A remarkable life and the enduring mystery of her tragic death.
The late arrival of the inbound flight she had piloted from Hatfield, in Hertfordshire, prevented Amy Johnson from departing Prestwick, Scotland any earlier than 4.00 pm on that afternoon in early January of 1941. Darkness was already beginning to fall. The most direct route from Prestwick to her eventual destination of Royal Air Force base Kidlington, near Oxford, took Amy Johnson right over Blackpool where Amy’s sister Molly and her husband Trevor lived in nearby Stanley Park. The thought of a meal, spending time with family and a decent night’s sleep must have had a lot of appeal rather than slogging further southeastwards in thoroughly awful conditions and at night. She landed the Airspeed Oxford twin-engine trainer at RAF Squires Gate just south of Blackpool proper, and secured the plane for the night. It was just another ordinary day in her life as a ferry pilot working in the dark midst of World War II.
The following day, on January 5th, Amy was back at Squires Gate readying her aircraft for the brief flight to Oxford — it would take no more than an hour or two under ideal conditions. But that day offered much less than ideal conditions. So much so, the Duty Pilot at Squires Gate advised her to wait it out until the weather improved. Visibility at RAF Kidlington was reported as poor with not much prospect for improvement in the immediate future. Amy, with almost unparalleled flying experience over much less forgiving terrain, felt the conditions were such that she could manage them. She was going to make the flight.
With full fuel tanks and a ship in good shape other than a possibly dodgy compass, she lined up the aircraft on the runway, applied full power, quickly rotated into the grey drizzly skies, turned southeast and — in what have must seemed like an instant — vanished into the mid-winter English murk.
When she was just 26 years old, Amy Johnson had taken a ruler, placed it on a map of the world and found the most direct route from England to Australia. With that, she had more-or-less plotted the course for her upcoming flight where she intended to fly that route and become the first woman to make the solo trip. She was not in the least deterred by having earned her flying credentials scarcely more than a year before. Financed by her indulgent, wealthy father and Charles Wakefield, the businessman who founded Castrol lubricants, Amy bought a de Havilland DH.60 Moth biplane which she registered on April the 30th, 1930. She christened it Jason, which was her father’s business trademark, and had the name painted prominently on the cowl. She then set about making the other preparations for the odyssey which was to start just five days later, on May 5th, from Croydon, near London.
Her planned route would take her over some parts of the world for which there were not yet reliable maps let alone aviation aids such as radio beacons or two-way voice communications. Her primary method of navigation would consist of simply looking for mapped landmarks on the ground. If there were none, she would use dead reckoning: steering a pre-determined compass course and making allowance for wind drift along the way. Never mind even that had to be estimated from the air. When finally close to her destination, she would once again simply look at the ground with the hope of finding something which would then help her steer to the airport or other suitable landing site. Using these methods alone, her route would eventually take her from England to Vienna and Constantinople (Istanbul) in Europe, and then on to Aleppo, Baghdad and Bandar Abbas in the Middle East. From there, she would traverse South Asia via Karachi, Jhansi, Allahabad (Prayagraj) and Calcutta (Kolkata). The final stretch across Southeast Asia would take her through Rangoon (Yangon), Bangkok, Singora (Songkhla), Singapore, Tjomal, Surabaya, Atambua and then eventually to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory.
In retrospect, the idea of a novice pilot embarking on such a trip in a cloth-covered plane barely capable of 100 miles-per-hour and weighing less than 1,000 pounds seems utterly preposterous — suicidally dangerous with little possibility of success. When she departed from Croydon, the Manchester Guardian hedged its bets on what seemed like a fool’s errand by reporting “[t]he engine was started, and, with a wave of her hand, Miss Johnson took off and was soon lost to view on the first stage of her… flight.” It was almost like they didn’t expect to see her again. They were undoubtedly relieved or maybe even surprised to report, in the same edition of the paper, that she had “arrived at the Aspern Aerodrome, Vienna, at 5.50 pm. She made a perfect landing” and her “non-stop flight from Croydon…was without incident.” Maybe there was more to this Amy Johnson than first met the eye. Or maybe she was just really lucky.
Regular reports of her progress continued to be received from along her route, conveyed mostly by Reuters’ telegram, each of which reflected a bit more of the growing enthusiasm for the flight, back home in England and around the world. Somewhere between Allepo and Baghdad she encountered a vicious sandstorm which forced her down in the middle of the desert. She somehow managed to secure the aircraft using her luggage as improvised wheel chocks and waited out the worst of the storm on the ground. After a successful restart — anything but that virtually guaranteed she would never be heard from again — she arrived safely in Baghdad later that same day. Further along in the trip, Amy damaged the aircraft slightly on landing in Rangoon by taxiing Jason into an easily unseen ditch at the airfield. She managed repairs and continued. Hearts stopped once again as Amy disappeared for nearly 24 hours between Surabaya and her destination of Atambua on the island of Timor which is surrounded by the shark-infested waters of the Timor Sea. During this period the Guardian understatedly reported there was simply “anxiety for girl flyer”. She was eventually reported safe and sound at Halilulik, a small village about 10 miles south of Atambua.
From there it was a relatively short, uneventual hop to Darwin in Australia. After just nineteen-and-a-half days enroute, Amy Johnson arrived to a hero’s welcome. This built to a fever pitch as she made her way across the Australian Outback to Brisbane and with a plan to fly onwards to Sydney. In Brisbane, however, it was reported the “propellor and wings of her aeroplane were badly damaged” after hitting a fence at the Eagle Farm Aerodrome and flipping the plane over. She walked away from the accident. However, she also was given a sense of what her new life was going to be like when the surging crowd broke down a barrier fence and quickly surrounded her overturned aircraft. When asked if she was hurt, she looked at the throng which appeared ready to start ripping souvenirs off the plane. She simply answered “I am more worried about the machine”.
By the end of May, demand for her attention and to attend endless celebrations of her flight had exhausted Amy to the point where her doctor told her it was too much. “Miss Amy Johnson Told to Rest” was the headline in the Guardian, followed simply by the terse “Too Many Engagements”. In early June, she was made a Commander of the British Empire by King George V, although that was deemed “not adequate” in the opinion of the Women’s Freedom League back in England. By August, Amy Johnson was back in London where she was once again greeted by huge crowds. In her hometown of Hull, in the north of England, she was “welcomed…tumultuously, in a way that well concluded her almost royal arrival in this country.”
Amy Johnson may have left Croydon a few months earlier a seemingly foolhardy unknown, but now she was one of the first of the new generation of media superstars. Her life — clearly — was never going to be the same again.
At RAF Kidlington, the weather was still awful with solid overcast, low cloud ceilings, near freezing temperatures and moderate-to-poor visibility. The warning they had provided to the Duty Pilot at RAF Squires Gate earlier in the day was well justified. It’s uncertain whether the base staff were aware that Amy Johnson, regardless of their warning, had decided to make the flight from Blackpool anyway. It’s therefore questionable whether anyone would have noticed that 90 minutes or so after she departed Squires Gate, she had not yet landed at their base.
Adding to the uncertainty was the possibility she had made it overhead Kidlington, taken one look at the abysmal conditions and decided to try and find somewhere better to land. Amy would have left with full fuel tanks which, for the Airspeed Oxford, meant there was approximately five-and-a-half hours of fuel aboard. Surely, there was nothing about which to be too concerned until at least that amount of time had gone by.
Besides, even if they were concerned, there was virtually no help they could offer from the ground anyway. It was unlikely there was a radio aboard Amy’s Oxford, given that it was being ferried between two friendly airports. It also stands to reason that if there had been, and Amy was indeed lost somewhere above the overcast, she would have likely tried to contact someone, somewhere along the way, to provide a status report if not to request some sort of assistance.
No such call was ever made, however, at least none that was ever received.
Amy Johnson must have started planning her next ambitious, record-setting journey almost before the hubbub from her England-to-Australia adventure had abated. Resuming her rather ordinary life from before the flight seemed unlikely. Not that there was any evidence Amy had any desire to do that. In fact, it was the opposite. She had been lavished with gifts and attention since her return which she seemed to thoroughly enjoy. There were even those who noted that she had taken pains to disguise her broad, north of England, working class accent and replace it with something more closely resembling the upper class King’s English. There were even little hints about how her sudden fame had begun to reshape her character: in March of 1931, it was “alleged that Miss Johnson left her car [at a bus] stop in Cockspur Street for thirty-five minutes in the middle of the day.” The defense lawyer she retained, Mr. Edward Duke, advocated on her behalf with “Miss Johnson wished to express her regret for leaving the car in this position, but she had no idea it was a [bus] stop.” The magistrate was having none of it, though, and “imposed a fine of 10s”.
By the middle of the summer of 1931, Amy Johnson was back in the air in a de Havilland DH.80 Puss Moth which she promptly christened Jason II. This was an upgraded version of the plane she had flown to Australia. It had a small, enclosed cabin to finally get the pilot and passengers out of the frigid slipstream. She and her co-pilot Jack Humphreys flew non-stop from England all the way to Moscow in what was then called the Soviet Union, the first time the route had been flown non-stop. From Moscow, they continued eastward to Tokyo, also setting a record for the trip from England to Japan.
In 1932, Amy Johnson met and married Jim Mollison who was a record setting aviator in his own right. He also had a whispered reputation for being a drunk and a womanizer. But Amy and Jim proceeded to get married regardless. In another hint at the personal transformation Amy had undergone since her milestone flight, it was reported that she did not ask her parents to attend her wedding to Mollison. They had gotten wind of it, though, and made the overnight drive to attend anyway. They arrived minutes late only to find the happy couple already signing the register. Amy did not notice her parents’ arrival and when it became clear they were being snubbed by her, they immediately turned around and drove home without exchanging a word with their daughter.
It was never completely clear whether the Mollisons saw each other as companions, or competitors in their aviation pursuits. In March of 1932, Jim Mollison set a speed record for the flight from England to South Africa. In November of that same year, the now Mrs. Mollison beat her husband’s record over the same route. In 1933, Mr. and Mrs. Mollison planned a record breaking, round-the-world flight. They only made it across the Atlantic, though, before running out of fuel on that leg and making a heavy forced landing in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The Mollisons were both injured — they were subsequently photographed at the home of Amelia Earhart and George Putnam and the bandages are clearly evident in the portrait of the four of them in the bright summer sun.
The Mollisons entered one of the three de Havilland DH.88 Comets in the MacRobertson Air Race from London, England to Melbourne, Australia in 1934. The two star aviators and the sleek plane they christened Black Magic were arguably favoured to win the race. They were, in fact, doing so right up to the leg from Baghdad to Allahabad. They had used some non-aviation fuel in a pinch and damaged their plane’s engines to the point where they had to drop out. They actively participated in the cannibalization of Black Magic in Allahabad to provide sustenance to another Comet entered in the race. It was the ruby red Grosvenor House piloted by Charles W.A. Scott and Tom Campbell Black which eventually won the MacRobertson in a record time of just 71 hours in the air.
Amy Johnson’s last significant record breaking flight was in 1936. She wanted to once again reclaim the since broken England to South Africa record, which she did in a Percival Gull. However, by this time, aviation was generally turning away from such record attempts and attending to the more prosaic demands of the travelling public. They, too, wanted to avail themselves of the speed and convenience of air travel. There was also the matter of the looming, unavoidable war in Europe where the capabilities of rapidly evolving aviation technology would be put to use for a much darker purpose.
By 1938, Amy had had enough of Jim Mollison’s drinking and countless affairs. Their uncontested divorced was announced on February 8th. While married to Jim Mollison, Amy seemed happy enough to be referred to by her married name. What’s telling is very shortly after she “was granted a decree nisi, with costs”, the former Mrs. Mollison quickly reclaimed the name by which most of the public would have known her anyway.
Some four-and-a-half hours after having departed Squires Gate, there came word that Amy Johnson’s plane had been spotted not even remotely near RAF Kidlington in Oxfordshire, but rather over 100 miles further southeast in the Thames Estuary near Herne Bay. By that time the weather had deteriorated even further. Snow had begun to fall and the temperature still hovered near freezing. The weather appeared to be getting worse, not better.
Theoretically, there was still roughly an hour of fuel remaining in Amy’s aircraft, but with seemingly few options available, she chose to bail out of the still perfectly good aircraft over what she thought was land. There was a report that she must have spotted zeppelin-like, silver barrage balloons — specifically designed to entangle and bring down enemy aircraft — and concluded that where there were barrage balloons, the ground couldn’t be far below. It turns out the balloons she might have spotted were anchored on the decks of ships plying the waters of the Thames where it widens and drains out into the English Channel. So as Amy’s parachute opened and she looked down, she would not have seen the snowy Kent landscape, as she might have expected, but rather the icy, brown-grey waters of the Thames.
As she struck the water, she must have had some notion of how short her time was to find help. It was perishingly cold in the rough water. Miraculously, the sailors of the nearby HMS Haslemere had spotted her as she came down and were already maneuvering for her rescue. In fact, they even thought there may have been a second parachute and person in the water but couldn’t verify that. The crew of the Haslemere threw Amy a lifeline but the cold was already begun to take it’s toll. She either couldn’t get to the lifeline or, with her fingers already beginning to turn blue-white, hold on to the rope if she did manage to reach it.
Realizing the imminent disaster of having clear sight of the pilot while she slipped under the waves to certain death, and with at least the possibility of a second soul in the water, the captain of the Haslemere, Lt Cmdr Walter Fletcher, tied a rope around his waist and dove into the deadly cold water. He began to swim after the crew of the Oxford, which itself was seen crashing into the Thames shortly after Amy’s parachute was spotted in the snowy sky.
Meanwhile, in their haste to get close to the rapidly fading Johnson, the Haslemere managed to get itself lodged on a sandbar and became stuck, unable to move any further. In the wheelhouse of the Haslemere and seemingly unaware of the proximity of Amy Johnson and rescuer Fletcher to the stern of the ship, the crew did what they were trained to do under such circumstances. They reversed the rotation of the ship’s propellers so instead of pushing the ship forward, the props would begin to pull the ship backwards and off the sandbar. The utterly tragic consequence of this action, of course, was the propellors would begin sucking water into them along with anything that happened to be in that water off the stern at the time. The crew on the aft deck, along with Fletcher who was still in the water and already becoming hypothermic himself, must have watched in horror as Amy, just a scant few feet away, was drawn inextricably toward and then disappeared into the rapidly spinning blades of the Haslemere’s propellors.
Amy Johnson was never seen again.
There is little doubt that Amy Johnson would have wanted to be an RAF fighter pilot. She had lived her entire life doing exactly what she saw other aviators were doing — these being primarily men, of course — and just went ahead and did those things, too. In most cases, as it turns out, much better than the men she was emulating. But it was a time when women were illogically not afforded the opportunity to fly in combat roles. Instead, they were relegated to the dreary, routine but still vitally important role of the Aircraft Transport Auxiliary. This was the arm of the Royal Air Force responsible for getting aircraft where they needed to be and it was in this role Amy, as First Officer, was flying on that miserable January day in 1941.
Anybody would have easily known that simple ferry flights were a shocking waste of Amy Johnson’s talent and expertise. Being stuck out of harm’s way also likely grated on Amy’s highly ambitious nature. It is perhaps with this fact, then, the speculation began that the flight Amy undertook that day was actually nothing like it appeared to be. Departing with full fuel from near Blackpool and flying the Oxford efficiently — which she clearly knew how to do as well as anybody — it would have been almost possible to reach the occupied French or Belgian coast, briefly land to pick up a passenger, and then return to the eastern coast of England where she was eventually spotted. Furthermore, it would have been possible to do so roughly within the known timeline of her last flight. The tantalizing detail which supports this theory is the testimony of witnesses at the official enquiry into the crash. Some of them, at least, testified to seeing two parachutes descending into the waters of the Thames on that miserably cold day.
Given Amy Johnson’s enormous ambitions and appetites in life, it’s likely she would have jumped at any opportunity to more directly contribute to the war effort through such a secret mission. Even if that never resulted in any further adulation from her adoring public. However, the details of what she might have been doing that day remain officially sealed until 2040, 99 years after the fact.
The other detail which does not make sense is the theory of a broken compass which lead to the highly experienced pilot getting lost in the overcast over the English countryside. Without an onboard radio, the only way anybody would have known anything about the compass was before Amy’s flight departed. With her navigation experience over some of the harshest terrain on the planet, she would have known that suspect compass readings on such a day would have made an already fairly risky flight infinitely more dangerous. It stretches credibility that if Amy had known her aircraft’s compass may be faulty, she would have accepted the flight. Unless of course there was something more at stake than simply getting a pokey training plane from one RAF base to another on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Assuming this narrative is correct, for a moment, it seems less likely the bailout was part of that plan — something really had not gone according to plan, whatever the entirety of that plan actually was. Of course, it certainly would have been a less traceable way of delivering the possible mystery passenger to England than landing at any airstrip within the sight of an inquisitive ground crew. It is more likely, however, the details of the last few minutes of Amy’s ill-fated last flight are accurate. She was finally out of fuel and time and viable options.
Faced with all of that, she then did what she had done throughout her entire, remarkable life. Amy Johnson, with or without a mystery passenger, simply did what she needed to do to survive.
©2019 Terence C. Gannon
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