the same trip set a record for quickest flight time between London and Tokyo.
Not satisfied with sharing records with a co-pilot, Johnson, in 1932, paced the world’s flying field by establishing the fastest flight—for a man or woman—between London and Cape Town, South Africa, taking only 4 days 6 hours and 54 minutes.
This was the golden age of flight record-setting, obviously, with pilots still learning and testing the abilities of planes. And Johnson was one of the very best.
Johnson ended up marrying a fellow aviator, Jim Mollison. She’d actually bested Mollison’s record when she made her historic 1932 flight from London to Cape Town. The couple made a flurry of long-distance flights together, to India, Australia, and the United States, where they crash-landed and were taken in by Amelia Earhart while they convalesced.
In 1940, Johnson left her commercial flight career—she had been working as a pilot for Hillman Airways—to join the British war effort. Her role was to fly newly built aircraft from the factory to their operating air bases. Johnson’s last flight was in January 1941, when she took off outside of Oxford in a heavy fog and veered off course. Disoriented, Johnson crashed into the Thames Estuary. Her parachute was discovered floating near the plane’s wreckage, but her body was never discovered.
The Women’s Engineering Society, of which Johnson had been elected vice-president, said this about Johnson upon her death:
“She demonstrated for all time that women can plan daring feats, can pay close attention to detail, can superintend and carry out a prescribed programme, can overcome obstacles as they are encountered, can learn from misfortune, can face disappointment without loss of courage.”