Amazing Amy Johnson
The fantastic achievement of Amy Johnson to become the first female pilot to fly solo from England to Australia in 1930 is an inspiration to aviators of all generations and genders. But while her role in pioneered woman’s aviation during an era when female pilots were a rare sight is well known, a less known fact is that Johnson was only awarded her pilot’s licence the year prior to her record-breaking flight.
The longest previous flight undertaken by Johnson was the modest 200 mile trip from London to Hull, the town of her birth. In comparison the route to Australia was a daunting 11,000 miles. She set off from Croydon Aerodrome in south London on 5 May 1930 in a second-hand de Havilland DH60 Gipsy Moth, a two-seat biplane powered by a single de Havilland Gipsy piston engine, which she had named Jason. The fuel and refuelling support for Johnson’s flight was provided by Shell Aviation, with carefully planned fuel stops along the way; just as it had been for the Smith Brothers' first flight to Australia in 1919.
It is said that Johnson plotted her most direct route across Europe and Asia to Australia simply by placing a ruler on a map. The 19-day journey took her over some of the world’s most inhospitable, often uncharted terrain and with no radio link with the ground. Flying for at least eight hours at a time in the open cockpit of the Gipsy Moth was a feat of endurance. Johnson’s piloting skill was clearly first-class, but navigation had to be equally good to guide her to the precisely planned stops en route, for refuelling and ground support.
Unsurprisingly, Johnson’s attempt faced many challenges. When she reached Burma, during a bumpy landing in a monsoon, a hole was ripped in the wing of the Gipsy Moth. A local technical institute repaired the wing by unpicking shirts made from aeroplane fabric salvaged from the First World War.
Johnson met these challenges head on and reached Darwin in the Northern Territories of Australia on 24 May, 19 days after setting off from Croydon. A female pilot legend had been born and Amy Johnson was awarded a CBE in recognition of her efforts. Johnson’s record breaking did not stop there. In July 1931, she set an England to Japan record in a Puss Moth with Jack Humphreys, followed in July 1932 by a the quickest solo flight from England to Cape Town.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Johnson joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, a pool of experienced pilots whose role was to ferry aircraft from factories to airbases. On one of these routine flights in January 1941, her aircraft crashed into the Thames. Amy Johnson’s body was never recovered and she became the first member of the Air Transport Auxiliary to be killed in active service.
The global refuelling network it developed throughout the 1920s and 1930s enabled Shell to support a wide range of female aviators in their pioneering exploits. These included Léna Bernstein, who set a new duration record by flying for 35 hours, 36 minutes and 55 seconds in 1930; and Marga Von Etzdorf, the first woman to fly solo from Berlin to Tokyo, in 1932. Shell also provided fuel for Mary Bailey’s record-breaking flight from London to Cape Town in 1928.
R. van Egmond and A. Westra, Shell and aviation. The story of more than a century of collaboration. Shell International B.V., 2019, p. 44-47.
Amy Johnson Arts Trust, ‘Amy Johnson – A Brief Biography’, http://amyjohnsonartstrust.co.uk/her-life/
Shell historical archives.