True pioneer: Amy Johnson

Amy Raphael tells the story of one of history's bravest adventurers in aviation, Amy Johnson.

In July 1933, aviator Amy Johnson and her husband Jim Mollison set off from Pendine Sands in Dyfed, Wales for New York. Bathers waved the couple off as their small propeller plane, Seafarer, lifted off the sand and headed west.

Johnson with her husband Jim Mollison at Croydon Airport, December 1932
Johnson with her husband Jim Mollison at Croydon Airport, December 1932. Roger Viollet/REX/Shutterstock

Pendine Sands, a glorious beach that stretches for an astonishing seven miles, has witnessed myriad thrill-seekers intent on breaking world records for nearly a century. In 1924, Sir Malcolm Campbell used the beach to set a world land-speed record, which he then broke again three years later. Just last year, actor Idris Elba broke the British land-speed record - the 'Flying Mile' - in the same location.

Johnson and Mollison were not so lucky. Seafarer ran out of fuel and crashed in Stratford, Connecticut, around 65 miles northeast of New York City, injuring both pilots.

By this time, Johnson had established herself not just as a female pioneer of aviation, but as a pioneer of aviation full stop. Born in July 1903 in Hull, she was tomboyish and competitive as a child, and later became one of the few women at the time to attend Sheffield University. After graduating with a degree in economics, she worked as a secretary in a solicitor's office and soon took her first flight. She wrote to a friend: 'Mollie and I went up in the aeroplane. We both enjoyed it, but I would have liked to have done some stunts.'

Amy Johnson before the start of the London to Newcastle race, May 1931. Roger Viollet/REX/Shutterstock
Amy Johnson before the start of the London to Newcastle race, May 1931. Roger Viollet/REX/Shutterstock

Johnson was clearly never going to be satisfied with the occasional gentle trip in a plane. She got her pilot's licence in July 1929 and persuaded her father, who owned a fish processing factory, to share the cost of buying a plane with Lord Wakefield. She later wrote, 'Had I been a man, I might have explored the Poles or climbed Mount Everest, but as it was my spirit found outlet in the air...'

In 1930, her spirit took her to the southern hemisphere in her de Havilland Gipsy Moth airplane - she hoped to break the existing world record of flying from Britain to Australia in 15 days. Due to bad weather and technical problems, the journey took 19 days, but by the time Johnson returned to London, she was a star. At the age of 26, she had become the first female pilot to fly alone from Britain to Australia, and it was this that captured the public's interest: around a million people lined the streets of London as she drove past in an open-top car, and King George awarded her a CBE.

Amy Johnson with aircraft in 1939
Amy Johnson with aircraft in 1939. REX/Shutterstock

In 1931, she became the first pilot to fly from London to Moscow in a day, and in 1932 married Mollison. A year later, the couple took off from Pendine Sands and, despite not quite making it to New York on the flight, received a hero's welcome when they eventually did arrive in Manhattan.

Johnson never lost her love of flying, but hers isn't a fairytale ending. She divorced Mollison (who is said to have had issues with his wife being a superior aviator) and, in January 1941, fatally crash-landed in the Thames Estuary en route from Blackpool to Oxfordshire. Her body was never found, but the legend of Amy Johnson lives on: the pioneer female aviator who was at her happiest up in the sky.

Amy Raphael writes for Radio Times, The Guardian and The Times. She has been working with Steve Coogan and Sir David Hare on their upcoming autobiographies.

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