The Scottish aviator who brought the world's attention to Pennfield, N.B.
James Mollison ended his trans-Atlantic solo flight in a Pennfield blueberry field 90 years ago
James Mollison never intended to finish his Trans-Atlantic solo flight in New Brunswick.
The Scottish aviator was trying to fly from Ireland to New York City non-stop in the summer of 1932.
He wanted to become the first to fly solo across the Atlantic "the hard way," from Europe to North America, which meant battling headwinds the whole way.
But, as he headed south along the New Brunswick coast after nearly 30 hours in the air, Mollison realized New York was just too far away.
"I went along the coast and then — well, my gas supply was so low I knew I couldn't make my destination," Mollison told the Evening Times-Globe reporters who rushed to Pennfield, about 70 kilometres southwest of Saint John, after he landed.
"And I was all in — tired as a dog — and when I saw this field, I decided to put down."
The field belonged to farmer James Armstrong, and the plane had come to rest in the middle of a patch of blueberries.
As the Times Globe said on Aug. 20, 1932, the day after Mollison landed, Pennfield had "suddenly and unexpectedly become the centre of the limelight of world news."
Unlike the Pennfield farmers who greeted him, Mollison was no stranger to the limelight.
Rise to fame
Born in Glasgow in 1905, Mollison learned to fly in the Royal Air Force in the early 1920s.
After short stints as a flight instructor and commercial pilot, he decided to try to make his name by breaking aviation records.
In the summer of 1931, he rose to fame by flying from Australia to England in a then-record eight days and 19 hours.
He followed that up in the spring of 1932 with a record-breaking flight from England to Cape Town, South Africa.
But his place as a darling of the British press was likely cemented when he married Amy Johnson, an English aviatrix whose fame rivalled Amelia Earhart's.
Attractive and glamorous, his marriage to Johnson, which occurred just three weeks before his flight across the Atlantic, led to the press dubbing them "The Flying Sweethearts."
Midge Gillies, the author of the biography Amy Johnson: Queen of the Air, said the couple shared a drive to test themselves.
"Well, I think they loved the fame," Gillies said in an interview from her U.K. home. "And I think with Jim, the money was very important, the sponsorship, all the deals that he could get. ... And I think once you do it, you're hooked.
"And then there's always a trip that's a bit harder, but you need to try. So it's like a kind of drug, I think, and gives you a kind of a physical rush that we have forgotten that flying does encompass if you're doing it in one of those really basic planes."
And the aircraft Mollison used was as basic as you could get in 1932. The de Havilland Puss Moth was a light plane made for the private market.
Capable of a cruising speed of about 175 km/h, it wasn't designed for long-distance flying, so Mollison had to modify it to carry as much fuel as possible, which included getting rid of the radio.
He described it as "a flying gas tank."
He christened it "The Heart's Content," a reference to his marriage to Johnson that occurred just three weeks before the flight.
He took off from Portmarnok Beach, near Dublin, on Aug. 18, 1932. The beach, several kilometres in length, was chosen because it was long enough to allow him the time to get aloft in the heavily burdened plane.
Gillies said the flight Mollison embarked on was incredibly dangerous.
"When you fly from England and then you're [over] the Atlantic, you hit the winds coming in the opposite direction. And then you have to try and negotiate … the east coast of America or Canada when you're at your most tired, so it's probably one of the most taxing things you could try and do in the 1920s or '30s," she said.
"It was really kind of pushing the skill of the pilots, but also the resilience of the plane. And if you think about it, if you did come down, you had very little chance of being saved unless you were fortunate enough to be on a shipping lane and see a ship there."
Mollison took off in pouring rain at around 10:35 a.m Ireland time, but had a weather forecast saying he'd be flying into clear weather.
That turned out to be only partly accurate.
He had favourable conditions for most of that day, but as night fell, he hit heavy fog.
Mollison tried to climb above it, but the weight of the fuel on board kept the aircraft from climbing above 4,000 feet.
"When it's clear you can tell how the wind is blowing from the breakers below you," Mollison told reporters.
"I couldn't see the water at all though and just had to grope along. I was lucky. When dawn broke this morning, I wouldn't have been at all surprised to find myself over Labrador."
Instead, using only a compass, a watch and his airspeed indicator, and allowing for a wind drift that he had estimated at seven per cent, Mollison had put himself over the Avalon Peninsula near Harbour Grace, almost exactly where he had hoped to be.
Perhaps something he did during his RAF days played a part in helping him through the fog.
Gillies said Mollison used to drive from London to his nearby base at night and turn off his headlights during the trip.
"He later said that that really helped him in flying the Atlantic because he was flying blind. Because you have no sense of, often, where you are, you have to really believe in yourself."
A few quick photos
After flying low over Halifax and Saint John, his decision to set down in Pennfield at 12:45 p.m. local time created an international sensation.
He had been in the air for 30 hours and 10 minutes.
After posing for photographs at the landing site and meeting with provincial health and labour minister Henry I. Taylor, who came to see the plane from his nearby home, he was whisked off to Saint John by the newspaper reporters and taken to the Admiral Beatty Hotel.
The next day's newspaper was devoted to the event, with an extensive interview with Mollison.
In it he revealed that the only food he had brought with him on the flight was a handful of barley candy and two miniature bottles of brandy.
He also lamented his decision to ditch his radio to save weight.
"But I've learned the great need of wireless equipment," he said. "It's just as essential as a good compass. It removes the element of doubt from one's mind.
"You can't imagine anything more disconcerting than being bereft of contact with the world."
Had he had 10 more gallons of fuel, he said, he would have made it to New York City.
He would fly to New York on Aug. 22, and newsreels of the day would only make passing reference to his New Brunswick touchdown.
Sweethearts no more
Mollison would make several other noteworthy flights in the early 1930s, including flying across the Atlantic with his wife.
But it wouldn't be long before his demons began to catch up with him.
An only child of an unhappy marriage that ended in divorce, Mollison apparently inherited his father's predilection for alcohol abuse.
And his glamourous wife's continued success as a flyer, including breaking his Cape Town speed record, was wearing on his fragile ego.
Gillies said it wasn't long before the Flying Sweethearts were experiencing marital turbulence, even when they tried to make record-breaking flights together.
"They used to quarrel terribly in the cockpit and it, you know, it must have been dreadful," she said.
"I think that's a battle of two very independent people who are used to flying solo and suddenly find themselves with another pilot and one that they're married to, you know."
By 1936, their marriage was over. They divorced in 1938.
"I think that at the beginning it was very attractive for him to be with a woman who was more successful than he was at the very start," Gillies said. "And aviation at that time was built on contacts — who he knew, who he could get sponsorship from — so it was handy for him to have Amy Johnson on his arm.
"But then as he became more successful as a pilot, there was real rivalry between them."
Both Mollison and Johnson served in the Second World War, ferrying new aircraft to the U.K.
Johnson died in January 1941, when the aircraft she was flying apparently ran out of fuel.
A sad end
Mollison ran a pub and then a hotel after the war, but alcohol had taken its toll. In 1953, his pilot's licence was revoked because of his drinking problem.
He died in 1956 in a mental health hospital from the effects of alcohol abuse.
Gillies said Mollison was a flawed character, and likely a cad, but there was no doubting his bravery in what was a dangerous way to make your name.
"They were really big stars. But there was always a sense that that could disappear and that you were only as famous as your last flight."
And in his effort to find that limelight, Mollison unwittingly brought the world's attention to New Brunswick.