The story of aircraft over water can take many forms, but few can be more inspiring than the pioneering flights of aviation’s golden age. Amy Johnson has been a hero of mine from a very early age when I learned about her groundbreaking solo flight from England to Australia in a DH60 Gypsy Moth in 1930, and saw the actual aircraft in the Science Museum. While Johnson’s flight didn’t cross as much sea as, say, Alcock and Brown crossing the Atlantic, you can’t fly halfway around the world without overflying some fairly substantial bodies of water – and Johnson did so in a tiny wood-and-fabric biplane with a single engine (mostly in the last stretch across the East Indies). These days, it’s hard to imagine the courage and determination required to attempt such a thing.
Someone not lacking in either is Amanda Harrison, who is attempting to recreate Johnson’s flight as closely as possible, with a similar aircraft and as near to the original route as international geopolitics and stability allow. Amanda had her first flight at 14 and never looked back, achieving her private pilot’s licence in 2001 and qualifying as a commercial pilot several years later, then becoming an instructor on the Tiger Moth.
It’s fair to say that the attempt so far has been an adventure. Amanda set out in her Tiger Moth G-AXAN in May, flying through Europe, then across the Mediterranean into the Middle East. After departing Rhodes, however, G-AXAN suffered a partial engine failure and Amanda had to return to the Greek airport. The engine was fixed within a few days and then it was on over the sea to Cyprus and then a further overwater flight to Beirut. It was there that the political situation began to deteriorate in the Gulf, particularly over the Straits of Hormuz, right on the route. Reports of tankers being hi-jacked and a UAV being shot down indicated it would be too dangerous to proceed.
Amanda determined to return to England, aiming to try again when the political situation settled down, but another engine failure when departing Rhodes followed by a nerve-wracking downwind landing while losing power, meant the aircraft had to be put in container for shipping to the UK.
Be in no doubt, the flight to Beirut ranks as epic by any criteria, and what Amanda has already achieved, experienced and survived is remarkable. I am delighted that Amanda agreed to answer NavalAirHistory’s questions, giving a fascinating insight into the differences and similarities between 2019 and 1930, and the highs and lows of such an immense undertaking as a solo flight to Australia in a vintage aircraft.
Amanda J Harrison – Solo2Darwin
“With regards to Navy side of things, I know it’s not part of this interview but the last RCM model that my beloved Dad made was of the Waterbird which was the first Float Plane to fly in this country in 1911. My Dad was my inspiration to fly and then came Amy.
“Actually, I have probably flown the most hours cumulatively, over the Mediterranean in a Tiger Moth. Fourteen hours in total, more than Amy as she flew over Turkey and through Syria. Solo2Darwin, my 1st Attempt, finished in Beirut, when the Iranian waters became unsafe, and safety is my paramount in all flying. I finally, reluctantly decided to fly home choosing a different route for weather reasons, however got stopped when had the second engine failure in Rhodes. Poor G-AXAN was then shipped home and is still in intensive care at the moment.
“Also on the Naval side my other half, Mike Wigg was in the Navy as a POWEM(R) for 8 years. He volunteered to help with the operations and between the two of us we did it all , which I don’t recommend.”
When did you first get the idea to recreate Amy Johnson’s pioneering flight? What was the inspiration?
“When first learning to fly I was lucky to have a flight in a Tiger Moth. I fell in love with the aeroplane and wanted to find out more about its history. I started reading all about the amazing pioneers of the 1930s. Wanting to do a flight like this, it wasn’t until I read about Amy Johnson that I began to believe that I could actually do a flight without having an aristocratic or wealthy background. Daring to believe that if Amy could do it then I could start dreaming about flying to Australia. It has taken me about 15 years to realise this of course, because I haven’t got a major sponsor. Am always on the lookout for a Brand Ambassador.”
What did it take to prove that it was even possible these days? The world is a very different place from the 1930s, and long distance flying in small aircraft is not really an everyday occurrence. What challenges did you have persuading the authorities to give you the necessary support?
“The main differences between now and 1930 are of course the politics and the paperwork that is required these days. Flight planning, flight clearances, paperwork for the aeroplane including insurance in faraway places, Visas for myself, which have a time limit, and the clearances also are time limited. Which when flying a Tiger Moth gets tricky when you only have a 48 hour window to arrive in places and the weather is bad. You would think in this day that the communication across the world would be easy; however, language and instructions get interpreted in all the ways except the one you need. There was a lot of, ‘oh you spoke to my colleague not me, so I don’t know what you need re fuel and oil and tie downs.’
“When Amy flew, the map in 1930 was pink under English rule in a lot of places, so her permissions and landing sites were easier to negotiate. Airspace is another gotcha with the Air Traffic not understanding what kind of aeroplane I was, and how slow and low I had to fly. Airspace wasn’t around so much in 1930. However, weather forecasts these days are amazing whereas Amy had to battle terrible weather, as little forecasting was available. Different challenges, with paperwork I think the worst thing that is more. One thing that surprised and delighted me was the countries which I thought would be difficult, for instance Myanmar and Saudi Arabia, which turned out very supportive and helpful.”
Is there anything you’ve encountered so far that gives you a greater appreciation of Johnson’s achievement? How well has your previous experience prepared you for the challenges of a long distance, solo flight in a vintage aircraft?
“All of the flying, planning, and trying to find sponsorship, gave me immense admiration for Amy – she never gave up. Whilst flying across the Mediterranean there were a couple of hours where I was out of reach from radio contact, and that gave me a feeling of how the early explorers might have felt, waiting for land to come into sight.
“In preparation, I have flown a lot of pleasure flights in the Tiger Moth, sometimes in horrible weather. Ferrying aircraft all round the UK and a couple of long distance flights in modern aircraft also prepared me for the trip.”
Can you give an impression of what it’s like to cover those distances in a Tiger Moth? What kind of terrain have you had to negotiate? How much relatively featureless land and/or sea have you had to cover/will you have to cover?
“Nothing can prepare you for flying five hours across the Mediterranean Sea by yourself, and back! I feel particularly proud about these flights, especially in the middle where no radio contact, without an artificial horizon flying, in the murk of pollution, becomes incredibly disorientating, turning into some of the most demanding flying I have ever done. Windmills was something Amy didn’t have to negotiate. Across Europe there seems to be hundreds of them, with the cloud sitting very near the tops, that proved challenging, combined with the fact that is turned out to be the worst May weather across Europe for 50 years. Did I anger the gods?
“Flying down the Olt Pass through the Carpathian mountains, in Romania was a spectacular flight. I had waited another day for good weather, which turned out to be the right thing to do, with blue skies and white fluffy clouds over the snow topped mountains, magical. I wonder if anyone else has actually flown that valley in a Tiger Moth, as Amy took a different route.”
Do you think there’s anything you face that’s more difficult than in Amy Johnson’s day? Red tape, for example? Or spares availability?
“I think the challenges are different, red tape yes more difficult now, however weather reporting much better now. Amy also had very poor maps to navigate by, compared to our Google Earth view of everything and GPS today. I had much better safety equipment, the Kinetic 6 tracker which pinged every ten minutes for the website, was connected to people to come and save me if I got into trouble. Amy battled exhaustion and health problems, whereas I took protein bars and was a pin cushion from the vaccinations I had to have. Spares availability was easier in Amy’s day for two reasons, the aeroplanes were still in common use and she didn’t have to have paperwork to go with whatever she used to fix the aeroplane. I could only take limited spares with me, and had the Aircraft Restoration Company and Vintech on standby to fly out what I needed, with the corresponding paperwork.”
What message do you have for the female pilots, engineers, navigators etc of the future? What lessons do you think Johnson’s achievements can teach us now?
“Amy still inspires today as an engineer, pilot and woman. She had guts and persistence which is what you need to achieve anything in life. As for myself overcoming Dyslexia and Breast Cancer, there is no magic to me or silver spoons in my cutlery draw, it is 99% persistence. I hope I can inspire people to achieve their dreams, with hard work. Inspiring more women into aviation in all aspects would be amazing too. In fact, the most surprising thing with Solo2Darwin wasn’t that the flying was amazing, which is was, nor achieving my goal of an attempt, it was the fantastic people that I met and how I have inspired them. So much so that I am setting up a Dyslexic Ability course and setting out on a speaking career, alongside flying to inspire people to Dare to Dream and make someday, today. You never know how long you have.”
Is there anything that we’ve lost about flying in the modern era that flying a vintage Moth can remind us?
“Flying the Tiger Moth for me is pure freedom and a challenge all in one. In this world of autopilots and automation, the thrill of piloting a Tiger Moth solo, all the way to Beirut, encompassed every single emotion that you can think off, high and low, and demanded my best flying and the best of me. To end I think, my hero, Amy Johnson puts it perfectly, ‘I think it is a pity to lose the romantic side of flying and simply to accept it as a common means of transport…’”
What to know more?
The documentary Solo2Darwin will be coming soon, By Give-Get-Go Production company.
Amanda is writing the book the about the 1st attempt Solo2Darwin.
Her first book, about flying the Tiger Moth, is available on Amazon
Amanda is available for speaking engagements, and is the winner of Toastmasters Humour contest and Best Speaker award.
More information on website www.AmandaJHarrison.com