Wednesday, January 5, 2011

January 5, 1941

Amelia Earhart wasn't the only pioneering woman pilot, and there are others who should be remembered. One of the best died 70 years ago today.

The amazing Amy Johnson

Her name was Amy Johnson, and she was a legal secretary in London. But she was fascinated by the airplanes that were changing the world. In 1929 she earned both her pilot and engineering licenses.

Her father, in the tradition of all great dads, supported her dreams, no matter how far out of step with the times they were (Good Lord! Who wants a woman to fly a plane?!). He helped buy her first plane, a de Havilland Gipsy Moth, which she named "Jason".

Amy and Jason

She quickly began racking up records. The first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia (1930). First person to fly from London to Moscow in 1 day (1931). From Moscow she continued on through Siberia to Tokyo (this flight set the world record for shortest flying time from London to Tokyo). Fastest solo flight from London to Cape Town (1932). It should be noted that the last bunch were human firsts- not just for a woman.

Although she later moved on to other planes, Jason was always her favorite, and is preserved today at the London Science Museum.

In 1933 she crashed in Connecticut while flying from Wales to the U.S., but quickly recovered.

When World War II began she volunteered for the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary), flying aircraft from factories to front lines.

On this day in 1941 she was flying from Blackpool to Kidlington, on a mission that still remains a military secret. She may have been transporting another person.

In bad weather she went off course, and her plane crashed in the Thames river estuary. Amy was briefly seen alive in the water, but a rescue attempt by Lt. Cmdr. Walter Fletcher of H.M.S. Haslemere was unsuccessful (Fletcher himself died trying to reach her). Her body was never recovered.

She was 37 years old.

The cause of her death is listed as her going off course in bad weather, though there are also rumors that she was accidentally shot down in a "friendly fire" error.

Al Stewart, who I think is a great songwriter, wrote "Flying Sorcery" about her. I love the song, and in some ways it reminds of my own daydreaming daughter.

With your photographs of Kitty Hawk
And the biplanes on your wall
You were always Amy Johnson
From the time that you were small.

No schoolroom kept you grounded
While your thoughts could get away
You were taking off in Tiger Moths
Your wings against the brush-strokes of the day

Are you there?
On the tarmac with the winter in your hair
By the empty hangar doors you stop and stare
Leave the oil drums behind you, they won't care
Oh, are you there?

Oh, you wrapped me up in a leather coat
And you took me for a ride
We were drifting with the tail-wind
When the runway came in sight

The clouds came up to gather us
And the cockpit turned to white
When I looked the sky was empty
I suppose you never saw the landing-lights

Are you there?
In your jacket with the grease-stain and the tear?
Caught up in the slipstream of a dare
The compass rose will guide you anywhere
Oh, are you there?

The sun comes up on Icarus
As the night-birds sail away

And lights the maps and diagrams
That Leonardo makes

You can see Faith, Hope, and Charity*
As they bank above the fields
ou can join the flying circus
You can touch the morning air against your wheels

Are you there?
Do you have a thought for me that you can share?
Oh I never thought you'd take me unawares
Just call me if you ever need repairs
Oh, are you there?

*Faith, Hope, and Charity were the names of the only 3 fighter planes that were
available to defend British Malta during the dark days of early WWII, when the 3 were badly outnumbered by the German and Italian air forces. But they did it.


stacey said...

Another female aviator that is often overlooked:

Her book, West With the Night is a great read. There is some controversy about whether not she actually wrote it, but the story is still wonderful, regardless.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926) After learning French from the Berlitz school in Chicago, she was licensed in France in 1921. Coleman was the first female pilot of African American descent, and the first person of African American descent to hold an international pilot license.

Cal said...

I knew of Amy Johnson, as I remember a statue of her in a busy street in Hull, England, the place of her birth.

Mrs Flobster said...

Terrific post. One can't help but be awed by her courage and tenacity. And thanks for spelling "Gipsy Moth" correctly. =)

And another bow to the awesome Al Stewart--the minute I started reading the post I was, like, "Oh! Flying Sorcery!"

... Past Present and Future is my favorite of his from the early days before he turned in a more pop-fluff direction; every track is interesting, but my favorite of all his work is "Roads to Moscow," which still gives me chills. And "Nostradamus," too. Good stuff.

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Yeah, his live version of Nostradamus is awesome.

OMDG said...

Great story! Thanks for posting this!

Anonymous said...

You do nice tributes Grumpy.

You point out the reasons why that was the Greatest Generation. My 90 year old mother was commenting on how it was, just the other day. She and her sister were college educated chemist (another oddity of gender in that day) and they also were engaged in War Effort. But she spoke highly of the sacrifices of her generation.

ERP said...

I like the story of those three Gloster Se Gladiators that supposedly defended Malta - although evidence seems to show that there were at least six. These old planes (for the time). One was held in reserve and was called "Desperation". Apparently they were up against a largely incompetent Italian air attack as clearly they would have been totally wiped out by German ME109's.

ERP said...

I just read my comment full of typos. They were SEA Gladiators. And I meant to say that these old planes were completely antiquated by the time of the attack but luckily were up against a relatively ineffectual Italian air force.

Ninja Pharmer said...

I've seen Jason in the Science museum and I used to live near to whre her plane went down.

She was a fabulous woman, from all accounts.

Beach Bum said...

Thanks for this. Fascinating! And I agree with the first commenter, West with the Night is excellent!

The Mother said...

Vive la femme!

Anonymous said...

I just watched a repeat of a fabulous show about the women's ATA on the BBC called Spitfire Women.

I don't think you can watch it again outside the UK, but there's a trailer for it on Youtube.

Full of amazing bright old ladies. Among other things, like delivering all sorts of planes without any specific training, they were apparently the first to obtain equal pay for an equal job.

101Md said...

love this!! your history posts are always so awesome!

Anonymous said...

Loved the link to Al Stewart (I'm another hidden fan) and find your blog great fun after some years working for a web site for British GPs. Also agree that Nostradamus is his best work but Trains and Joe the Georgian are pretty thought provoking too.

Anonymous said...

If you haven't seen the documentary Fly Girls, you really should. It's both enlightening and enjoyable.

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