Birds of a Feather

The forgotten Indian adventure of a trailblazing woman pilot

Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly from England to Australia, was also the first woman in Britain to qualify as a ground engineer. the age / fairfax media / getty images
01 January, 2016

On 26 November, I met Tracey Curtis-Taylor, a 53-year-old aviator, in the lobby of the Taj Mahal hotel in Delhi. “You should have seen my hair when I landed yesterday,” she said in a warm English accent, describing the ravaging effects of sun and wind that come with flying an open-cockpit plane. The previous day, Curtis-Taylor had touched down in Delhi, at the controls of a dark-green vintage biplane. She was about halfway through a three-month journey from London to Sydney.

Curtis-Taylor was recreating a solo flight performed almost nine decades ago by Amy Johnson, a pioneering pilot who, in 1930, became the first woman to fly a plane from England to Australia, challenging sexist prejudices in the process. Curtis-Taylor, many decades later, confronted such biases herself, when she was unable to become a fighter pilot with the British Royal Air Force, which, at the time, did not accept women. She did not let that stop her from flying, and paid her way through civil aviation training.

In all, Curtis-Taylor spent 12 days in India, starting in Ahmedabad, then visiting Jaipur, Delhi, Agra, Varanasi and Kolkata, before continuing to Chittagong in Bangladesh. The Indian press covered her throughout, including a talk she delivered to students at a Delhi school, a documentary film shoot about her flight, a meeting she had with women pilots from the Indian air force, and more. What the media largely glossed over, however, was the story Curtis-Taylor most wanted to spread. At her Delhi hotel, she told me the goal of her voyage was to revive the memory of Johnson’s flight. The Indian leg of that journey—which includes a harrowing experience she had in Jhansi—is particularly worth retelling.

Born in 1903, Johnson moved to London in 1927, where she found work as a secretary for a law firm. She soon joined a flying club at the Stag Lane Aerodrome and got a pilot’s licence. She quit her job to fly, and also became an aircraft mechanic—the first woman in Britain to qualify as a ground engineer. In 1929, she decided to challenge the record for the fastest flight from England to Australia, which had been completed in 15-and-a-half days by Bert Hinkler, an Australian aviator.

Johnson courted many potential sponsors, including an imperialist political group called the United Empire Party. She appealed to them in a letter, writing, “Do you not think a plane named ‘Spirit of England’ flown through our Dominions would capture the hearts of the general public and do its bit towards Empire Unity by bringing the Mother Country into closer contact with them?” The party did not sponsor her, but in March of 1930, she secured the backing of an oil magnate. After meticulous planning for the 18,000-kilometre journey—“she had studied the mountain ranges before she left,” Curtis-Taylor said—she left London on 5 May 1930.

On 10 May, Johnson flew an impressive 1,100-kilometre stretch from Bandar Abbas in Persia to Karachi, despite having trouble with her plane’s engine. She took off from Karachi the following day, bound for Allahabad. She didn’t arrive. The next morning, the New York Times carried a dispatch from London headlined “Girl Flyer Missing in India.”

Though some feared the worst, Johnson was fine. She had lost her way and almost run out of fuel, forcing her to make an emergency landing in Jhansi. Her plane almost collided with an iron post and a crowd of onlookers, crashed into a sign outside a regimental office, and finally landed between two barracks. In the process, Johnson broke a wing on the machine. One eyewitness, in an account published in late May, reported: “the skin on her face, arms and legs was burnt and blistered by the sun, and tears were not far from her tired eyes.” On exiting the cockpit, she reportedly said, “I am two days ahead of Bert Hinkler’s time so far, and now I’m afraid everything is ruined.”

Army officers and Jhansi locals rallied to her aid. The same account describes how “a little army of willing helpers” gathered around Johnson, each offering their expertise to help fix the plane. Later, she was taken to a bungalow and given food and a night’s rest. “I left London six days ago,” she reportedly said, “and I haven’t once had more than three hours’ sleep.” At dinner, “a simple toast was drunk to the heroine,” and Johnson became the first woman to record her name in the place’s visitors’ book. Her plane was repaired by the morning, and she left for Calcutta, her final stop in India before she departed for Rangoon.

Johnson reached Australia, but did not beat Hinkler’s mark. More mechanical difficulties in south-east Asia meant her flight lasted 19-and-a-half days—four days longer than the Australian’s. Still, she was received with great fanfare in Britain. King George V and Queen Mary congratulated her, as did the prime minister.

For Curtis-Taylor, of course, the trip has been different. Before takeoff from London on 1 October this year, she secured the backing of many benefactors: the General Insurance Corporation of India, Taj Hotels, and Boeing, among others. While Johnson travelled at an unforgiving pace, Curtis-Taylor’s trip involves public appearances at schools, meetings with the press, and promotional events for her sponsors. Her trip, projected to last 12 to 14 weeks and stretch almost 21,000 kilometres, is much longer than Johnson’s in distance and duration. She also altered Johnson’s flight path to circumvent sensitive airspace above Iraq and Syria.

Curtis-Taylor’s plane is comparable to Johnson’s—both are open-cockpit biplanes used in military training. Johnson flew a Havilland Gipsy Moth that she named Jason, after the trademark of her father’s fish business. Curtis-Taylor flies a 73-year-old Stearman named Spirit of Artemis, which she described as “the love of my life.” But compared to Curtis-Taylor, Johnson had much simpler technology. She had no fuel gauge, lights, or radio, and for navigation, she only used a compass and maps she made ahead of time. Curtis-Taylor, meanwhile, flies with an iPad, a GPS system, a radio, and a support team that follows her in a separate aircraft.

Johnson, after her flight to Sydney, completed other record-breaking long-distance journeys, including one to Japan in 1931 and another to South Africa in 1932. In 1937, shaken by the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, a friend and fellow woman pilot, she largely gave up flying. She resumed in the Second World War, when she joined the Air Transport Auxiliary to help ferry aircraft between locations.

On a mission on 5 January 1941, Johnson veered off course in foggy conditions, and likely ran out of fuel in midair. She parachuted out over the Thames estuary. British sailors in a nearby ship rushed to help, but Johnson could not grasp the ropes they threw her. Her body was never recovered from the icy waters; some suspect she was killed by the ship’s propellers.

Despite her heroine’s grisly death and myriad brushes with disaster, Curtis-Taylor doesn’t worry about her own safety. “I don’t give a shit what happens with me,” she said. “I’m only worried about the plane.” But, she added, “it’s become the same thing. My fate is so tied with the airplane.”