80th anniversary of female solo flight

By AG staff with AAP 28 May 2010
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Amy Johnson, a darling of aviation, pioneered female flying for a record attempt 80 years ago.

AMY JOHNSON MAY HAVE been fashionably late landing at Darwin 80 years ago, but  the pioneering aviatrix was on no ego trip. She certainly had not intended keeping hundreds of people waiting in anxious anticipation. Like Australia’s own Jessica Watson, she was simply doing what she loved.

On 24 May 1930, Ms Johnson, who preferred to be called “Johnny”, became the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia. The daughter of a Yorkshire fish merchant, the 26-year-old had just 90 hours flying experience when she took off from London’s Croydon aerodrome on 5 May.

Northern Territory historian Peter Forrest says at the time men, and even most women, scoffed at her ambition. Newspapers reported there was a good deal of concern when Amy was at least an hour overdue. “Several hundred people, the biggest crowd seen in Darwin for more than a decade, had gathered near the Fannie Bay gaol,” he says.

British pilot Amy Johnson, 1932 (Photo: AP Photo)

British pilot Amy Johnson, photographed just before she left Stag Lane in London on 5 November 1932. (Photo: AP Photo/Staff/Putnam)

Finally “a sunburnt girl, wearing an oil stained shirt, jodphurs and puttees, and a green helmet, stepped onto Australian soil…Immediately, an admiring mass of people, all trying to shake her hand and hoist her shoulder high, surged around her tiny, single-engined de Havilland Gipsy Moth aircraft.”

Peter says that Darwin, with a population of about  2000 at the time, had witnessed a total of just eight flights from England since the Smith brothers arrived in 1919.

, which had exclusive rights to the “darling of the skies” story, wrote: “As Miss Johnson proceeded from the landing ground to town in a motor car, a distance of five miles, flags were waved from the windows and doors of every house along the road, which were occupied by every nationality under the sun.” Her quest was to fly solo to Australia in less than the 15-and-a-half days it had taken Bert Hinkler to fly solo to Australia two years before.

Amy didn’t break Bert Hinkler’s record, but for the first few legs of her flight she was well ahead of his time, Peter says. “Then she lagged behind the record, but her elapsed time on arrival in Darwin made hers the third fastest ever flight from England.”

He adds that Amy told a crowd at the Darwin Town Hall that Australia was the ideal land for aeroplane flying. In her workman-like rig, she insisted: “I am not a bit of the masculine type, I just love pretty things and nice clothes”.

On the morning of 26 May she took off from Darwin with the intention of flying through western Queensland to Brisbane. But landing in Brisbane, Amy “crashed rather badly”, and she did no further flying in Australia. “Sadly, the girl who had simply wanted to become a pilot found herself a heroine wherever she went,” Peter says.

On 5 January 1941 the aircraft Amy was flying on a delivery flight crashed into the London’s river Thames. She bailed out but tragically drowned. Roads and landmarks in the Northern Territory have since been named in her honour.

More on Australia’s aviation history