Hermanus and ‘The Queen of the Air’

Hermanus and ‘The Queen of the Air’

Dr Robin Lee

For over a century now, Hermanus has been a popular holiday destination. Individuals and groups come from all over the world to rest, relax and enjoy themselves. The economy of the town has depended on the expenditures of those who came.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the arrivals were referred to as ‘visitors’. When hotels were built in response to the increasing demand, the term ‘guests’ came into use. Only after 1950 do we find the word ‘tourist’ in common usage. Today that term covers everyone who is in the town and is not a permanent resident. A ‘tourism strategy’ is now needed, including various categories of tourist, such as ‘eco-tourist’ and ‘festival-tourist’.

Tourists to Hermanus will come from a variety of places and be of a variety of social classes. Much exciting history can be brought to light by following the lives of prominent tourists, especially if they were famous before they came to our town. One of these was Amy Johnson, who was an aviator of international reputation before she arrived in Hermanus in 1932.

Amy stayed at The Marine Hotel and there met Henry Luyt, the only son of P J Luyt, owner of the hotel. Henry (born in 1899) was 32 years of age at the time, had already been trained as a pilot and fought in World War I with the Royal Air Corps. After only a couple of weeks of combat, his aircraft was shot down over France, and he was wounded. Many years later, his mother, Joey Luyt, described the situation as follows:

His plane had landed upside down in a trench, which was fortunately unoccupied. He had extricated himself and had managed to make his way back to the Allied lines… The only wound he received was some shrapnel in the neck, which was not serious.

Back in South Africa after the war, Henry became fully involved in the Luyts’ hotel businesses and, instead of a plane, had to settle for a fast, loud car, referred to by the family as the ‘Red Peril’.
Back in Britain, Amy Johnson (19031941) was progressing through her aviation career. It was highly unusual for women to train as pilots and still less usual that they undertake solo intercontinental flights. But Amy qualified for her pilot’s licence in 1929 and a year later embarked on her first record-breaking long-distance flight. At that stage, her most extended trip had been from her home town, Hull to London. Her biographer describes her flight from England to Australia as follows:

Amy left Croydon Airport on 5 May 1930 in a second-hand Gipsy Moth called Jason. Unlike today’s pilots, Amy had no radio link with the ground and no reliable information about the weather. Her maps were basic and, on some stretches of the route, she would be flying over uncharted land.

Daringly, Amy had plotted the most direct route – simply by placing a ruler on the map. This took her over some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain and meant she had to fl y with an open-cockpit for at least eight hours at a time. It was essential that she kept to her route because fuel was waiting for her at each stop.

Despite a forced landing in a sandstorm in the Iraqi desert, she reached India in a record six days, and the world’s press suddenly started to pay attention. She became the “British Girl Lindbergh”, “Wonderful Miss Johnson” and “The Lone Girl Flyer”.

In India, she surprised an army garrison by landing on a parade ground, and when she reached Burma, she faced her biggest challenge: the monsoon. Outside Rangoon, a bumpy landing ripped a hole in Jason’s wing and damaged its propeller.

Amy landed in Australia on Saturday, 24 May to tumultuous crowds. Over the next six weeks, she was treated like a superstar. Women asked their hairdressers for an “Amy Johnson wave” and the affectionate way in which she described Jason – “But the engine was wonderful” – became a catchphrase.

At least ten songs were written about her, the most famous, “Amy, Wonderful Amy” performed by Jack Hylton.

Fan mail poured in, and such was her fame that an envelope addressed to “Amywat flies in England” reached its destination.

The following year (1932) Amy set the record for a solo flight from London to Cape Town. This was the occasion that she visited Hermanus. Joey Luyt recorded the visit in these words:
Once Amy Johnson, the pioneering English aviator, came to Hermanus. She stayed with Mr and Mrs Hendry Herman in Cape Town, and they brought her to The Marine for a weekend. Henry was wildly excited, and the two of them spent hours happily talking aeroplanes. Miss Johnson signed a tea cloth for me, which I then embroidered…

Amy returned to Britain, and in 1933 she and her husband flew across the Atlantic, flying over water for the entire voyage. On arrival, they were entertained by President Roosevelt. After several other record-breaking flights, she saw her flight time London to Cape Town reduced by another pilot. So she returned to regain the record in 1936.

When World War II began in 1939, Amy joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying planes to many destinations around the country as required for military purposes. On 5 January 1941, her life ended controversially. She was spotted flying a long way off her planned route in adverse weather conditions, and her plane was recorded flying over the Thames Estuary.

Sailors aboard a Royal Navy vessel reportedly saw her plane stall and drop towards the waves. Then they saw a parachute drifting down from the plane and come down in the sea relatively near them. An officer dived in and (possibly) reached her. Some sailors claimed to have seen two bodies in the water. But then her body was washed away again and never recovered. The officer later died from exposure and shock.

Later, rumours spread that she had failed to give the secret code word for the day and had been mistakenly shot down by ‘friendly fire’. For these reasons, her story remains topical and lives to this day.

Pioneering British aviator, Amy Johnson, was the first female pilot to fly solo from England to Australia in her Gipsy Moth aircraft named ‘Jason’ in 1930. She was only 26 years old at the time. Two years later she set another record, for a solo flight from London to Cape Town, and also visited Hermanus, where she stayed at The Marine Hotel for a weekend.