Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tattered Remnants #039: Amy Johnson (1903-1941)

AMY JOHNSON (1903-1941)

O! I have slipped the surly bounds of Earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings....

Today is the 30th day of January, 2011 A.D. A quarter century has passed since the seven Challengers touched the face of God ten miles above the sea off of Florida. Today we remember them, and the crew of the Columbia (whose eighth anniversary is Tuesday), as well as the Apollo 1 astronauts, along with all those who have died – even those of our erstwhile enemies who died from 'devil's venom' – to take us on our first baby steps to the rest of the Universe.

But let us remember all those who have chosen to risk all to take wing.

Death has always been the dark lining of the silver cloud of flight; many have had to pay the price of Icarus. Otto Lilienthal gave his life flying an early glider; his last words as he lay dying from his injuries were "small sacrifices must be made."Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge died at 26 in the first fatality in a powered plane crash; he is memorialized by an air base named for him not far from my home.

Thousands of young men gave their lives in the days that followed hard by, in those early days of flight when the wings of God were girded as the wings of war.

And yet those who have gone to the skies have risked all so that perhaps our children and great grand children and beyond may one day see the skies of new worlds undreamed of today.

One cannot remember them all. In lieu thereof, let us then remember one sky pioneer who gave her life to the skies and for her country.

Amy Johnson was, ahem, not a great pilot. In fact, she was positively unsuited for the role she was to play in early aviation. She was a heavy hand at the stick, and her landings were often almost disastrous. She alienated many in her single minded pursuit of her goal. And yet her great will overcame her lack of talent, and she achieved an immortality and a greatness, both as a pioneer of powered flight (having set a record flying from London to Australia in 1930) and as an exemplar for future generations of flying women. She lived at the razor's edge of the technology of her day and she died in the line of duty in those dark days immediately following the Battle of Britain.

She was born, only months before the triumph of Kitty Hawk, the daughter of a British merchant. She had no extraordinary parentage; her father, a fish seller, made a small but comfortable fortune in his field, and was able to finance her adventures.

She was not very sociable as a young girl; physically aggressive, she lost her front teeth to a cricket ball at age 14. Finding herself a bit of an outsider in school, she withdrew socially and concentrated on her dream of flying.

But first things first; one must eat after all. After she ended her schooling she took a job in London as a legal secretary. While she did very well in her new line of work, she was obsessed with the new world of airplanes. She took it upon herself to learn to fly.

At first it seemed absurd. The flying school she investigated demanded a fee far beyond her means. But she then found a local flight school that allowed her to learn to fly at half the cost. She was not an entirely apt student, but after fifteen hours of flight instruction (considered the longest allowable before they gave up on you!) she soloed and gained her pilot's license. She also distinguished herself by becoming the first woman in British history qualified as a flight mechanic.

It was after only eighty seven hours of flight experience that she conceived of her dream: she wanted to set a distance flying record, from London to Australia: her wish was to beat the then existing fifteen days' record.

The spur to her effort came when her employers at the legal firm confronted her: her flying obsession had caused her work quality to fall; they told her to choose between the law office and the aerodrome. She quit her job that same day.

After some difficulty, she found a sponsor for her attempt; after raising a thousand pounds–some $100,000 in today's money, half of which came from her dad–she took off for Darwin in a secondhand Tiger Moth she dubbed the Jason (nominally for her father's corporate brand).

The story of her travails are almost comic to read today. On one occasion, she landed in a soccer pitch in India; on another, she landed in a primitive village in Java where her departure was delayed by the need to clear enormous ant colonies on her makeshift flight line. She crash landed frequently; at one point, she repaired her aircraft using air-cloth that locals had turned into shirts, doping it with an ad-hoc mix created for her by a local chemist. She flew most of the trip with a spare propeller lashed to the side of her craft; which she used after landing one occasion nose-forward.

"I was not the least bit afraid," she said later, "because I had taken off with almost complete ignorance of the magnitude of my undertaking."

She landed at last in Australia on May 24, 1930, having flown 11,000 miles; while she failed to break the current record for that achievement, she was hailed internationally as a hero of aviation, esteemed in the same breath as Charles Lindburgh and her friend Amelia Earhart. She was given a hero's welcome in Australia and again in London, was granted £10,000 in prize money and was named a Companion of the British Empire (CBE), a high knighthood, by King George V.

She continued flying; she set further records for flights from London to Tokyo and London to Cape Town, South Africa. She married (and later divorced) a well known test pilot, but after South Africa, she ended her long distance flying career.

But war drew her again to the skies. In the days following the Battle of Britain, the British suffered a famous shortage of pilots. In order to keep as many as possible on the battle lines, they asked air-licensed women and older men to act as ferry pilots, bringing craft from factories to airfields. Amy enlisted for this effort. On January 5, 1941, while ferrying a newbuilt plane, she crashed, or possibly was shot down, in circumstances that remain unclear. She landed in the Thames River.

Although she survived the crash, a rescue effort from a British Naval vessel failed, and she was lost. Her body was never recovered. (Let us remember too Lt Cmdr Walter Fletcher of HMS Haslemere, a British Naval officer who died in the rescue attempt.)

She was feted in her youth with a song, "Wonderful Amy." And although she had accurately predicted her doom and thought that she would be quickly forgotten after her death, her status as a pioneer no less great than Amelia Earhart remains.

She was also honored, in 1976, by singer/songwriter Al Stewart, on his masterwork, Year of the Cat. He recalls her in the song Flying Sorcery, which some regard as his greatest single.

Are you there?

In the jacket with the grease-stain and the tear?

Caught up in the slipstream of a dare?

The compass rose will guide you anywhere

Oh, are you there?

I would like to dedicate this essay to my dear friend, once known as Miss Jocelyn Patterson, the girl who sat next to me in Mrs. Anderson's first grade class in 1969.

Today she is known as Jocelyn Seng, Ph.D., formerly Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Science, Technology and Engineering, ...

... and she shall be formally promoted tomorrow afternoon to the rank of Brigadier General, United States Air Force, on Monday, January 31, 2011, at the Pentagon.

I salute you, dear friend. Ad astra!

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Keep it clean for gene.