James Alan (Jim) Mollison, pioneering aviator, was born on the 19th of April, 1905.
Jim Mollison made a habit of being ‘the youngest’ or ‘the first’ and in his specialist field of aviation, he held many individual records for distance, endurance, and speed flying. In July of 1931, he set the record for flying from Australia to England and, in March of the following year, he set the record for flying from England to South Africa. In the August of that same year of 1932, Mollison became the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic from East to West. In keeping with his vocation and the image of a playboy flyer and dilettante, Mollison is reputed to have had a certain louche charm and liked to live up to his publicity. Equally appropriately, he was a bit of an incurable romantic. During one of his commercial flights for Australian National Airways, he was introduced to a certain female passenger. She was the similarly famous, pioneering English aviatrix, Amy Johnson. Mollison proposed to Amy Johnson only eight hours after that meeting – while still airborne. Mollison and Johnson were married in July, 1932 and the press dubbed them ‘The Flying Sweethearts’. Together, they went on to set several ‘joint’ records.
The 1930s was a period of rapid development for aviation, during which Mollison made his name. However, he was always fascinated with flying and, after leaving Edinburgh Academy, immediately joined the Royal Air Force. He obtained a Short Commission, in 1923, and claimed his first ‘youngest’ when he became the youngest officer in the service. Then, at the age of twenty-two, Mollison grabbed another ‘youngest’ when he became the youngest ever instructor at the Central Flying School. Shortly after, he transferred to the Reserve and devoted himself to a career in civil aviation. He once again became an instructor, serving for a year with the South Australian Aero Club, in Adelaide. He left that position to become a pilot with Eyre Peninsular Airways and subsequently, with Charles Kingsford Smith’s ill-fated Australian National Airways.
Mollison was undoubtedly a skilled pilot and he was attracted to record breaking as a means of “making his name” as he put it. His first major flying achievement came during the summer of 1931. Setting off from Australia, in July, 1931, Mollison had set a record time of eight days and nineteen hours, by the time he arrived in England, in August. That flight eclipsed the records of both Hinkler and his future wife, Amy Johnson. The following year, in March, he set the record for flying from England to South Africa, which he achieved in four days and seventeen hours.
Mollison continued his record breaking and, in August, 1932, became the first pilot to perform an East-to-West, solo trans-Atlantic flight. He took off from Portmarnock Strand, near Dublin, in his de Havilland Puss Moth with its 120 horse power Gypsy engine. He and his airplane, named ‘Heart’s Content’, landed at Pennfield, New Brunswick, in Canada. His tiny aircraft was designed to carry three people, but he took off with a load of fuel equivalent to carrying eleven passengers. We really shouldn’t forget how remarkable these flights were at the time; the only form of navigation they had was guesswork.
Mollison’s own description of how the idea for his Atlantic flight emerged was typical of his laconic style and was recorded in an article in ‘The Age’ magazine published on the 9th of February, 1960. Mollison told Basil Clarke, “It was early in the year of grace 1932. I was then the holder of the Australia-England and England-Cape records and was wondering what to do next. I had just become engaged to Amy Johnson and I think it was she who first suggested that I make the first east-west solo crossing of the North Atlantic. In any case, over a drink with some newspaper friends, I said that was my intention. The die was cast; events moved fast. That perennially young oil king, Lord Wakefield, offered to back me. Amy approved. There was no way out.”
Mollison and Johnson made several record breaking attempts together. Their first attempt at flying around the world, in 1933, failed. Taking off from Wales, they barely made it to the United States coastline, where their plane crashed, injuring them both. In October, the next year, the Mollisons took part in the MacRobertson Trophy Air Race, which was devised by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne and organised as part of the Melbourne Centenary celebrations.
The $75,000 prize fund for the race, which began from RAF Mildenhall, was put up by Sir Macpherson Robertson, a wealthy Australian confectionery manufacturer. The Mollisons’ de Havilland DH.88 Comet, a twin-engined British aircraft they’d christened ‘Black Magic’ was the first to start, with the other contestants taking off at 45 second intervals behind them. Jim and Amy were in the lead landing at Baghdad, but had to retire shortly after, because the non-aviation fuel they were forced to use damaged their engines. The race was won by C. W. A. Scott, a former record holder for the route, and T. Campbell Black.
During the Second World War, Mollison served in the Air Transport Auxiliary. This was a British civilian organisation that ferried new, repaired and damaged military aircraft between factories, assembly plants, maintenance units, and active service squadrons. On one such trip, when Mollison flew as a co-pilot with Diana Barnato Walker, their Avro Anson was shot up by a sortie of Luftwaffe Messerschmitts. Although the aircraft was hit, all twelve passengers and crew were unhurt. Afterwards, in typical style, Mollison’s only concern was how to get a cup of tea.
Mollison was also a gambler and a heavy drinker and, as a consequence, his marriage to Amy Johnson became strained and they were divorced in 1938, after a mere six years of marriage. Mollison married again, but later separated for the second time. His drinking continued to be a problem and, in 1953, the Civil Aviation Authority Medical Board revoked his flying license. James Alan Mollison was born in Glasgow on the 19th of April 1905 and he died on the 30th of October, 1959.