What DID happen to Amy Johnson?
Amy Johnson is probably best known as the first women to fly solo from England to Australia, in 1930.
She broke new aerial solo records with other flights: England to Tokyo via Siberia and England to New York.
Her breakthrough achievements brought her worldwide fame.
Yet her disappearance at age 37 remains one of the great unsolved mysteries.
Or is it?
Amy Johnson died in 1941 when her plane crashed in the Thames Estuary. Her body was never recovered. But she did not perish in the crash itself.
Amy flew in World War II as a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary, but details of her fatal ferry flight on 5 January 1941 remain a government secret.
Reports at the time said she flew off course in bad weather, her plane ran out of fuel and she had to bail out. The plane crashed into the Thames Estuary, and witnesses saw Amy fall into the water but her body was never found.
Shockingly, more than 60 years later it was claimed she was shot down by gunners from her own country because she did not respond with the correct codes when challenged. And a further shock; it was claimed she died in a botched rescue attempt.
What then is the Amy Johnson story?
Amy Johnson was born in Hull, East Yorkshire in 1903, the eldest of four girls. Her father was a Danish fish merchant who met her mother Amy Hodge from Yorkshire when sailing to Hull.
When Amy was 14 she lost her two front teeth after being hit with a cricket ball. She recalled that she became “introspective and withdrew farther and farther into a protective shell of my own making.” Amy went to school in Hull before studying at Sheffield University where she majored in economics and graduated in 1923 with Bachelor of Arts degree.
She took office jobs in Hull before moving to London where she worked in a law firm from 1925 to 1929.
Bored with an office job, she decided to learn to fly, still a new hobby for most people – and rare for women.
Amy joined the London Aeroplane Club at the de Havilland Aerodrome, Stag Lane. One of her instructors was Captain Valentine Henry Baker, a World War I fighter pilot. She trained in a de Havilland DH.60 Cirrus II Moth, and on 9 June 1929, after 15 hours, 45 minutes of dual instruction, made her first solo flight.
She gained an aviation certificate and then a Pilot’s Certificate and License from the Air Ministry of Great Britain on 6 July 1929; it was an “A” Flying Certificate, for private pilots. She was also awarded a Certificate for Navigators, and in December 1929 she became the first woman to be certified as an Engineer (aircraft mechanic). She was also a member of the Yorkshire Gliding Club in Yorkshire.
Amy recalled the difficulty of learning to fly, admitting it was a scary experience as her first instructor was not very sympathetic: “When I was up in the air I could only hear a confused sound in my neck instead of what should have been lucid instructions . . . I was scared stiff of my instructor who never seemed to lose his first idea that I was a born idiot,” she said.
Her first major achievement, after flying solo, was to qualify as the first British-trained female ground engineer, and first woman in the world to do so.
With the financial backing of her father and Baron Charles Cheers Wakefield, founder of the Wakefield Oil Company (Castrol was the familiar brand name), she bought a year-old de Havilland DH.60G Gipsy Moth biplane, c/n 804, registered G-AAAH. It had been owned by Air Taxis Ltd, first registered 30 August 1928. Johnson named her airplane Jason, which was the name of her father’s business.
Early in 1930 Amy set herself the objective of flying solo to Australia and beating Queenslander Bert Hinkler’s record of 16 days. She set off from Croydon aerodrome on 5 May 1930 and landed in Darwin on 24 May, a flight distance of 17,7000 km (11,000 miles). She didn’t get the time record but became the first woman to do the trip solo.
Four days into her a tour of Australia that followed a rest in Darwin for a few days, disaster struck as she attempted to land at Brisbane’s Eagle Farm aerodrome with 20,000 people looking on as they waited to greet her.
Stops on the way to Brisbane included Cloncurry, Longreach, Quilpie and Charleville, where she landed after dark with the aid of headlights from 20 cars.
Landings were said not to have been her strong suit and Amy misjudged the descent into Eagle Farm and overshot the runway. The plane was flipped when it hit a fence, coming to rest in a neighbouring farm paddock, upside down, with Amy still strapped in.
She freed herself and though shaken was pretty much unscathed. Jason, however was badly damaged.
Amy recovered her composure and addressed the crowd as scheduled, albeit with her jumper torn and “a gash in one boot”.
The Brisbane Courier newspaper reported: “The aviatrix scrambled out, unscathed. The wings of the plane were badly damaged but nothing could wipe the smile from the sunburnt young woman, her bobbed brown hair tousled by the wind.’’
After several days in Brisbane, including a visit to the racetrack for the annual Stradbroke Handicap, she flew on a commercial flight to Sydney to continue her tour.
Her plane was retrieved and returned to England. A replica was constructed and put on display in Hull.
Replica on display in Hull
Amy Johnson had received worldwide acclaim for her feat and returned home to the UK to a hero’s welcome. She was awarded a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) honour.
She also collected a £10,000 prize offered by London newspaper, the Daily Mail. The Australian Air Ministry issued her its Pilot Certificate and License Number 1. The International League of Aviators awarded her The Harmon International Aviatrix Trophy for 1930.
Amy set several long-distance flight records, solo and with other pilots, one of whom was Scottish pilot James Allan Mollison.
They married in July 1932. Soon after, she set a record for a solo flight from London, England, to Cape Town, South Africa, flying a de Havilland DH.80 Puss Moth (named Desert Cloud) there in 4 days, 6 hours, 54 minutes, 14–18 November 1932. She broke the previous record which had been set by Jim Mollison. For this flight, she was awarded the Segrave Trophy of the Royal Automobile Club, for “the most outstanding demonstration of transport on land, sea or air.”
Her next flights were as a duo, flying with Mollison. In 1933, she and Mollison flew a de Havilland DH.84 Dragon, named Seafarer, in a record-setting bid nonstop from Pendine Sands, South Wales, to Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the US. But near Connecticut they began to run low on fuel and, in the dark, had to make an emergency landing at Bridgeport Municipal Airport. They missed the runway and crash-landed in a ditch. They escaped with cuts and bruises and were honoured with a ticker-tape parade and reception in Wall Street, New York.
The couple competed in the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race from England to Australia in a de Havilland DH.88 Comet. Although they achieved a record time to India they were forced to retire with engine trouble beforte they could complete the flight.
In 1936 Amy made her last record-breaking flight, regaining her Britain to South Africa record in a Percival Gull Six. She divorced in 1938 and reverted to her maiden name.
In May 1937, Johnson, who was already a rated navigator, travelled to Annapolis, Maryland, in the US, where she studied advanced navigation .
She then turned to business ventures, journalism and fashion. She modelled clothes for Elsa Schiaparelli and created her own travelling bag, until the outbreak of the war in 1939.
At the outbreak of World War II, Amy joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, a pool of experienced pilots who were ineligible for RAF service. She held the civilian rank of Flight Officer, equivalent to an RAF Flight Lieutenant. Her duties involved ferrying aircraft from factory airfields to RAF bases.
On 4 January 1941, Flight Officer Johnson was assigned to take an Airspeed AS.10 Oxford Mk.II, registration V3540, from Prestwick, Scotland, to RAF Kidlington in Oxfordshire. She landed at RAF Squires Gate, Lancashire, and remained there overnight, visiting her sister.
The next morning, although weather was poor and visibility limited, she left Squires Gate at 10:30 a.m. Reportedly advised not to go, she insisted, saying that she would “smell her way” to Kidlington.
About 3:30 p.m., Amy Johnson parachuted into the Thames Estuary. The plane crashed into the river a short distance away and sank.
A convoy of wartime vessels spotted Amy’s parachute and crew members saw her alive in the water. Conditions were too poor to attempt a rescue; there was a strong tide, and falling snow hindered visibility.
Lt Cmdr Walter Fletcher, who was the captain of the HMS Haslemere, dived into the water to rescue Johnson but he died in the attempt. Some documents related to her flight and personal belongings were found but Johnson’s body was never recovered.
Then in 1999, it was reported that Tom Mitchell from Crowborough, Surrey, claimed to have shot down Amy’s plane.
He claimed that Johnson failed to give the right identification code, which was changed every day for all British forces so troops on the ground would know they were British. Apparently, she failed to give the code twice and was shot down, under orders, as an enemy aircraft. Mitchell said: “Sixteen rounds of shells were fired and the plane dived into the Thames Estuary. We all thought it was an enemy plane until the next day when we read the papers and discovered it was Amy. The officers told us never to tell anyone what happened.” There has been no official verification of the claim.
A further claim has been made that Amy Johnson’s death was the subject of a cover-up; that she survived the crash but was killed as a rescue was attempted.
Dr Alec Gill, a historian from Hull, claims Amy’s death was deliberately covered up after she died in an unsuccessful rescue mission.
A report in the Independent newspaper in 2016 said a witness on board HMS Haslemere, a converted ferry attempting to rescue her, remembered the ship’s engines being reversed, perhaps resulting in Amy being pulled into the propellers.
“This ship should have gone down in history as the vessel that saved her life,” said Dr Gill. “Instead, historians are now beginning to conclude that the propellers of the Haslemere killed her.”
Dr Gill told the Independent he believed the details of her death were deliberately covered up: “The Royal Navy did not want to admit to the Royal Air Force – or indeed a nation at war – that they had killed Britain’s favourite female pilot.”
As her body was never found, there was no inquest.
|1930||First woman to fly solo from England to Australia.|
|1931||In July, she and co-pilot Jack Humphreys became the first people to fly from London to Moscow in one day, completing the 1,760 miles (2,830 km) journey in approximately 21 hours.|
|1932||Married Scottish pilot Jim Mollison, who had proposed to her during a flight together some eight hours after they had first met.|
|1933||In July she and Mollison flew the G-ACCV, named “Seafarer,” a de Havilland DH.84 Dragon I nonstop from Pendine Sands, South Wales, heading to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York.|
|1934||In September (under her married name of Mollison) became the youngest President of the Women’s Engineering Society, having been vice-president since 1934.|
Sources: thisdayinaviation.com, the famousepople.com, TROVE newspaper articles, britishheritage.com, biographyonline.net, “Amy Johnson, Queen of the Air” by Midge Gillies, and aeorflight.co.uk, wikipedia.org.
In 2019 the Amy Johnson Arts Trust website issued a series of podcasts to recall Amy Johnson’s daily experiences, based on her diary notes, on the record-making flight to Australia.
A version of this article first appeared in VANISHED, Chris McLeod (Wilkinson Publishing) 2014.
And what became of Amelia Earhart
and Fred Noonan?
Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan
For 80 years the world has been speculating on whatever became of pioneer flyer Amelia Earhart.
She was last heard of with her navigator Fred Noonan on the second last leg of an around-the-world flight in their twin-engine Lockheed Electra plane, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean approaching a scheduled refuelling stop at tiny Howland Island.
There have been countless theories, many of them involving conspiracies. They just keep coming.
Two of the latest run along these lines:
- A family tale from William Sablan, a man who lives on the Mariana Islands, says that Earhart was captured by the Japanese, taken to Saipan and spent several days in prison before being executed.
- Just a little more odd is a claim that the two aviators crashed and were killed, their bones eventually eaten by giant coconut crabs.
Early in 2017 there was the discovery of an old blurry photograph that “experts” said showed showed Amelia and Fred on an atoll in the Marshall Islands, being held by the Japanese.
That did little to validate the coconut crab theory but it could fit with the capture and execution story. The photograph became a focal point for a television documentary and was seized on many news outlets and experts that gave it credibility – because the picture was sourced from the US National Archives, lending support to the theory that the US knew she had been executed but kept it secret.
As with many conspiracy theories, there was a hitch. A Japanese military history buff and blogger unearthed evidence that the photo was first published in a 1935 Japanese travelogue — two years before Earhart and Noonan set off on their doomed effort to circumnavigate the globe. The two westerners in the photo could not have been Amelia and Fred.
The United States officially is running with the theory that the plane just ran out of fuel and crash-landed close to Howland Island. The pair would have died when their food and water ran out. The plane is thought to be many metres down at the bottom of the ocean.
One organisation that isn’t buying the popular – and probably most credible explanation – is The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). Its executive director, Ric Gillespie, believes Amelia and Fred missed Howland Island and continued on for another 350 nautical miles (km) and landed on a coral reef around Gardner Island (now known as Nikumaroro Island).
For the next several nights, distress radio calls were heard from near the island, but US search planes were unable to find anything.
Gillespie thinks Amelia and Fred were alive on the island for several weeks before they died. Maybe this is where the giant coconut crabs theory might gain some traction.
Items recovered by TIGHAR have strengthened its view that it is looking in the right place.
Among the items was a small cosmetics jar, identified as probably a jar of Dr Berry’s Freckle Ointment, used to fade freckles. TIGHAR placed significance on this find as it was documented that Amelia Earhart disliked having freckles.
Other more substantial items recovered included a woman’s shoe and a sextant box with serial numbers believed to be consistent with a type carried by Noonan.
Also recovered more than 20 years ago was a small piece of an aluminium panel which TIGHA says has been identified in forensic tests as most likely coming from a repaired window on the Electra’s fuselage. The repair had not been noticed in pictures of the plane until 2014 when a photo taken before she took off for Puerto Rico on 1 June 1937 was examined more closely.
TIGHAR also says sonar readings of the ocean in the area are consistent with a large object on the ocean floor.
A human skeleton was found on the island in 1940, but British officials said the skull belonged to a short, European male. That hasn’t swayed Gillespie. He is still on the trail.
He says anthropologist Richard Jantz of the University of Tennessee reexamined the measurement and believes they are of a female of European origins.
A team comprising TIGHAR and the National Geographic Society launched an expedition to Nikumaroro in 2017, complete with sniffer dogs trained to find human remains in the hope (said to be remote) of finding something that would enable DNA linking to the aviators. Digging didn’t turn up any remains. But searching will continue..
In the vacuum of immediate knowledge of what happened to Earhart and Noonan rumours and conspiracy theories abounded.
So in summary, these are some of the theories that emerged over 80 years:
- Landed on Saipan only to be executed by the Japanese. The US eventually exhumed her body but kept their action secret.
- Flight was an elaborate scheme to spy on the Japanese, who captured her after she crashed.
- Survived a Pacific Ocean plane crash, was secretly repatriated to New Jersey and lived out her life under an assumed name.
- Survived and somehow made her way to Guadalcanal.
- Crashed on New Britain Island.
- Captured by the Japanese and became “Tokyo Rose.”
- Captured by the Japanese and taken to Emirau Island in the Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea.
In a highly publicised July 1949 interview, Amelia’s mother, Amy Otis Earhart, who died in 1962 at age 93, told the Los Angeles Times, “I am sure there was a Government mission involved in the flight, because Amelia explained there were some things she could not tell me. I am equally sure she did not make a forced landing in the sea. She landed on a tiny atoll—one of many in that general area of the Pacific—and was picked up by a Japanese fishing boat that took her to the Marshall Islands, under Japanese control.”
How did it come to this?
It was a sunny morning on Friday 2 July 1937 when the Electra took off from Lae in what is now Papua New Guinea.
They were on their way to the tiny Pacific Island of Howland, the last scheduled stop (for fuel) before completing the last leg that would take them to their starting point in California, completing a record-breaking circumnavigation of the globe.
Amelia Earhart had chosen the longest route, 29,000 miles around the Equator. For the attempt, Lockheed Aircraft Company had built an Electra 10E to Earhart’s specifications. It was the first all-metal plane and was modified for long distance with the 10 passenger seats replaced by 12 fuel tanks. The refitted plane had a theoretical range of 4,000 miles. It was an advanced aircraft for the time, with variable pitch propellers and retractable landing gear.
The Electra left Miami on 1 June 1937 with stops scheduled in South America, Africa, India and South-East Asia. It arrived in Lae on 29 June 1937.
By then the Electra had travelled 22,000 miles, leaving about 7,000 miles to go over the Pacific Ocean.
The flight from Lae to a refuelling stopover on Howland Island was to take 18 hours. The risks were high: Howland Island was only a mile wide, 2 miles long and 20 feet above sea level, a speck of land in the vast Pacific.
Bad weather, even cloud cover, would make the tiny island particularly hard to find.
So, it was arranged that the American Coast Guard cutter Itasca would be on station at Howland to maintain radio contact and set off flares.
The US Navy auxiliary tug Ontario was stationed about halfway between Lae and Howland to keep lookout for the Electra.
Flying at 134.5 mph ground speed, the Electra reported in from Nukumanu Islands, formerly Tasman Islands, a medium sized atoll in the south-western Pacific Ocean, south of the equator and about one-third of the way to Howland and about 6.5 hours into the flight. Everything was in order.
The fuel load on take-off at Lae had overloaded the Electra as Earhart ensured a sufficient supply to make it to Howland. Strong headwinds may have increased consumption greater than expected, but by the half-way mark no alarm had been raised.
During the night Amelia reported seeing the lights of a ship below. It turned out to be the SS Myrtlebank on its way from Auckland, New Zealand, to Nauru. At that point, she still had around 1,140 miles to go.
She was still sending positional messages as she passed by the Gilbert Islands. At one point, Itasca heard her report that conditions were partly cloudy as she came to within 4 hours of Howland.
The Electra descended below the clouds and headed for where the aviators believed Howland Island would be.
A radio message to Itasca said “we must be on you but cannot see you but gas is running low, been unable reach you by radio we are flying at altitude 100 feet.”
But the ship didn’t respond.
A clue to the communications problem came later: photos and home movies at Lae appeared to show a radio antenna on the bottom of the plane breaking away as it taxied along the runway.
While the Electra should have been close to Howland Island neither Amelia or Fred saw the Itasca and the ship never saw the plane.
It follows that those on the plane also never saw smoke put up to help them find the island.
Amelia’s last transmission was “we are running north and south.”
The Electra had missed Howland Island and with no other significant land within 1,000 miles (160 km), logically it would have fallen in to the sea after running out of fuel.
According to records, the official air and sea search by the US Navy and Coast Guard lasted until 19 July 1937.
Amelia Earhart was declared legally dead on 5 January 1939.
Amelia Earhart’s record:
Woman’s world altitude record: 14,000 ft (1922)
First woman to fly the Atlantic (1928)
Speed records for 100 km – and with cargo (1931)
First woman to fly an autogyro (1931)
Altitude record for autogyros: 15,000 ft (1931)
First person to cross the US in an autogyro (1932)
First woman to fly the Atlantic solo (1932)
First person to fly the Atlantic twice (1932)
First woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross (1932)
First woman to fly nonstop, coast-to-coast across the U.S. (1933)
Woman’s speed transcontinental record (1933)
First person to fly solo between Honolulu, Hawaii and Oakland, California (1935)
First person to fly solo from Los Angeles, California to Mexico City, Mexico (1935)
First person to fly solo nonstop from Mexico City, Mexico to Newark, New Jersey (1935)
For more information, photographs and video go to https://www.ameliaearhart.com
This article was originally published in VANISHED, Planes that disappear, Chris McLeod, Wilkinson Publishing 2015.