A Moth for Amy: celebrating an aviation pioneer 

Amy Johnson. Photography courtesy of the Hull Daily MailThis summer a festival is being held to celebrate the life of Amy Johnson, one of the most inspirational women of the twentieth century and an alumna of our University.

Amy was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia in 1930 and set a string of other records throughout her life.

This summer’s festival is marking Amy’s achievements with a series of events taking place in her hometown of Hull. One part of the festival is a major public art project, with giant moth sculptures (Amy’s plane was called a Gipsy Moth) created by sculptor Saffron Waghorn, painted by a variety of artists and displayed across the region. One such moth will be housed at the University, and will be on display in the fantastic new Diamond building from early July.

Miles Stevenson, Director of Alumni and Donor Relations for the University, said:

“Amy is a pioneer and an inspiration to all here at Sheffield. In an era when boundaries were numerous she showed these could be challenged and broken, a view everyone at Sheffield continues to uphold. We are proud to count Amy as one of our own, and are delighted to be able to join in the celebrations of her life.”

Amy was born in Hull in 1903, and later came to Sheffield to study Latin, French & Economics, graduating in 1925. Her original ambition of becoming a teacher led her to follow a degree in Economics, however a clue to the ultimate direction her career was to take was provided by her regular voluntary attendance at Engineering evening classes. She was the first woman to attend Engineering classes at Sheffield and faced strong opposition from the Engineering Professor at that time. Having completed her studies, Amy moved to London where she worked at a solicitor’s office to fund her passion for flying.

Amy sat in her plane. Photography courtesy of the Hull Daily Mail

In the winter of 1928 Amy undertook her first flying lesson. As a woman she was something of a rarity in those early days of flight, but she was determined to show that women could be every bit the pilot of her male counterparts. After obtaining her license Amy continued her learning, and qualified as the first British female ground engineer, working on and maintaining planes.

In 1930, 18 months after she first started flying, Amy completed the endurance flight for which she is most well-known. She continued flying commercially until the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, when she joined the Air Transport Auxiliary. As a trained pilot (though ineligible for RAF service) she served ferrying aircraft from factories to RAF bases. It was during one of these flights in 1941 that Amy’s plane crashed in to the Thames, where she died. Several theories exist surrounding the events of her death, including being mistakenly shot down, though none have been confirmed.

Amy is currently commemorated through the Amy Johnson Building, the home of the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering, and through a series of scholarships which aim to encourage women into engineering, the area Amy was so passionate about.

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