By Haydon Luke
I am writing this in January 2016 close to the date, 75 years ago, when the famous flyer disappeared on a wartime flight over the Thames Estuary. Amy Johnson was a superstar in her own time, celebrated for a series of courageous and record-breaking long distance flights in the 1930s.
She was born on 1 July 1903, in Hull, where she lived until, in 1923, she went to Sheffield University and gained a BA in Economics. After graduation, she moved to London, working as a secretary to a solicitor, and became interested in flying which she followed up at the London Aeroplane Club in the winter of 1928-29. What had begun as a recreation soon became an all-consuming determination to prove that women could be as competent as men in a hitherto male-dominated field.
Her first important achievement, after flying solo, was to qualify as the first British-trained woman ground engineer, the only woman in the world to do so at that time.
Early in 1930, she set her first objective – to fly solo to Australia and to beat the existing record of 16 days. She had problems financing her planned journey but eventually her family and supporters raised the £600 purchase price of a used plane, a De Havilland Gypsy Moth (G-AAAH), which was named “Jason” after the family business trademark.
Amy Johnson and Jason in Jhansi, India in 1932.
Amy set off alone from Croydon on 5 May 1930, and landed in Darwin on 24 May, a flight distance of 11,000 miles. She was the first woman to fly alone to Australia, and came home to the UK to a hero’s welcome which culminated in her award of a C.B.E.
The Fairlight connection came a year later in May 1931 when, as a famous and unexpected visitor, Amy Johnson almost literally ‘dropped in’ to the Fairlight Cove Hotel for tea. According to the Hastings Observer of 30 May, the celebrated flyer was taking a Whitsun ‘flip’ in her Puss Moth aeroplane Jason II over Kent and Sussex. So attracted was she by the evident beauty of the countryside that she decided to land.
The field she landed in was owned by Flying Officer Tindall, late of the RAF, who told the newspaper:
“Miss Johnson made a perfect landing. She arrived here shortly after 5 p.m. Unfortunately, there were not many people about at the time, though if I had known she was coming I would have had a good crowd to welcome her.
She strolled down to the Fairlight Bungalow Hotel for tea and then wandered about the lanes picking bluebells. She told me she was delighted with Hastings and will probably come again.”
And she did. Partly as a consequence of pioneering flights by Amy Johnson and others, the 1930s was a time when aviation captured the popular imagination. The aviators were as famous then as footballers, pop performers or film stars today. The day she returned and landed her biplane in the field behind Church Farm led to an exciting period when Fairlight hosted air displays and flying circuses, much to the delight of many (but not all) members of the public.
Alan Shearer, whose family it was that farmed Church Farm in those days and lived in Church Farm Cottage, tells that bit of the Amy Johnson story.
“She came into the cottage with her boyfriend (later her husband) Jim Mollison and conferred at some length with father. Obviously the meeting had been pre-arranged and for the next two or three years, in conjunction with Sir Alan Cobham, and a variety of aircraft and pilots, Fairlight was treated to an air display, stunt flying and personal flights around the locality at 5/- each.” (Shearer, Alan, One Hundred Years in Fairlight, published originally in the Parish magazine.)
These events did much to popularise flying and to bring home to the public the way in which aircraft were developing. Sensing an opportunity for itself, the Hastings Observer was quick to give these events some free publicity and offered 20 free flights to lucky readers – not in Amy Johnson’s plane but in a Handley Page ‘Clive’ air liner when Cobham’s ‘National Aviation Days’ first came to Church Farm on 20 and 21 August 1934. Other flying displays followed later in the 30s.
But all too soon the peacetime skies were replaced by the formidable realities of World War 2, with Fairlight prominent. The radar station RAF Fairlight played a crucial role in the Battle of Britain and again in 1944 when south east England suffered the V1 flying bomb onslaught.
By that time, sadly, Amy Johnson herself had become a casualty of the war. She had joined the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) when the war began. Nominally a civilian organisation, the ATA’s pilots’ main role was to deliver aircraft from the factories to the operational RAF stations as well as ferrying stores and personnel. For this work the ATA needed experienced flyers and so recruited pilots who were unsuitable for the services by reason of age or fitness. They were sometimes humorously referred to as “Ancient and Tattered Airmen”. The ATA also took pilots from neutral countries and, notably, women; one in eight of all ATA pilots, 166 in all, were women.
Amy’s last flight has become surrounded by an aura of mystery and suspicion, especially as to the purpose of her flight and what caused its tragic end. Was she on some sort of secret mission? Was there a mysterious second person on her aircraft? Was her aircraft the victim of a calamitous ‘friendly fire’ incident?
What certainly is known is that it was whilst flying a mission for the ATA, on 5 January 1941, that Amy crashed into the Thames Estuary. Despite the efforts of the crew of convoy escort trawler HMS Haslemere who had spotted Johnson’s parachute coming down and saw her alive in the water, calling for help, rescue proved impossible. Conditions were poor – there was a heavy sea and a strong tide, snow was falling and it was intensely cold. Lt Cdr Walter Fletcher, the 34 year old commander of Haslemere, bravely dived into the water in a rescue attempt. Tragically, he failed and later died in hospital. According to The Times account, Amy disappeared beneath the water before further rescue attempts could be made. Her body was never recovered. A Memorial Service for her was held on 14 January 1941 at the church of St Martin in the Fields in London.
In her obituary in The Times on Wednesday 8 January 1941, her commanding officer in the ATA said of her: “In her private life [she] was unassuming and entirely lacking in conceit. It is inevitable that the name of someone as famous as she was should be coupled with many extravagant stories. Those who knew [her] intimately saw her as an ordinary human being, keen on her job, brilliantly successful but always accessible….Those that knew her have lost the type of friend who cannot be replaced.”
By Haydon Luke