In the first of a regular series where we go a tiny bit overboard about awesome women, Sarah Wilkinson pays tribute to ‘Queen of the Air’ Amy Johnson.
On 24 May, 1930, a bedraggled Gipsy Moth open cockpit biplane landed on an airfield in Darwin, Australia. In it was Hull-born aviator Amy Johnson, who had taken off from Croydon airport (armed with her trusty flask and sandwiches) with less than 100 hours’ flying experience to complete her 11,000 mile solo journey 19 days earlier. Amy Johnson’s reign as ‘Queen of the Air’ had begun.
In a male-dominated society Amy was determined to show that a woman was just as capable of achieving ambitions as a man. In 1929 after gaining her pilot’s licence, she became the first woman to qualify as a ground engineer. Amy left the safety of her secretarial job to work full time as a mechanic. She wasn’t a natural pilot (is anyone?), but her soul took to the air like a joyful piglet in a muddy puddle. Amy held an “immense belief in the future of flying”.
Amy’s motives for that first flying lesson were always hazy. She’d had her fair share of battles – jobs she didn’t like, depression, anxiety, money troubles and horrific bouts of PMT – but there is one thing, or rather one person, that stands out. Amy wanted change – and not just a new pair of shoes.
From 1922 to 1928, Amy wrote more than 280 letters to Swiss businessman Hans Aregger. They’re a hefty read (some are downright mundane) but show Amy’s innermost thoughts; her hopes and dreams, her bad temper, her odd sense of humour, her stubborn spirit and the emotional turmoil of a relationship where Amy wanted all the homey, baby-filled societal norms of the 1920s and Hans, no matter how hard she tried, just didn’t seem to be “the marrying kind”.
“She wasn’t a natural pilot, but her soul took to the air like a joyful piglet in a muddy puddle.”
After nearly seven years of settling, enough hints to sink a battleship without even a sniff of a proposal, illicitly planned ‘honeymoons’ wearing a cheap, fake wedding ring and a reluctant agreement to be in an open relationship – where she was certainly ‘the other woman’ – Amy got tired of feeling like she’d never be good enough for the man she loved to want to marry her. In a final, devastating betrayal, Hans promptly married another woman.
Heartbroken, angry at the wasted years of being treated like last week’s dog muck on a tatty shoe, frustrated her life wasn’t going the way that everyone told her it should, Amy broke all the rules. She shoved aside all the commonplace sexism and took flying lessons.
In her final letters where she gets up off her sorry backside to do something about feeling so bloody miserable and lost, you can’t help but feel a gush of delight for her ballsy ambition (cue hideously embarrassing girl power fist pump).
After that first legendary flight to Australia, Amy became an instant celebrity. She went on to set further flying records and her celebrity status continued. She married in 1932 after a whirlwind romance and promptly broke her aviator husband and well-known playboy (oh, Amy) Jim Mollison’s own record of flying solo from London to South Africa.
“Amy gave the ultimate middle-fingered gesture to the man who let her get away and to all the societal boundaries holding her back.”
Together, Amy and Jim became the world’s ‘flying sweethearts’; breaking more records solo and as a pair (one with a horrific crash landing) and delighting an ever-increasing fan base. In true celebrity style, the marriage broke down and the Mollinsons divorced in 1938.
It wasn’t easy to find work as a pilot despite her fame, and with the outbreak of the Second World War Amy worked in the women’s section of the Air Transport Auxiliary. She was tragically killed in 1941 when the plane she was ferrying crashed into the Thames in rough weather.
Her life was short, but in her 37 years she loved, she lost, she risked it all. She travelled, she achieved, and she lived.
So why should we care so much about record-breaking Amy Johnson CBE? Because she dared to venture into uncharted territory – in every sense of the term. She is an inspiration for taking the path less travelled – even if it’s a laborious, unpredictable journey. Amy gave the ultimate middle-fingered gesture to the man who let her get away and to all the societal boundaries holding her back. And, as it turned out, she couldn’t have done it better.
To find out more about Sarah’s interaction with Amy Johnson through her letters, visit: https://iamlivingamy.wordpress.com, a writing commission for Hull’s Amy Johnson Festival 2016, with support from the James Reckitt Library Trust.
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Sarah Wilkinson is a musician, writer, general arty-farty creative type, animal and human rights supporter and home-educating mum.