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Faces of Amy Johnson: The Engineer

Mrs J.A, Mollison CBE, 1934. Courtesy IET
The final post by Trish Allen on Amy Johnson and this time is is on her passion for engineering. We owe a tremendous debt to the Women’s Engineering Society and Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) and great thanks to Jon Cable, assistant archivist there for all images in this blog:

As stated earlier, Amy was the first woman to receive a Ground Engineers Licence from the Air Ministry. If we reflect on the national shortage of female engineers in 2015, i.e. only 7% of the engineering workforce is female, that was a major achievement in December 1929.

In 1930, she subsequently became a member of the Women’s Engineering Society and in 1931 she was invited to address the society on how she had maintained the engine and the airframe during her flight to Australia. She had to pump petrol, clean and change plugs, drain the oil, examine the plunger and spring, tighten electrodes, help to repair a wing fit on the spare propeller, examine and filter oil and petrol and constantly check for leakages. This work often took place in the dark with the aid of a small torch and insects and sand flying in her face or petrol squirting in her eyes plus coupled with intense heat.

She added: 

We women are just on the threshold of another career which has so far been regarded as the strict province of man-that of aeronautical engineering [. . .] The only argument that men can bring forward against woman’s intrusion is that of physical strength, but this seems to me very poor grounds for establishing and retaining a monopoly. In engineering there are many job’s beyond a man’s strength. What does he do? He fetches an instrument.

In 1932 Amy Johnson accepted the Vice Presidency and in 1934 she was elected President and this lasted for three years. The Women’s Engineering Society or W.E.S. as it is called was initially a small but extremely innovatory society. It was founded in 1919, after WW1, to address the problems faced by women who had contributed to the war effort by working in engineering and allied fields, but who now faced opposition from the establishment. It started publishing a quarterly journal, The Woman Engineer, to help support women engineers to push for a change. The first issue was in 1919, price 3d. The Institute of Engineering and Technology archives hold a complete set of issues which make fascinating reading. Significantly the aeronautical section of WES led, in 1957, to the British Women Pilots Association.

Amy Johnson, Caroline Haslett and Jim Mollison
At the time of the conference at which she became President, Amy was doing a daily trip to Paris for the purpose of exploring commercial radio possibilities. She also worked on ideas for high altitude and long distance flying. As commented, it was strange and significant that in England there were no women engine drivers or ships captains but an airways pilot was a woman! The conference was also informed that Amy had spent time in the U.S.A. studying the methods of manufacture and design in the chief air planes looking in particular at propeller design and American welding. She was anxious for more women to study aircraft design and aeroplane instruments. This was in 1934!

During her Presidency in 1935, a debate took place between Amy and her then husband Jim Mollison focusing on the value of record breaking flights with Amy maintaining they no longer served a useful purpose. She felt that whilst they are “good news” there was an urgent need for improved ground facilities emphasising:
a) rapid transport from the centre of the city to the airport
b) complete wireless equipment, with some sort of beam, on all transport machines
c) night flying equipment
d) better equipped aerodromes with emergency landing provision
e) multi engine machines with a crew


WES Annual Conference 1935 , Mrs Mollison speaking
Amy was a magnificent role model to encourage girls to become engineers but how many people even know about her engineering skills and vast knowledge? Currently there is still a myth that engineering involves dirt and spanners! Even if girls study for the right subjects e.g. maths and physics, they so often opt for other careers such as banking! Clearly there needs to be more education such as teachers advising on the breadth of engineering, the scope, the importance plus companies linking in with schools.

In May 1940, Amy joined the women’s section of the Air Transport Auxiliary. In Amy’s time, the ATA flew transports, trainers and other non-combat aircraft from the manufacturer’s airfields to the RAF bases. Flying unarmed aircraft without radios, was a highly dangerous task. On 5th January 1941, Amy disappeared on a flight from Blackpool to Oxfordshire somewhere in the Thames estuary. Only her luggage was ever found.

Tribute issue of The Woman Engineer
I will conclude with sections of tribute speeches reproduced from The Woman Engineer:

Amy demonstrated for all time that women can plan daring feats, can pay close attention to detail, can superintend and carry out a prescribed programme, can overcome obstacles as they are encountered, can learn from misfortune, can face disappointment without loss of courage.

All the world knows of the Amy Johnson who flew solo to Australia ten years ago, but it is perhaps those who know her more closely who were able to appreciate her gifts and abilities, the generosity of her mind, her modesty over real achievement, her unquenchable spirit which, with her keen wit and boundless humour, must have carried her through times of tension as well as of horrific experience. Whatever Amy did she did it with zest and relish.

Caroline Haslett (Secretary of the WES), The Times, January 14th 1941

Trish Allen

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