Why Amy Johnson's Plane Belongs At Croydon Airport

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 21 months ago

Last Updated 31 October 2022

Why Amy Johnson's Plane Belongs At Croydon Airport
Amy Johnson returns to Croydon after her record flight to Cape Town in 1932

No one knows the exact circumstances of Amy Johnson's death, but it wasn't a nice way to go.

The 37 year old aviatrix almost certainly died in the Thames Estuary when her Airspeed Oxford came down in poor weather in January 1941. She may or may not have been a victim of friendly fire, mistaken for a Nazi and gunned out of the skies. She may have been alone or she may have been transporting a top secret passenger. She bailed out and probably perished beneath the freezing waves. She may or may not have been finished off by the propeller of HMS Haslemere, the vessel that attempted to save her. Her body was never recovered.

Earlier this month marked the 75th anniversary of Johnson's mystery-swaddled death. It showed that people still care about her and her legacy; Tracey Curtis-Taylor has just successfully mirrored Johnson's 1930 feat of flying solo in a biplane from the UK to Australia. But it hasn't all been so good-natured.

People, it turns out, are still willing to tussle for Johnson and her legacy. Hull — the place where she was born in 1903 — got into a spat with the Science Museum over the possession of Jason, the De Havilland Gipsy Moth in which she completed the momentous flight to Darwin. Her hometown wanted a lend of the plane to show off during the anniversary; the Science Museum decided it was too fragile and must stay put in Kensington.

This was the place that made Amy Johnson.

The truth is that Jason does belong in London, but not Kensington. The plane should be in Croydon Airport.

"This was the place that made Amy Johnson," says Ian Walker, chairman of Croydon Airport Society, also a British Airways pilot.

Indeed, when a 26 year old Johnson departed from Croydon for Australia in her beloved Jason on a clear May day in 1930, probably fewer than a dozen were there to wave her off; frankly no one knew who she was. When Johnson returned to that same patch of turf on 4 August that same year — having successfully flown solo to Darwin, and caught a chartered flight back — roughly a million lined the 12 mile route from Croydon Airport to the Grosvenor House Hotel. She'd become a national treasure faster than Tim Peake could ever dream of.

Johnson and Mollison's DH Dragon collapsed on the runway, 8 June 1933. Hungover Mollison not pictured

"What I love about Amy is her determination, endurance and ability to overcome adversity," says Walker, "Her first record-breaking flight was an extraordinarily difficult task. She was really unlucky with the monsoon arriving early and had to deal with appalling flight conditions.

"There was no technical support or Air Traffic Control to help her. There weren't even proper aviation maps — just bits of atlas to navigate by.

"I expect if she had a Twitter account she'd have millions and millions of followers."

The Australia feat was the beginning of Croydon as Johnson's spiritual home. In 1931 she flew from Croydon to Moscow in 21 hours. In the same year she accomplished the fastest return flight from the UK to Japan, flying from Croydon to Tokyo. In 1932 she was taking off from Croydon again, this time to achieve a new record time from London to Cape Town. Croydon was where Johnson will have felt her most apprehensive and fearful, and where she will have been most relieved and jubilant. It was sacred ground.

Perhaps the only man for Amy Johnson was Jason, after all.

The south London airport wasn't just the setting for Johnson's professional career; it was where much of her love life played out too. The man to set her heart racing was fellow aviator Jim Mollison — a handsome, grouchy alcoholic who allegedly proposed to her while she was resting in Cape Town in 1932, recuperating from exhaustion, and probably, a hysterectomy. Mollison, who'd just set a new world record flight time from Croydon to Cape Town popped in to say hi, and shortly after, proposed to Johnson. She said yes, and the whirlwind romance turned them into the 'Flying Sweethearts'. They flew together from Croydon regularly, treated like the celebrities whenever they were there.

Their happiness wouldn't last though.

There's a wonderful picture taken at Bridgeport Municipal Airport, Connecticut on 8 June 1933, when the couple's plane Seafarer was forced to crashland. Both are unhurt, but the plane is trashed. Johnson, on the right looks mildly dejected. Mollison, far away from his wife in the left of shot, has his arms crossed and a face like thunder. According to Ian Walker, Johnson's husband had been on the beers until 3am the night before. She divorced him five years later. Perhaps the only man for Amy Johnson was Jason, after all.

Jason may be comfortable where it is now; the Science Museum has every right to keep the plane and it doesn't look like the craft will be going anywhere soon, or ever. Yet, should the occasion ever arise, Croydon Airport has the facilities to host Jason's return. Until 2010, Airport House had a Gipsy Moth of similar vintage hanging from the lobby, painted to look like Jason. The only reason it's no longer there was because the company who owned Airport House at the time went bust, and it was sold by the liquidators. The aircraft was kept in such great nick, it has since been re-conditioned, re-sprayed and is flying again.

"Jason would be very comfortable returning to its long lost friend of London's historic airport," says Walker, "It's simply home."

All images courtesy of Croydon Airport Society.