Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth
I snapped this telegram while on my visit to the RAF Museum in Hendon a couple of weeks back. Dated the sixth of january 1941, it's informing the parents of Amy Johnson that their daughter was missing, presumed killed. Amy was by then an international celebrity - in 1930 she had been the first woman to fly solo from the UK to Australia, in a single engine Gyspy Moth partly paid for by her dad. She set a solo record in 1932 for the London to Cape Town route, and in 1933 flew a De Havilland Dragon Rapide from Pendine Sands in Wales to the USA with her husband, Jim Mollison. This flight ended with the pair crash-landing in Connecticut. I've flown in a Dragon Rapide, on a short pleasure flight round Cambridgeshire. The way it creaked and groaned and shuddered on our circuit was faintly amusing in 2006. Over the middle of the Atlantic, with no weather radar, probably no radio and the entire history of powered aviation barely thirty years old, it was an exercise in bald courage and pure skill.
During the war Amy joined the Air Transport Auxiliary as a ferry pilot. On the 5th of January 1941, she was flying an Airspeed Oxford over the Thames Estuary, and was seen to bale out of the falling aircraft. Officially the 'plane had run out of fuel due to a navigation error caused by bad weather, although there has been speculation she was brought down by 'friendly fire'. She was not wearing a life vest, though air trapped in her parachute kept Amy afloat for a short time. Lieutenant Commander Walter Fletcher of HMS Haselmere died in the rescue attempt, having dived into the freezing waters to try and reach her. It is believed the aviatrix was in fact killed by the propeller of the rescue boat. Her body was never found, although some years later a man walking his dog reportedly found a human knee joint and part of a leg on a nearby shore. He reburied it, and didn't speak about it until quite recently.
At the height of her fame, Amy visited my home town of Keighley, Yorkshire, carving her name and a crude little aeroplane onto a flagstone off West Lane in Haworth. There it lay, unnoticed by the millions of feet that must have walked over it on the way to the tourist honeypot of the Bronte Parsonage. When I was about 18, I found the carving by accident and took a rubbing of it. I looked for it again last year - but it had gone. Original Yorkshire flagstones attract high prices in a nation obsessed with property development, an easy steal for a man with a wagon and a crowbar.
The telegram was delivered to the local police station and seems to have a charge of 10 shillings and 2 pence. I wonder who paid?