Britain’s Female Aviation Heroes

The drunk holding court at the Queen’s Hotel in his crumpled suit and stained tie looked nothing like the playboy aviator he claimed to have been. Had this sad figure really married Britain’s Amelia Earhart and dated socialites and music hall stars?

His fellow drinkers likely didn’t believe the posh-accented Jim Mollison but it was all true, he had been married to world-record flyer Amy Johnson and had survived a Luftwaffe attack in World War II while on a flight with blue-blooded, co-pilot Diana Barnato Walker. He had also dated a bevy of starlets including the beautiful singer and variety star Dorothy Ward.

During his frequent visits to Gibraltar, Mollison became friends with hotel boss Ernest Francis. Years ago Ernest told me, how on his last visit to the Queen’s, Mollison became so inebriated that he needed assistance to board his flight back to the UK. Mollison was a passenger, not the pilot, as his license had been revoked in 1953 by the Civil Aviation Authority Medical Board.

James Alan Mollison was only 54 when he died of the effects of decades of heavy-drinking and chain-smoking. Suffering from acute alcoholism he was admitted to the Priory at Roehampton, London and died there on October 30, 1959. It was an ignominious end for the one-time wonder flyboy who had been born in Glasgow on April 19th, 1905.

Sadly, friends said Mollison never got over the death of the redoubtable Amy, who died while on a flying mission for the Air Transport Auxiliary in 1941. It was his drinking and gambling that had caused the break-up of their marriage in 1938, but his consumption of alcohol only grew more uncontrolled after her untimely death.

Amy Johnson

Johnson, born at Hull on July 1, 1903 was the oldest of four daughters of a fish importer/exporter. She graduated with a BA in economics from Sheffield University and then moved to London where she worked as a legal secretary while taking flying lessons at the London Aeroplane Club. In those days only well-to-do women could afford to take flying lessons. Johnson’s family weren’t upper class but they weren’t poor and her father, with the help of the Lord Mayor of London, provided the money for her first plane, a De Havilland Gypsy Moth. She named it Jason after her father’s business trademark. Jason was second hand but Johnson was the first British woman to earn her ground engineer’s license, meaning not only could she fly the plane but she understood the mechanics and could repair it.

Johnson obtained her pilot’s license in July 1929 and soon after was breaking records. In May 1930 she became the first woman to fly from England to Australia, covering the 11,000 miles in 19 days. For this feat she won a Daily Mail prize of £10,000, the Harmon Trophy, and later was awarded the Order of the British Empire. With the prize money she was able to purchase Jason II, a De Havilland Puss Moth three-seater monoplane. In 1931, accompanied by co-pilot Jack Humphreys (her ground engineer instructor), she became the first pilot, male or female, to fly from London to Moscow in one day – a distance of 1,760 miles in 21 hours. The pair then flew from Moscow over Siberia to Japan setting yet another record.

Mollison loved flying as much as his future wife, and was equally determined to make a name for himself. Being male he found a quicker path to fame. After graduating from Edinburgh University he joined the Royal Air Force and aged 18 earned a commission, making him the youngest officer in the service. By age 22 he was the youngest ever instructor, and soon after setting that standard he took a job as an instructor in Australia. Eventually he ended up as a pilot for Australian National Airways. In July/August, 1931 he set his first world record by flying from Australia to England in 8 days and 19 hours. The next year the record-hungry Scot set another world standard by flying from England to South Africa in 4 days, 17 hours

Appropriately Mollison and Johnson met on an airplane. He was piloting an ANA flight from London to Sidney when one of the crew came forward to inform him that the world famous flier Amy Johnson was on board. She was brought up to the cockpit and there was an immediate attraction. Mollison was so smitten that eight hours later, while they were still in the air, he proposed, she accepted and they were married on August 2, 1932.

The marriage of ‘The Flying Scot’ and the ‘Lone Girl Flyer’ was a sensation and the media dubbed them ‘The Flying Sweethearts’. Cynics grumbled that it was not a marriage but a business deal, partly because the boozy Johnson, nicknamed by friends ‘Brandy Mollison’, was known for his hedonistic lifestyle while the attractive Amy had not been short of love-struck suitors. To reassure her father, Will Johnson, that it was true love she wrote to him, “Please believe me that I am very, very happy”. There is film of the couple (you can find it on You Tube) at an after-wedding party, with Scotsman Mollison speaking with an amazingly plummy English accent, talking of his up-coming solo flight to America and his regret that Amy can’t be with him.

Based on their letters they were in love but the relationship was compromised due to his drinking and her mood swings. She suffered from menstrual periods so painful and disabling that she underwent a hysterectomy under the pretext to the media of having an appendectomy.

Two weeks after the wedding Mollison became the first person to fly solo from east to west across the Atlantic, from Ireland to New Brunswick, Canada in 31 hours, 21 minutes. Amy countered that in November, 1932 by flying from Britain to South Africa, breaking her husband’s record by 10 hours, 26 minutes. Her proud father commented to the press,”

“This is wonderful, for a man it would be fine, for a woman it is splendid”.

Mollison then set another solo record by flying from England to Brazil, via West Africa, in three days, 13 hours. It has been written that one reason for Mollison and Johnson falling in love was that they could empathise at being solo long-distance fliers. But the competition over records might have pushed them apart. They did have some success flying together but also crashes and disappointments and they finally divorced in 1938.

When war came in 1939 women weren’t accepted as pilots in the regular RAF so Johnson joined the newly formed Air Transport Auxiliary. Mollison was too old to qualify for combat, you had to be 25 or younger, so he also joined the ATA and this is how he came to meet another top woman pilot, Diana Barnato.

The ATA provided an invaluable service for the Allies during World War II, ferrying planes of all types from airports and manufacturing hubs to combat airfields all around the UK, and after D-Day to bases in Europe. The organisation also transported pilots, other passengers and supplies and sometimes acted as an ambulance service. Unlike Johnson and Mollison, Barnato wasn’t a famous world record breaker when she joined the ATA. But she had had a yearning to fly from an early age. She had only six hours of training before flying solo first the first time aged 20.

Diana Barnato Walker

Diana Barnato was born in North London, on the night of January 15, 1918, to the sounds of bombs thumping down from German Zeppelins. The family were rich, paternal grandfather Barney Barnato having made a fortune in South Africa as a co-founder of the De Beers diamond mining company. Her dashing father, Woolf Barnato, was chairman of Bentley Motors and a top racing driver. But Diana’s parents refused to support her passion for flight, because they were convinced she would crash and be horribly injured or killed. Diana was determined to fly though and she financed lessons out of her ‘pocket money’ which barely covered the £3 cost per lesson. In the meantime Diana thoroughly enjoyed the pre-war excesses of London high society, frequenting the exclusive Empress and 400 nightclubs. She debuted in 1936 aged 18 and was presented to King Edward VIII at Buckingham Palace.

But when war came she mucked in and volunteered as a nurse for the Red Cross. Upon learning that the ATA was accepting women pilots she was quick to join up. Despite being tiny and proudly feminine (always wore makeup on flights and kept a powderpuff in a jumpsuit pocket) Diana trained on single engine fighters and later on twin-engine bombers. She would go on to fly virtually every type of plane of the war, including Spitfires, Hurricanes, Vickers Wellingtons and Lockheed Hudsons. She experienced many thrills and a few harrowing flights in difficult weather, but survived, and for that she credited her ‘Guardian Angel’. You can read all about it in her autobiography, Spreading My Wings (Grub Street 2003). In the book she describes coming under fire while on a flight with Mollison.

By this stage of the war the ATA pilots were being ferried back to their home bases, relieved from suffering the long, cold, train journeys which Diana considered the worst part of the job. Of the surprise attack she wrote:

“I had flown a Hurricane from Langley to Cardiff in lovely weather, but had to put down at Whitchurch later because of the visibility. Here I found some other ATA pilots also waiting to be collected and flown back to White Waltham (Diana’s base).

“In the late afternoon, the transport Anson arrived as usual, this time piloted by the famous and dearly beloved record-breaker, Jim Mollison, widower of Amy Johnson, who had been killed in 1941 flying with the ATA. Jim had already collected several pilots from here and there, plus another bunch from Hullavington (RAF airfield in Wiltshire), which made us 12 in number, including Jim.”

As co-pilot, Diana sat next to Mollison for the flight which proved uneventful until they were over the railyards at Reading and a fighter plane “going like stink” flew out of the clouds straight at them.

“At first, I thought it was a Mosquito (a revolutionary new fighter), because at the time the Mossie was just coming out of the Leavesden and Hatfield factories…but then, against the dark cloud, I saw tracer coming at us from what appeared to be the gunner of the silvered aircraft. I then noticed the huge black cross on the fuselage and the swastika on the tail-plane. An ME 110!

“Jim saw it all too. ‘Jeese’ he yelled, ‘It’s a Jerry!’ He yanked the Anson up into the overcast to hide as the German flashed past, very close, on our port side, its guns still blazing.”

Fortunately the Anson was not hit and Diana and the other ATA pilots put it down to the enemy being a rotten shot, or perhaps the sun was in his eyes.

“What that German gunner didn’t know,” wrote Diana, “was that it would have been a triumph and a very good bag for his squadron, had he, by chance, shot down 12 highly-trained ferry pilots all at once, when he was only after a railway line.”

Having landed and with the excitement over, Mollison invited Diana for a cup of tea and predicted “You know Diana, by tomorrow they’ll all be saying I shot it down!” Sure enough the press had a field day exaggerating details and lionising Mollison.

Diana Barnato did lose many friends during the war, including fellow pilots and fiancé Humphrey Gilbert who died in a crash shortly before they were due to be married. She did marry Wing Commander Derek Walker on May 6, 1944 but he was killed on November 14, 1945 when the Mustang fighter he was delivering crashed.  Diana swore never to marry again but she did carry on a 30-year affair with American pilot and car racing champion Whitney Straight. They had a son, Barney, in 1947.

Straight was a married man but Diana never asked him to leave his wife. When asked why, she replied: “I was perfectly content. I had my own identity”. During the war Diana flew more than 80 types of airplanes and delivered 260 Spitfires. The ATA was disbanded in late 1945 having logged 415,000 hours and delivered 309,000 aircraft. Of the 1300 pilots166 were women, and of the 174 killed in service16 were women. From 1943 to the end of the war the women pilots were paid the same as the men.

Diana Barnato Walker went on to fly commercially and with the Women’s Junior Air Corps. She encouraged and trained young women to be pilots and in 1963, at age 45, she flew an English Electric Lightning at a speed of 1.6 Mach (1,262 mph) becoming the first British woman to break the sound barrier and setting an air speed record for women. She was a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society and was awarded an MBE in 1965. In her 60s she survived three cancer operations and at age 88 she flew for the last time taking the controls of a twin-seat Spitfire. She died on April 28, 2008 aged 90.

BY REG REYNOLDS