When sorting out a stash of books, the legacy from an old friend, I cam across a photograph of a young, smiling woman wearing a flight-helmet and goggles, on the dust-cover of a book entitled “Flying - The Golden Years.” The photograph was that of Amy Johnson, and she was described in the book as “probably the greatest airwoman in the world.”
In yet another legacy - the stories told to me by my mother - I had heard all about Amy; of the vicissitudes she had overcome and of how she became the daily part of the lives of a group of ordinary women living in a working-class area of Clonmel during the bleak, economically-depressed years, of the early 1930s.
Amy Johnson was born in Hull, Yorkshire, in 1903. When she finished school, she studied at a commercial college, and got a job as a typist. But her eyes were not quite focussed on the typewriter, but on the skies. She used all her spare cash, and some of her father’s, in taking flying lessons. She was a very good pupil, taking naturally to flight, and she qualified as a pilot. And then, she set her sights on long, pioneering, record-breaking journeys, to faraway places.
It was in her first such journey, from London to Capetown, that she captured the imagination of a group of women, of whom my mother was an enthusiastic member. They became a Fan Club, though they would not have described it as such and indeed the concept had not yet become part of the English language.
Amy set out on that first journey on Monday, 4th May, 1930. By Wednesday she had flown 5,000 miles to Mossamedes in what was then Portuguese West Africa. It was a sort of romantic phase in the development of flight, and while there was no television, and radio had not yet become a part of every home, the newspapers produced front-page coverage every day, and this was the medium through which the women kept track of her adventures.
There was Mrs. Smyth, Mrs. Brett, Mrs. Walsh, Mrs. Slattery, Mrs. Power and my mother, Mrs. Barrett. Although they were friends and neighbours they always addressed each other in the formal “Mrs.” And for them, the daily bulletin on the Perils of Amy was so exciting that it eclipsed the latest episode of the Perils of Pauline in the cinema. Pauline was fictional. Amy was real, very real.
Her plane, a De Havilland MOTH, is illustrated in the book which has prompted this column. By modern standards, it looks fragile, an assembly of wood and tubular steel, apparently tied together with wires. The cockpit was tiny. Radio and navigational equipment was minimal. There was little available in flight-maps at the time. In fact, she was a pioneer in charting several routes which are still used by commercial airways. She flew in “hops,” coming down in remote airfields, resting briefly and re-fuelling. It was during these brief intervals that the newspaper reports were compiled and filtered down to my mother and her friends in a street in Clonmel.
There was only one newspaper, bought every morning in Carri’s, O’Connell Street, by Mrs. Slattery, because she was a widow with grown-up children and so could leave home without having to arrange childcare. The newspaper was an English publication, either “The Daily Mail” or “The Daily Express,” because these gave extensive coverage. Mrs Slattery would read the latest report, and then transmit the news to the next-door neighbour over the backyard wall, and this was, in turn, transmitted on, in a sort of backyard-telegraph. Amy had reached remote airstrips like the never-before-heard-of Mpika or Broken Hill. She had engine trouble and was helped by people who could not even speak English.
During one heart-stopping period of 24 hours, she was out of communication, and “missing.” It transpired she had flown an extraordinary non-stop hop of 1,800 miles, much of it over the sea. In my mother’s version of the story (verified afterwards as fact) - in a fuel-saving exercise she had to fly low over the then shark-infested Indian Ocean.
During the missing period, the women worried about her, prayed for her, lit candles in the churches, to appeal for her safety. And there was much rejoicing on the day that Mrs. Slattery reported, via the backyards, that Amy had re-emerged from the skies.
She arrived at the Cape in a flying time of 3 days, 6 hours and 26 minutes, breaking the existing record. After a rest of three days, she set out on the homeward journey, choosing an alternative route, and this time gave her fans cause for more worry, when, in Europe, her plane was buffeted by storms over the Alps.
For these ordinary women, beset by balancing budgets and rearing children, there was romance and excitement in the daily instalments on the extraordinary adventures of the then 27-year-old Amy Johnson. She had gone where no woman (and indeed few men) had gone before. She had daring and she had skill. Her navigational skills alone are acknowledged even to the present day. But above all, she had pushed out the boundaries for women at a time when their lives were circumscribed and their world confined within the limits of their own streets.
Amy flew several other record-breaking flights, opening up new routes. She married Jim Mollison, an Australian flyer, but the marriage did not last. She died, as she would probably have wanted to, in an air accident, but at 37, her death was much too soon.
She had joined the Air Transport Auxiliary in World War II, flying planes from the factories to the airfields. On one such flight she baled out and was drowned in the Thames estuary. Neither her plane nor her body was ever recovered. It was surmised that she had been hit by casual “enemy fire” or that there had been a failure of the plane’s engine.
By then, some of the members of her fan club were also dead, a few before their time. They had all so admired Amy Johnson’s skill and courage, but in their own way, this little group of women had, too, many skills, and much courage, in combatting the travails and challenges and hardships of their own modest lives.