The Disappearance of Amy Johnson

Most people from Blackpool will be familiar with the name Amy Johnson, however for many simply via Amy Johnson Way, a road alongside the former Blackpool airport that is now home to a large commercial and shopping development (as well as the new Illuminations depot). The woman who gave her name to the road was one of the world’s pioneering female aviators, garnering significant fame for her exploits before disappearing in strange circumstances after a crash in 1941.

Amy Johnson, photographed in 1930. Image: Waverley Book Company

Born in Kingston upon Hull in 1903, Amy Johnson was the daughter of a successful fish merchant. After graduating from the University of Sheffield with a degree in economics, Johnson moved to London for a period, working as a solicitor’s secretary. It was during this time that she was introduced to flying and quickly developed a passion for it, securing her aviator’s certificate in January 1929. A few months later she gained her pilot’s A licence. She also became the first British woman to qualify for a ground engineer’s C licence. 

Using funds provided by her father Johnson purchased her first aircraft, a second-hand de Havilland DH.60 Gipsy Moth. A two-seater biplane, the DH.60 was the mainstay of British aviation clubs. Just a year after obtaining her pilot’s licence, Johnson made headlines worldwide after becoming the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia. Departing from Croydon on 5th May 1930, she arrived safely in Darwin 19 days later, a journey of some 11,000 miles. Johnson was made a CBE in George V’s 1930 birthday honours in recognition of her achievement, as well as being awarded the Harmon Trophy for the world’s outstanding aviatrix. 

Johnson’s Gipsy Moth, G-AAAH ‘Jason’. Image: State Library of Queensland

On her return to the UK Johnson upgraded to a de Havilland DH.80 Puss Moth, a high-performance monoplane capable of exceeding 120 mph. In July 1931 she departed in her new aircraft alongside co-pilot Jack Humphreys, becoming the first pilot ever to fly between London and Moscow within a day. The pair continued on to Tokyo, setting a further record for fastest flight.

A de Havilland Puss Moth, the second plane owned by Johnson. Image: Wikicommons

The following year she married fellow pilot Jim Mollison. That same year she broke the record for a solo flight between London and Cape Town, claiming the record previously held by her new husband. He accompanied her on her next flight, leaving Pendine Sands in South Wales en-route to Brooklyn. After running dangerously low on fuel they attempted to land in Connecticut, both being thrown from the aircraft in a crash landing at Bridgeport Municipal Airport. They survived with only minor injuries. 

Johnson with husband and fellow pilot Jim Mollison. Image: RAF Museum

The couple set a record in 1934 for the fastest flight between Britain and India. Finally, in 1936 she reclaimed her London to Cape Town crown. Two years later she divorced Mollison.

Wartime Service

After the outbreak of the Second World War Johnson joined the war effort as a pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary, moving Royal Air Force planes between airfields across the UK. By 1941 she had been promoted to First Officer.

On 5th January 1941 Johnson departed from Blackpool en-route to RAF Kidlington in Oxfordshire. Despite the freezing fog conditions that limited visibility it should have been a simple, 90-minute flight. Inexplicably, some four hours later she crashed into the Thames Estuary off Kent, some 100 miles past her objective. Johnson’s parachute was seen coming down by crew of HMS Haslemere, which set out to rescue her. While she was seen alive and shouting for help in the water she was unable to reach lines thrown to her and disappeared beneath the ship. The ship’s captain dived into the water in a rescue attempt but was unable to locate her. The extreme cold and heavy seas had rendered him unconscious by the time a lifeboat reached him. He died in hospital a few days later. Johnson’s body was never found.

HMS Haslemere. Image: Wildfire3

A variety of explanations and conspiracy theories have been put forward to explain both her disappearance and why she was so badly off course. One crew member believed that she had been sucked into the ship’s propeller and killed. In 1999 a historian put forward the theory that she had been shot down by friendly fire after failing to provide the correct identification code when challenged over radio. Others have claimed that she was downed by a German aircraft or that she was so far off course as she was attempting to return her lover, either a German or English spy, to France. This particular rumour was further fueled after crew of HMS Haslemere stated that they had seen two bodies in the water, despite Johnson departing Blackpool alone. Another suggestion was that she was attempting to fake her own death. None of these theories have any real solid evidence and the likely cause was simply bad weather and a possibly cavalier approach to her own safety.

An RAF Airspeed Oxford, the plane Johnson was flying when he disappeared. Image: Bob Brown

Whatever the circumstances of her death or disappearance, Amy Johnson was rightly celebrated as a fearless and pioneering aviatrix. She was posthumously awarded the Albert Medal in May 1941 and her name is included on the Air Forces Memorial in Runnymede.

Alongside the aforementioned Amy Johnson Way in Blackpool a number of institutions bear her name, including a department of the University of Sheffield, a primary school in Essex, a housing development in Hull and a museum at Derby Airfield. Dutch and Norwegian airliners were also named after her, as was Amy Johnson Avenue in Darwin, Australia and Amy’s Restaurant and Bar at both Gatwick and Stanstead airports. A statue of her was unveiled in her home city of Hull in 2016, the 75th anniversary of her death.

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