Tuesday, January 5, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Amy Johnson, January 5, 1941

Amy Johnson was the English Amelia Earhart. She jumped into the headlines and hearts of Great Britain when at age 26 she flew solo from Britain to Australia, becoming the first aviatrix to do so.  The aircraft she used for the flight, a deHavilland Gipsey Moth, is on display at the Science Museum in London.
Johnson, born in Hull, took a BA degree at Sheffield. Bored with teaching and other professional ventures including shorthand typing, she took up flying in 1928. With just 16 hours instruction, by July 1928 she had her license through the London Aeroplane Club; her ground engineer license by December of that year; and a full navigation certificate soon after, making her the female pioneer.   Johnson made international headlines in 1930 when she soloed to Australia.

The aircraft for her flight to Australia was the popular de Havilland Gipsey Moth.  The 10,000 miles flight from Croydon Airport to Darwin took twenty days. When she reached Karachi, India, she was six days into the flight and two days ahead of the previous record.  A crash landing near Rangoon on May 13 slowed her progress, as did inclement weather.  For her effort she was awarded the C.B.E. (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) by King George V.  The flight to Australia was the forerunner of other remarkable long-distance flights, sometimes with her husband from (1931 to 1938), British aviator James Mollison. They were the " Flying Sweethearts" who endured an almost-fatal crash attempting in Connecticut while making the first east-to-west air crossing of the Atlantic, but ended up earning a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
            She was the first pilot to ever fly from London to Moscow in a single day and she also set a record for flying from England to Cape Town, South Africa, breaking the record previously held by Mollison. They were the "Flying Sweethearts" who endured an almost-fatal crash attempting in Connecticut while making the first east-to-west air crossing of the Atlantic, but ended up earning a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
            Johnson’s life was beset by controversy and tragedy too.  She often was in court for reckless driving and killed at least one person in an automotive crash.  Biographers document her sinking into emotional depression throughout the 1930s (not unusual in risk-seeking personalities). With onset of war, Johnson joined the Air Transport Auxiliary in May 1940.
Johnson died under unusual circumstances on January 5 1941.  She was tasked to deliver an Airspeed Oxford plane, leaving base at about 11:00 AM.  The flight inexplicably took four and a half hours, and ended far from her destination, in the Thames River. Johnson communicated her intention to deal with the weather, informing air traffic control, in response to the foul weather report, “All right, I’m going over the top.” As recounted by the BBC, “On January 5 1941, Amy Johnson took off alone in thick, freezing fog from Blackpool airport. 
She was delivering a Airspeed Oxford to Kidlington airbase in Oxfordshire - a simple, 90 minute flight.  Four and a half inexplicable hours later, Amy’s plane ditched in Herne Bay on the Thames estuary - 100 miles off course.” Her body was never found. She was the first ATA pilot killed during World War II.
Johnson came down by parachute, and her plane crashed, near Convoy CE21, a force of 18 escort vessels and 18 transports.  The craft that attempted to rescue Johnson, the trawler HMS Haslemere, was flying barrage balloons and enjoying a dismal, sleety English winter day.  The vessel’s commander, Walter Fletcher, “spotted a plane on the starboard side, lazily circling a parachutist some 500 feet up in the air.” He ordered his boat to full speed towards the parachutist. Then, “as the Haslemere drew closer, the parachutist hit the water and the plane crashed into the waves, pausing momentarily before sinking.” But the Haslemere ran aground on a sandbank, and was stuck for ten minutes wasting 10 minutes. While the crew tried to refloat the vessel, two bodies were spied in the water. Commander Fletcher dived into the waters and reached the alleged person who was not Johnson. He was soon overcome by the icy cold, and was fished out, unconscious, and subsequently died five days later of hypothermia. According to newspaper accounts, Fletcher “lost his life when he dived overboard in an attempt to save the life of a passenger in Miss Amy Johnson’s plane.” Heavy seas and foul weather hampered the rescue. The media immediately framed the story as Johnson not being alone on her flight: “Commander Fletcher went overboard and was seen to be supporting the survivor from the plane, a man, while the woman sank before rescue could be attempted.”
 According to the BBC’s “Inside Out,” the following eyewitness testimony of RAF flight corporal Bill Hall, on board the Haslemere, who described Johnson’s crash to RAF clerk Derek Roberts:

‘He came in to report what had happened, and I took down what he said. I typed the report and he approved it, and I put it to the flight commander. He came in with the crew that were landing and he was a bit shaken. He said that while he was on deck, a parachutist had come down in the water and had drifted near the Haslemere. She called out that she was Amy Johnson, that the water was bitterly cold, and could they get her out as soon as possible. They threw her a rope, but she couldn't get hold of it. Then someone dashed up to the bridge and reversed the ship's engines, as a result of which, she was drawn into the propellor and chopped to pieces.’

BBC reported that Derek Roberts claimed a subsequent coverup of what actually happened, and that the crew of the HMS Haslemere “saw two bodies floating in the Thames estuary,” though Johnson was recorded as having taken off alone. The press coverage immediately focused on the “riddle” of Johnson’s last flight:

A riddle is posed by an Admiralty report that a man was seen to bail out of the plane piloted by Amy Johnson and the statement of the Ministry of Aircraft Production that “it is established that when the plane left the airfield Sunday morning she was not accompanied by a passenger’ . . . [t]he Ministry says 300 air fields had been signaled for news of her having landed to refuel and all reported not having seen her.  It is believed she lost her course owing to bad weather, and it is possible she spotted a naval convoy just as her petrol gave out and tried to alight as near as possible to one of the vessels . . . the Admiralty insists the account is ‘absolutely, completely, literally true,” as based on reports from many men on board the trawler Haslemere, who are certain they saw two persons from the plane in the sea.

As with many great aviation crashes, rumors and conspiracies abound. Among the variety of unproven stories that have come up regarding Johnson’s off-course crash into the Thames are that she was either attempting to smuggle a spy out of England or was shot down by British A-A batteries which mistook her for the Luftwaffe. Johnson biographer Midge Gillies observed in a special to The Independent of London that

[t]he gossip surrounding Amy's death started almost immediately . . . Will Johnson [her father] had to cope not only with the loss of his daughter but with wild theories surrounding her last hours. He heard rumours that she was not alone, that she was whisking a German lover abroad, that she was on a secret mission and that she wanted to fake her death to start a new life. Will, a Hull fish merchant, was also troubled by a series of sinister telegrams he had received in the months leading up to Amy's death. They were sent by a man claiming he had told Scotland Yard to arrest Amy - and that her ex-husband, Jim Mollison, was part of the intrigue.

It has too been argued that the legendary aviation pioneer was faking her own death. These theories are dismissed by Gillies, who flatly states that “a secret mission undertaken by such a famous person in daylight in a plane like an Oxford seems simply too ludicrous. Several people reported that she was in good spirits and that her position with the ATA had given her the sense of fulfilment for which she had been searching for years. This was not a woman desperate to escape.” Gillies also posses an alternative theory for the second-body, arguing that was probably Johnson’s flight bag. As she told the BBC  "in fog and sleet it would have been easy to mistake the bag for a head and shoulders floating in the water."
            About the Airspeed Oxford: The Airspeed Oxford was a conversion of Airspeed’s twin-engine eight-seat AS6 Envoy.  The Oxford was used as a trainer, but could be equipped with a machine gun and bomb racks, and was also used in antisubmarine warfare against German U-Boats. Over 8,000 were manufactured by several firms during World War II.