On Wednesday 13 October the monthly meeting presentation was by aviation historian Jim Barnes, a member of our Military History group. His talk entitled “The disappearance of Amy and Amelia” illustrated how important women were in the history of aviation, particularly Amy Johnson and Amelia Earhart. His entertaining and informative presentation included sound effects of the aeroplanes and extracts of songs written to celebrate the achievements of the pilots.
He described the early life of British-born Amy Johnson. She had been a tomboy at school in Hull, excelling in hockey and cricket. After obtaining a pilot’s A licence for flying with a passenger in 1930 she flew from England to Australia in a Gypsy Moth despite illness and operational problems, landing on 24 May in Darwin. During the trip she had crashed in India and had helped to repair the damage caused.
After promoting the involvement of women pilots in the Air Transport Auxiliary in the Second World War her plane was lost on a flight from Blackpool to Kidlington in 1941 and crashed in the Thames near Herne Bay. Though her belongings were found, her body and the plane were never found and exactly how she died remains a mystery. A statue of her was unveiled at Herne Bay in 2016.
Another famous female pilot was Amelia Earhart, born in Kansas in 1897. After a difficult childhood amid her father’s alcoholism she was a nurse in the First World War, and in 1920 she started flying lessons. In 1928 promoters sought to have a woman fly across the Atlantic and Amelia was selected. On 17 June 1928 she left Newfoundland as a passenger on a seaplane.
After landing at Burry Port in Carmarthenshire on 18 June she became a celebrity and undertook lecture tours. In the same year she piloted an autogiro to a record height of 18,415 feet. Determined to justify her fame, she crossed the Atlantic alone in May 1932. Her flight from Newfoundland to Londonderry was completed in a record time of 14 hours 56 minutes despite poor weather and mechanical problems. She went on to make a series of long distance flights across the USA.
In 1937 with Fred Noonan as her navigator Amelia set out to fly round the world in a twin-engine Lockheed Electra. There were problems with the radio but Amelia had declined to take a training course on radio. They began their 29,000 mile journey on 1 June with various refuelling stops before reaching New Guinea on 29 June. On 2 July they departed for Howland Island, a small coral atoll about 2,600 miles away. There were two brightly lit US ships stationed to mark the route and Amelia was also in intermittent radio contact with the Itasca, a US Coast Guard cutter near Howland Island. She announced that she was running out of fuel, and later, “We are running north and south.” This was her last transmission. The plane was believed to have come down 100 miles from the island but after an extensive search no trace was found. Jim showed a photo suggesting that they may have been captured by the Japanese as spies and imprisoned in the Marshall Islands but the details of Amelia’s disappearance are still unknown.
Jim also presented the stories of more female aeronauts, including Beryl Markham, a British-born Kenyan aviator, adventurer, racehorse trainer and author. She was the first person to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic from Britain to North America. She was also part of the notorious Happy Valley set in Kenya. Other women who made advances in aeronautics included Beatrice Schilling, who devised an improvement for the Spitfire in the Second World War; Jacki Cochran, who piloted a Starfighter at twice the speed of sound; Elsie Machan, the aeroplane designer; Barbara Johnson, engineer for the Space Shuttle trajectory; Hedi Lamar, the actress, who devised a system of radio communication, “frequency hopping”, that later became the basis of Wi-fi and GPS; and Sheila Scott, who broke 100 aviation records, including flying over the North Pole in a light aircraft.
As Jim remarked at the end: “As pilots and engineers women have to be better than men!”