May 5, 2009
Reading the stories of early aviators always makes me shake my head with admiration. Consider, for example, Amy Johnson, who on this day in 1930, set out from Croydon, England, bent on becoming the first woman to fly from England to Australia—which she did, in 19 days, alone in a de Havilland Gipsy Moth. A 26-year-old former legal secretary, Johnson had soloed less than a year earlier. Before she set out for Australia, her longest flight had been 150 miles.
It isn’t the flying itself, nor the relatively primitive state of aviation in 1930 that impresses most. It’s the sheer adventure of traveling alone through a world that wasn’t yet flattened and homogenized. When she touched down in places like Karachi and Baghdad, it must have seemed as alien to a 26-year-old from Hull as if she’d stepped on Mars.
After landing on the island of Timor toward the end of her journey, a group of natives ran up to her “brandishing knives, swords and spears.” She later told a reporter, “One of them took my hand and led me over miles of country to the church. The pastor was there. You may imagine my relief to see him.” The flight over the Timor Sea gave her “the biggest fright of my life,” she told a friend. “You don’t know that forlorn feeling—above you, a grim black sky, underneath the revolving sea, and you are quite alone in a frail machine, every moment dreading that the motor will fail and you will have to face calamity.”
By the time she finished her trip, Johnson had become a worldwide celebrity. The May 24, 1930 issue of the New York Times included this charming passage:
Sir Alan Cobham, who has blazed many air pathways through the British Empire, was so delighted he could hardly express himself. “It is too marvelous for words!” he exclaimed. “A mere slip of a girl—all those thousands of miles—jungles, swamps, mountains, villainous seas, storms—and done in what? A tiny single-engined machine! Miss Johnson has raised British prestige throughout the world.”
I wonder how Sir Alan sounded when he could express himself.
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