Express & Star

How aviation heroine Amy Johnson survived a West Midlands mishap

"I still declare that gliding is the safest form of flying," said world-famous 1930s aviator Amy Johnson... after she emerged severely shaken from her wrecked glider in Walsall.

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Amy and others busy assembling her Kirby Kite glider at an air pageant in Wolverhampton the day before the Walsall mishap – this may well have been the glider in which she crashed.

The flying star had been trapped upside down in the cockpit after her display before a huge crowd at the town's municipal aerodrome ended with a crash-landing with the glider flipping on its back.

Amy was a heroine of her time, and has been described as one of the most influential and inspirational women of the 20th century.

She was a household name after becoming the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia in 1930, and went on to set other records, including some with her husband Jim Mollinson, whom she married in 1932.

Later that decade, with her record flights behind her, she embraced a new passion of gliding, becoming a member of the Midland Gliding Club on the Long Mynd in Shropshire.

And it was during a joint display by the gliding club and Walsall Aero Club at Walsall Municipal Aerodrome on Sunday, June 26, 1938, that the illustrious career of this aviation great almost came to a tragic end.

How the incident was reported by the Express & Star.

It was Walsall's first experience of a gliding display and proved a big draw, with an estimated 8,000 people inside the aerodrome, and about as many more lining the outside of the enclosure.

Amy, who had given a gliding display the day before at an air pageant to mark the official opening of Wolverhampton Airport, was of course the star of the show, and received a great ovation. She had already done several flights before her fateful final flight, staying aloft for about 20 minutes, the longest of the meeting.

It was as she came in to land that things went wrong.

The Express & Star next day reported: "The sailplane got in a down-draught over a clump of trees and lost height rapidly, with the result that it just failed to clear the hedge bounding the aerodrome.

"Miss Johnson did the only thing possible to avoid a head-on impact with the obstruction. She 'took it on the wing tip' but nevertheless, the machine turned over on its back.

"Members of the gliding club who were officiating as stewards were quickly on the scene and discovered Miss Johnson trapped head downwards in the enclosed cockpit.

"Her safety strap was unfastened, and she was released, having escaped with a bad shaking. 'No, I'm all right,' Miss Johnson replied, when asked if she was hurt.

Amy, left, on the Long Mynd in 1938 with Mrs Espin Hardwick, whose husband founded the Midland Gliding Club.

"The glider was rather badly damaged, one of the wings being broken.

"'I still declare that gliding is the safest form of flying,' said Miss Johnson afterwards. 'Had this mishap occurred with a power-driven aeroplane, the result might have been very serious. But thanks to the slow landing speed of the sailplane, its light weight, absence of an engine and inflammable petrol, I escaped quite unharmed.'"

About seven sailplanes were in the display, including the latest British glider, the Gull, a Kirby Kite, and what was described as a Griman Baby (no doubt correctly a Grunau Baby), although the report does not specify which particular glider Miss Johnson – she had reverted to her maiden name after her divorce earlier that year – was flying at the time of her mishap.

Quite recently rare footage showing Amy flying at the Long Mynd in 1936 was discovered in a cupboard in Bishop's Castle, and was publicly shown for the first time only six years ago.

Watch Amy Johnson flying at the Long Mynd in 1936:

The gliding club records show she actually became a member of the Midland Gliding Club in October 1937 and was still on the books at the outbreak of the Second World War when gliding there was suspended.

Having had a close shave at Walsall, she was destined to die during the war at the age of 37. She was serving as an aircraft delivery pilot in 1941 when, mysteriously way off course, she parachuted into the Thames and drowned. Her body has never been found.

A postcard showing gliding on the Long Mynd signed by Amy.