The World at Her Feet: Amy Johnson Takes on Australia

In 1930 the world took notice of a different type of flyer. Amy Johnson was a newcomer to the world of long distance flying, but in May of that year she took the aviation world by surprise when she flew her single engine Gipsy Moth biplane, named Jason; from London to Darwin. Although her nineteen days, eleven countries journey did not break any aviation records, it represented a breakthrough for women all around the globe. Many aviation enthusiasts, as well as much of the public in Europe and America, were amazed at the incredible feat accomplished by this unpretentious young woman from Yorkshire, Great Britain. They were even more impressed at the fact that before her ground breaking feat, Johnson had only eighty five hours of actual flying experience! Amy Johnson was born on July 1st, 1903, just months before the Wright Brothers introduced the world to aviation, in Hull. Her father was a fisherman and raised young Amy to be a strong and independent woman. A preaching she took to the heart. Since her early teens, young Amy was keen to find her place in the world, even if it means entering into fields usually associated with man. In the 1920s she attended Sheffield University for a brief period before discovering that academic life was not suited for her and her ambitions. After dropping college, Johnson went on to work with her father; from there she took a clerical position with an up and coming advertising agency in downtown London. Although those jobs offered her the ability to pay the bills, Amy wanted more out of life. She wanted to live an adventure, to live on the edge. She found that edge in flying.

She joined the prestigious London Aeroplane Club in the summer of 1928 and quickly fell in love with aviation. As she had done during all her life, Amy applied herself to this new task. She earned her pilot’s license and a second one in ground engineering. With those two licenses under her belt, Johnson went in to the aviation community with a new sense of purpose, a new attitude. She was a shrewd self promoter in a male-dominated environment. She tried to attract patrons and donors in order to finance her dream of making a difference in the world. She always came up with interesting ideas on how to promote her efforts. Once she told a local newspaper reporter that she was aiming to beak Bert Hinkler’s record of flying from England to Australia. He did it in fifteen and a half days during the spring of 1928. Flying from the U.K. to Australia in those early pioneers days must had offered any man, let alone a woman, one of the most demanding challenges in human endeavor. The first men to try such an endeavor were two Australian Lieutenants, Ray Parer and John McIntosh. After the Great War ended, Parer and McIntosh commenced preparations to fly to Australia from their base in England. In 1920 they embarked on their challenge. Utilizing a World War I vintage DH.9 biplane they began their trek. Unfortunately for them, flying from the south of the U.K. to Darwin, was a more demanding journey that the two young Australian Lieutenants hoped. Their DH.9 suffered innumerable mechanical problems. It took them forty days just to reach Cairo, Egypt. They crashed near Baghdad and had the misfortune to spend six weeks in the jungle, before finally arriving at Darwin with a chopped aircraft and a pint of fuel. During her research into the planned trip, Johnson took more care in detail planning that did the two Australians ten years before. The first step for Amy was to secure the necessary financial backing for the proposed enterprise. Financial support was necessary for her endeavor to succeed. Her father offered a base credit line which enabled young Amy to quit her clerical job and to purchase an aircraft. After securing her own plane, Johnson courted prominent London personalities in an effort to gather the necessary logistical backing needed for the planned adventure. One of those courted, Lord Wakefield, the Castrol Oil Company magnate, played a key role in securing fuel storages along the propose flight path to the country down under. The aircraft bought with her father’s assistance was a de Havilland DH.60G Gipsy Moth biplane. She named it Jason. Jason was a small, two-seated aircraft with an open cockpit design. The Jason was equipped with added fuel tanks for long distance flights. The DH.60G was powered by a single, four cylinder, air-cooled engine capable of generating 100 hp. The engine gave the 60G a top cruising speed of only eighty five miles per hours. But what the small aircraft lacked in speed, it made it for in sturdiness and operational range. The most important factor when operating over vast ocean distances. With the necessary tools on hand, all that it was left for Johnson to do was to actually attempt to fly to Australia, and fly she did

Amy Johnson (photo, via author)
Amy Johnson (photo, via author)

Amy Johnson took to the air for her historic flight in the early hours of May 5th, 1930 A small crowd, mainly family and friends, was gathered at Croydon Airport to see Amy off. The first phase of her trip called for crossing the English Channel and then heading up to Asperne airport in Vienna, Austria. The complete trip covered eight hundred miles, a distance she covered on the very first day of her endeavor without any weather or mechanical problems. Next for Johnson, was the route from Vienna to Istanbul, another eight hundred miles to cover. Again she covered the distance without a problem, only fatigue bothered her. On May 7th, she flew her 60G airplane over the rugged Taurus Mountains of Turkey, with peaks as high as 12,000 feet. She aimed to land some five hundred and fifty miles away, at Aleppo airfield in Syria. It was on this flight leg that Amy encountered her first real test. While flying through turbulence at 8,000 feet, Johnson encountered dense cloud cover that forced her to fly over a long stretch of mountainous terrain with minimal visibility. The mountain passes were difficult to maneuver in with unlimited visibility to begin with, and now, without the assistance of a full spectrum of visibility, Johnson was able to manage the narrow passes with pin-point precision. At some instances, her aircraft came within a few feet of hitting the rocky edges of the mountains. After passing the mountains ranges, Johnson elected to follow a railway line all the way into Aleppo. The fourth day of flight brought up massive storms along the Aleppo to Baghdad route. This weather presented a problem for Amy. Up to this point she was ahead of Hinkler’s record pace. With an almost complete disregard for the weather conditions, Amy took off from Aleppo en route to Baghdad, a four hundred and thirty mile trek. During the first few hours of the flight, Johnson did not encounter any major complications, weather or mechanical related, but the trend did not last. Unexpectedly, a strong wind gale forced her to dive relentlessly from her altitude of around 7,000 feet to almost hitting the ground; it was at this point that she decided to suspend the rest of the flight and land immediately in the desert. There was nothing Johnson could do now but wait out the storm. As suddenly as the storm front appeared, it went way and Amy was able to resume her flight within two hours of landing in the desert. Once in the air, Amy promptly located the Tigris River and followed all the way to Baghdad where she landed at a British-run airport on May 8th. The following day, Johnson was airborne again, this time en route to Bandar Abbas, eight hundred and forty miles to the southeastern part of the Persian Gulf. She covered the distance without a glitch. May 10th saw her flying off to Karachi, seven hundred and thirty miles away. When she landed in this British held city, she was received by the residents as a folk hero. Her solo flight from London to Karachi in just eight days was a record and most importantly for Amy, it put her two full days ahead of Hinkler’s pace. Johnson did not have time to enjoy the spoils of her new record if she was to beat Hinkler’s time. On May 11th Amy took off from Karachi to Allahabad, a city in British-controlled India. In mid-flight Amy discovered that the 60G’s fuel tanks were not filled to capacity thus forcing her land nearly two hundred miles away from her destination. While landing, her 60G suffered wing damage after hitting a post. She quickly repaired the wing damage and after refueling her aircraft, thanks to a nearby local British garrison, she was once again underway. After she reached Allahabad, she continued on to the Dumdum airfield in Calcutta, reaching it during the late evening hours of May 12th.

Percival Gull Six G-ADZO (photo, via author)
Percival Gull Six G-ADZO (photo, via author)

She was still on pace to break the record, but now fatigue, not the weather or mechanical difficulties, started to play a major role on her quest. Flying ten to twelve hours a day were beginning to take their toll on the young woman from Hull. The next phase of the journey called for a flight from Calcutta to Rangoon in Burma, a journey of nearly six hundred and fifty miles. On May 13th she departed Calcutta at 7:00 am; she encountered a weather front near the Yomas range that forced her to deviate from the original flight plan. She commenced tracking the Burmese coastline until she reached Rangoon. Her target landing area was an abandoned race track, but due to the poor visibility she landed on a soccer field. As was the case with her emergency landing in the desert a few days ago, this forced landing damaged her airplane’s wing structure and the propeller. Fortunately, Johnson was a prepared woman and brought along with her a new propeller. The wing was repaired by friendly strangers that appeared a few minutes after she landed. But the necessary repairs took three precious days. She needed to get into the air soon and in the early morning hours of May 17th she took off from Rangoon en route to Bangkok, three hundred and forty miles away. The weather again played a key role in Amy’s quest. Constant rain drops and poor visibility posed a major problem for Johnson, but she decided to press on to Bangkok, and again as it was the case a few days before, Amy found a railroad line and followed all the way to her destination. The days of May 17th and 18th saw Amy and her aircraft cruising over the Malaya Peninsula to Singapore. This flight was uneventful and Johnson landed safely in Singapore. The next phase of the journey called for a one thousand mile trek covering the vast majority of the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia). The original plan called for a trip to Surabaya in the island of Java, but mechanical problems altered that path and Amy was forced to land at Tjomal in the central section of Java. After repairing her aircraft, Amy took off from Surabaya on the morning of May 22nd with the aim of reaching Atambua, nine hundred miles away. The flight was without weather or mechanical problems, but poor navigation by young Amy deviated her from the original landing site. She landed at Haliluk, a remote tropical area, twelve miles away. By the afternoon of the 23rd, Amy finally reached Atambua, the launching point for the final phase of her amazing quest, Port Darwin, Australia. The last leg of the trip was probably the most danger one. The path called for Johnson to cruise in her DH.60 airplane over the Sea of Timor en route to Darwin, a distance of five hundred miles. The ticky part of the trip was that if any major situation arose and Amy needed to crash land, the most likely place she would be able to do it was the vast and isolated open waters of the Sea of Timor, the ditching would probably mean death since the area was seldom used by commercial or military vessels at the time.

Amy Johnson departed on May 24th, Empire Day, almost three weeks since the day she took off from Croydon Airport. The almost eleven thousand mile journey that saw her pass over the deserts of the Middle East, the jungles of the Indian subcontinent and the tropical islands of the Dutch East Indies; was almost over. Since her departure from Atumbua the weather was friendly to Amy, she was even spotted by a Shell Oil Company tanker, the Phorus, during her crossing of the Great Barrier Reef. The tanker radioed in the news of Miss Johnson’s aircraft approaching Darwin, prompting several pilots to take off and try to meet her in mid air. A task they failed to achieve. But Amy did arrive in Australia at 3:30 in the afternoon. When she landed, the young woman from Hull received the acclaim she so desperately craved. The local and international press hailed the young, and most remarkable, inexperience flyer from England. The Prime Minister of Britain, Ramsey MacDonald, prominent dignitaries, even the Queen and King of England called on young Amy to congratulate her. Amy Johnson was at the top of the world. Becoming the first woman to attempt and complete such a dangerous journey propelled Johnson to celebrity status. The next decade saw Amy establish two more world records, flying from London to Cape Town, South Africa. When World War II arrived, Johnson enlisted in the Air Transport Auxiliary service, ferrying aircraft from British factories to Royal Air Force bases. On one of those ferry mission in January 5th, 1941, she crashed into the Thames estuary and drowned in somewhat mysterious circumstances, ending the life of one of the most important figures in aviation history.

– Raul Colon



History of the Pioneers, Alicia Witts & John Eaton, Penguin Books 2000

Great Aviators and Epic Flights, Von Hardesty, Published Group West 2005

The Second World War: An Illustrated History, Vol I, III, IV; Editor Sir John Hammerton, Trident Press International 2000

One thought on “The World at Her Feet: Amy Johnson Takes on Australia

  1. Burma: The landing on a soccer field was in school grounds. The sight of any plane would cause everything to stop. A relative of mine taught there that day; a piece of furniture was cannibalised, and I think some canvas or someone’s shirt willingly donated and the lady flew on. I didn’t know about the propeller; I suspect it was just as well she had a spare!

Leave a Comment