Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 249:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 249.

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 days.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Lomax, J., Women of the Air. New York: Ballantine Books, 1987.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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