Today, we meet an improbable hero of flight. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Early flight needed its
heroes, so heroes appeared. The public had to be
convinced that flight was exciting and safe at the
same time. By the late 1920s the American media had
made a pretty good pilot named Amelia Erhart into a
superstar. The English stretched credulity even
further when they threw a young lady named Amy
Johnson into the media maelstrom.
Two kinds of people were drawn into early flight --
people who loved machines and flight, and people
who dreamt of fame and fortune. The world of 1920
did little to teach girls to love machines and
flying. But fame and fortune were another matter.
Amy Johnson was a hopelessly unrealistic dreamer.
She dreamt her way through failed love and
low-paying jobs. She took up flying in 1928, after
she'd been jilted. At the time, it seemed like a
romantic way to die. Eight hours usually qualified
a pilot to solo, but Amy was a klutz. It took her
16 hours. She showed more talent for mechanics, and
by 1930 she'd qualified as both a pilot and a
ground engineer. Then she leaked it to the press
that she'd been picked to fly a new experimental
airplane to Australia.
The ploy worked. The public took an interest in
her, and she managed to get her hands on a De
Havilland Moth. Author Judy Lomax tells us that her
longest flight before that had been only 147 miles.
Now Amy Johnson set out to beat Bert Hinkler's
record for flying to Australia. It'd taken him 15
She made it, but it took her 3 weeks. She
crash-landed at her fuel stops in Baghdad, Persia,
Rangoon, and Java. The flight was the stuff of
grade-B-movie comedy. Yet, when her battered
airplane limped into Darwin, Australia, she was
given a hero's welcome. She was the first woman to
make the trip. The Daily Mail gave her
a £10,000 prize and scheduled her on a flying
tour of Australia. The stress of the tour was worse
than the stress of the flight. It left her close to
a nervous breakdown.
During the next ten years Amy set records flying
across Asia, flying to Capetown, flying to Karachi,
flying from New York to Baghdad -- flying,
crashing, flying. The one thing she couldn't do was
to find regular work in aviation.
She finally joined the Air Transport Auxiliary in
the early days of WW-II. Then she vanished over the
Thames Estuary in 1941. She probably crashed for
the last time as she cut corners, navigating
through cloud cover to get to a party that evening.
By then Amy Johnson had somehow -- Heaven knows how
-- helped tell us what we needed to know: that
aviation was both exciting and safe. In the end,
Amy Johnson had become what she'd set out to be.
She really was an authentic hero of aviation.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds