During the 1920s and 1930s aviation was dominated by the rich and famous and most female pilots were titled women such as Lady Heath, the Duchess of Bedford and Lady Bailey. But Amy gained a ground engineer’s “C” licence and, with the financial help of her father, took flying lessons. In 1929 she was awarded her pilot’s licence.
Few people paid much attention when Amy announced that she was going to try to break Bert Hinkler’s 16-day record for flying 11,000 miles (18,000 km) solo from London to Australia. Although her flight was meticulously planned her gender remained the main point of interest for the Daily Mail, whose headline mistakenly announced, that she had set off with a, “Cupboard Full of Frocks”.
Amy left Croydon Airport on 5 May, 1930 in a second-hand Gipsy Moth called Jason. Unlike today’s pilots, Amy had no radio link with the ground and no reliable information about the weather. Her maps were basic and, on some stretches of the route, she would be flying over uncharted land. Until her Australia trip, her longest solo flight had been from London to Hull.
Daringly, Amy had plotted the most direct route – simply by placing a ruler on the map. This took her over some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain and meant she had to fly the open-cockpit for at least eight hours at a time. It was essential that she kept to her route because fuel was waiting for her at each stop.
Despite a forced landing in a sandstorm in the Iraq desert she reached India in a record six days and the world’s press suddenly started to pay attention. She became the “British Girl Lindbergh”, “Wonderful Miss Johnson” and “The Lone Girl Flyer”.
In India she surprised an army garrison by landing on a parade ground and, when she reached Burma (modern-day Myanmar), she faced her biggest challenge: the monsoon. Outside Rangoon a bumpy landing ripped a hole in Jason’s wing and damaged its propeller. A local technical institute repaired the wing by unpicking shirts made from aeroplane fabric salvaged from the First World War.
Although the monsoon robbed her of her chance to beat Hinkler’s record, Amy landed in Australia on Saturday, 24 May to tumultuous crowds. Over the next six weeks she was treated like a superstar. Women asked their hairdressers for an “Amy Johnson wave” and the affectionate way in which she described Jason – “But the engine was wonderful” – became a catchphrase.