Amy Johnson by Midge Gillies

10th Jun 2010

Amy Johnson by Midge Gillies

Johnson, of course, was the Hull typist who, armed with a flask of tea and sandwiches, completed a record-breaking solo flight to Australia in 1930. The feat made her an icon of aviation and a social darling overnight. Here, Gillies brilliantly juxtaposes the glamour and the grit of Johnson’s life, from her Schiaparelli flying suits and glitzy social circle, to crash landings and the harsh realities of flying solo across the world.

Johnson broke various long-distance records throughout the 1930s, often with her pilot husband, Jim Mollison. However, her life quickly moved from triumph to tragedy. Gillies explores Johnson’s fall from grace as more female aviators fought for the spotlight, and Mollison’s drinking led to a painful divorce. Thankfully, Johnson later recaptured her passion for flying as a First Officer for the ATA during the Second World War. But, just as she seemed to be getting back on track, her aeroplane disappeared into the Thames.

Gillies writes beautifully about Johnson’s final moments, including the failed attempt to pluck her out of the river, which would leave her would-be rescuer dead. But that’s not quite where the book ends. Instead, we join Gillies as she makes a pilgrimage to Johnson’s presumed final resting place. It’s a satisfying, moving conclusion, which reveals Gillies’ genuine affection for her subject.

There are a few biographies of Johnson. But Queen of the Air, with extracts from newly discovered letters and interviews with surviving family members, is the most thorough. Yet despite this extra detail, Gillies’ pacey, engaging style means that this biography never gets dull. In fact, I found it so inspiring that I want to read more about the early female aviators, especially the Brits (No offence, Amelia…) Any suggestions?

You can buy Amy Johnson: Queen of the Air from Amazon for £5.99.

Post by Victoria Conway