8. The Future of Flying

26-year-old Amy writes to her mother on the eve of her solo flight to Australia

4th May 1930

Dear Mum,

I fly to Australia tomorrow. I can’t quite believe those words even as I write them. So many months of planning, so many years of waiting and then suddenly I am to be the first woman to fly solo to Australia! There is no question of whether I shall achieve or not. You do know that, don’t you? I’ll get there, no matter what and I’ll give it my best shot at beating Hinkler’s record. I’ve even been secretly thinking of flying home again after getting Australia. Jack’s been encouraging me. That would be a record indeed – England – Australia – England!

Of course people don’t think I’ll do it. At first everyone was very interested – you should have seen it, the reporters turning up every day at the aerodrome, baying for interviews and photos! Jack said I should make the most of it – that’s the kind of publicity money can’t buy, he said. So I did their interviews and smiled for their photos. But all they wanted to know was the colour of my flying suit! As if that was important! (Though green is my lucky colour.) When I approached them for sponsorship, they all scurried away. It reminded me of when I took a cricket ball full in the face at school, do you remember? I was one of the boys until that moment. Then they laughed. They laughed at my bleeding mouth and my broken teeth and jeered and teased. I put on a brave face but I never forgot it. Celebrity is like that – it hangs on a thread, liable to snap at any moment. Fame is just as fickle as friendship. They will try to make me yesterday’s news but I won’t let them. I shall be today’s news – and tomorrow’s and tomorrow’s and tomorrow’s!

When I think about it, all this started for very strange reasons, really. Now I feel quite passionate about the equality of the sexes – or at least proving a woman can be as courageous and adventurous as a man. But the truth is it started quite selfishly. I needed a distraction from work, from Hans. If I tell you something, you must promise not to get upset. Do you promise? It’s like this. When Hans told me he was married, I felt desperate, and I think that was the thing that made me decide I must learn to fly. Not simply to get away but so I might crash the plane and end everything, without hurting you and daddy too badly. You mustn’t be upset at me telling you this. I feel entirely differently now – I am quite determined to survive. But there is something about the excitement, the anticipation, the nerves the night before a big adventure that makes you want to be honest. I know I haven’t been the best daughter but I love you. I am grateful for everything you and daddy have done to help me, very grateful.

I don’t want you to worry. I have taken every precaution. Lots of folk at the flying club have mocked me for it – “you’re taking a PARACHUTE?!” They see it as chicken but it’s quite different. I’m not scared, but “Be careful” shall always be my motto. I’ve even had the boys at Stag Lane teach me ju-jitsu, just in case I get into trouble abroad and need to defend myself. I shall be taking risks, but they will be calculated risks with precautions in place if it goes wrong. What people don’t seem to understand is I don’t want to die. I want to do this but I want to come home afterwards. I want to see the look on their faces when they see a woman can do anything she sets her mind on. Even my little plane’s registration plate reads “G-AAAH” as though it were gritting its teeth in determination with me.

I have wondered if I’ll really be able to make my mark on aviation. Sometimes I am certain that it is possible and other times it feels so unreal, so impossible that I’m certain it must be a daydream and I shouldn’t be so foolish to try. The truth is it scares me, a little. Not the doing of it but the thought of failure. Not of dying, but of crashing and being only remembered as the girl who flew too close to the sun. The girl who never was very good at landings. But I realise that whenever I have been scared of something before – really scared – I’ve always run away. Work, Hans, Hull – whenever things get difficult I bolt. Not anymore. Not with this. I won’t let this go wrong. I won’t let myself run away from flying. It means too much.

For a while now I have gone by the name Johnnie. It seemed to fit better than any other name ever had, my new identity, a woman in man’s disguise. But now I see things clearly. I am Amy Johnson. I must always be Amy Johnson, the girl from Hull who borrowed and begged and clawed to be here. I shall fly in my name, proudly – in my family name, for my family who have been there every step of the way.

I want to show the world that no matter where you’re from, no matter who you are, you can do something wonderful. You can go beyond what life gives you and seek more. That is what I have done, all these years, and I shan’t stop now. I have a notion, crazy as it might sound, that my little Moth Jason and I might one day conquer the world. I will always be Yorkshire, and I will always be yours. And I will always be up there, floating in the air, soaring up, up and up, to dive above the clouds into that bright, sunshiny heaven where no one can find me and I am simply myself. A pilot, forever, and free.

With all my love,

Your daughter,

Amy Johnson

7. Floating, Falling

26-year-old Amy writes to her dad back in Hull after the suicide of her sister Irene

4th August 1929

Dear Dad,

How are you and mother? It was very hard to leave you after the funeral. Now I’m back in London it all feels like a dream, like it never happened. How can she be gone, so suddenly? Our dear Reeny. It makes me so sad that she felt that ending everything was the only choice she had left. There is always a choice, isn’t there? There is always something more than giving up, than running away?

I know you want me to stop flying. I know that Irene’s death has terrified you and mother. But I am writing because I have to tell you I can’t stop. Flying is everything to me. It is my entire world. I don’t want to worry you but I must carry on or I don’t know what I will do. Now Reeny is gone it is even more important than I continue. Flying is all I have. It scares me too sometimes. I’ll tell you a story – not because I want to frighten you, but because I want you to understand how I feel.

Last year, just after I’d got my A certificate, I went out to do my first solo cross-country. Everything went as normal until suddenly I realised I was lost. I was heading through the cloud belt and had no idea where I was. I kept dipping lower to see if I could recognise something but everything looked the same, from the green fields to the little roads chasing from house to house. I managed to make an emergency landing but it shook me up and even though I made sure I never neglected navigation again, it’s haunted me ever since. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, breathless and shivering and I’m back there, trapped forever just below the clouds, circling desperately, looking for something – anything – I recognise. But I never find anything. I never see another soul.

The truth is I’m lonely, dad. Most of the time I dare not admit it even to myself but I am. I have always had these black moods you know, and always thought it better to vent them rather than let things get on top on me. But I never thought I would end up alone, not through choice but circumstance. Have I driven people away with my honesty? I think about Irene and I thought she was so happy with Teddy. They were so perfect and still this happened. Why did she have to do it? She loved Teddy, didn’t she? Wasn’t that enough for her? To have someone to hold? Everyone needs someone. You have mother. Who have I got?

I have my planes. I have the sky. I have freedom and independence and I know in that I have more than many. And I am grateful for it. I must make the most of it, whatever happens. When I first discovered flying, it was like coming home, like belonging somewhere. I’ve always been slightly out of step with the rest of the world, haven’t I? I’ve never needed people, not really. Planes are easier than people. They don’t let you down. They work with you, for you, not against you. But I mustn’t cut myself off. I do have friends here – not just Winifred and Gwyneth but friends at the club and of course Jack and the other engineers. I am not as alone as I feel. I have realised that in that dream – that nightmare – I never find anything on the ground because the thing I’m looking for is flying itself. It’s my little bi-plane and me, dancing in the clouds, not needing anyone else.

I know you are scared about my flying but I dare not give up on my dreams now in case they leave me forever. I don’t know what I would do without them. Working here, chasing the clouds and the stars, that has come to mean more to me than anything else ever has. They are my friends, my solitary little bi-planes and helmets and radios and my grease-covered overalls. They are my world.

Dad, I want to be a professional pilot. I want be a pilot and an engineer and I shall make it happen. I cannot bear to sit behind a desk for the rest of my life. I shall find a way of always doing what I love.

Please don’t fear for me. Just think of me, riding high above the clouds, darting between mountains in the sky and banking here and there on the most glorious adventure of my life. I think that is how I should like to be remembered, if ever I am, soaring above the world, quite alone, quite free, quite at peace. Are you proud, dad? After everything, all the money and the arguments and the fuss, I hope I have made you just a tiny bit proud.

If I do this, it will be for Irene, and for you and mother, and for myself. It will be for Hull, for Yorkshire, for women. For all of us who are alive.

A x

3. Moving to London

23-year-old Amy writes from London to her mum and dad back in Hull

22nd May 1927

Dear Mum and Dad,

London! Dear, wonderful London has restored my faith in everything – people, life, myself! Moving here was the best decision I ever made. I needed change. You know I am not a patient sort of person. I couldn’t bear to be confined to the frozen north any longer. I know you think I’m impulsive but London is so alive with parties and all sorts of entertainments. There’s always so much to do here. I discovered Kew Gardens the other week which is quite beautiful and there are lots of parks and places to walk where you can get away from the hustle and bustle of town. And the underground! You’ve never seen anything like it, trains hurtling out of tunnels at 100 miles an hour (or that’s what it feels like). You must come down as soon as you can. This would be a much better holiday than those dreadful out of season sojourns to Brid you insist on making.

I’ve got myself a job – a proper job. I’m not too proud to admit I was worried when I first arrived. All I could get was a shop girl at Peter Jones. I didn’t think it would be that bad – everyone was saying Peter Jones was going to be the new John Lewis. A few weeks of tidying ribbons in the silks department and I’d had enough. You wouldn’t believe the snobbishness when you tell people you work in a shop! You’d think it was the worst act of criminality in the world. Just because I don’t speak as nicely as some of the girls. I am Yorkshire and proud, whatever people say. Anyway, now I am settled at a firm of solicitors. I think I shall stay here and make a go of it. I might have found my profession at last. It’s quite exciting really – very grand and important, much more than advertising. I can’t believe I ever thought THAT was a good idea!

There’s one thing I must say. I know I have been a disappointment to you over the years. You have disapproved of the choices I’ve made with money and work and everything with Hans. I admit I got myself into a bit of a mess. But this is a fresh start. Hull wasn’t working for me. Of course I’m grateful for the roof you put over my head but if I had stayed we would have kept falling out. A grown woman like me living at home – it was never going to work. I feel so much better now I am here and I am independent. I’m sure I shall find some friends soon – how hard can it be? You remember Winnie from university? She wrote me the other day saying she might be moving down so things might work out better than I ever expected. Whatever happens, I promise I am going to make things right. I will make you proud of me.

Amy x

2. Coming Home to Hull

22-year-old Amy writes from Hull to her close friend from school and university, Gwyneth Roulston

10th June 1926

Dear Gwyneth,

Hans is the most despicable creature I ever knew. He is a pig – an absolute pig and I can’t believe I ever loved him. I never should have come back to Hull just for him – I should be in America. Father could have found me a job there, I’m certain. But no, I came back to this rotten old hole that is Hull and for what – love? I am a fool, the biggest fool I ever knew for thinking Hans and I could be together. Four years it’s gone back and forth, writing letters – always letters – and what else? Engagement? How could there be? He just likes to keep me on a string he can pull when he wants company, never willing to commit. Am I really just some puppet of a thing, controlled by a man?

You were right – I should have ended it all months ago but I didn’t know how. I still don’t know if I can. Despite it all, I love him. I know I shouldn’t. Of course now we’ve had another row. It started off about some business trip abroad but it wasn’t really about that. I just want him to be steady with me. Irene has her Teddy and he – of course – is perfect. Why can’t I have that? I wish Hans were the kind of hero you see in films or read in books. I want him to rescue me from this dull, black and white life. But at the same time, I’m angry for wanting that. I should be able to rescue myself. I’ve always done what I want. You know I have a knack of getting my own way. What’s happened to me? I even asked mother to teach me how to cook and do things around the house so I might be marriageable. Me, cleaning and ironing! I couldn’t stand it. I’m just not that sort of girl. Whoever my husband is he’ll have to be able to do his own ironing. I certainly won’t be wasting my time with it. If I ever have a husband, that is.

On top of that, it turns out I’m not very good at anything in particular. I tried accountancy but that was dire I gave it up. It turns out that with a degree I am overqualified for making tea but unqualified for serving it! You know me, I shall keep trying. I’m in advertising now. It’s a little better but I’m only a junior so I get all the worst jobs. And the other girls in the office don’t seem to like me. I get along with the lads alright, even if they do try to be terribly over familiar sometimes, but I don’t know what to say to the girls. I miss you, Gynnie, and Winifred and Tuppy and the other Sheffield girls. I don’t have any friends here. It feels like everyone in Hull is either family or Hans’ friend. I don’t have anything of my own.

Things are dire at home too. It’s been brewing ever since I came back. I know father is frustrated – he thinks I can’t settle. Why can’t he understand I’m waiting for something to feel right? Mother disapproves of Hans terribly (made worse by Irene’s perfect Teddy). The fact he’s a Roman Catholic has always been difficult and mother is terrified I am going to convert from Methodist. In truth I have thought about it, but what’s the point if we’re never going to marry?

Then one other thing. I’ve not told anyone else. I can’t bear to. Irene is too busy with Teddy. I’m in debt. Terrible debt. I’ve made a right fine mess of things, buying too many new clothes and books. Things just sort of spiralled out of control before I could stop them. I’ve borrowed £50 to pay off the debts but now I must pay that back. It’s on my mind all the time, especially at night, lying in bed and I think I’m going to be sick with fear.

Oh what shall I do Gywn? Write to me and tell me what to do. I need a change in my life. I’ve gone on so long waiting for something to happen. I’m scared it never will. I’m scared I’ll end up like my mother. I don’t want her life. I want something more. There must be something I’m good at, mustn’t there? If you can think of anything, do let me know, won’t you?

Yours despairingly,

Amy x