Before we moved to the UK, we would come over on vacation/holiday, rent/hire a car, and wander with no fixed plan from one wonderful-thing-you-could-never-see-in-the-US to another. And the UK never let us down.
You don’t even need a guidebook for this kind of travel, because wherever you go over here you’re almost guaranteed to pass a sign reading “Footpath to the Stone Circle” or “18th-Century Tidemill” or “Roman ruin”. My biggest double take was at a sign in Cheshire reading “Secret Nuclear Bunker”, seeing as how putting up “This way to the Secret Nuclear Bunker” signposts is just a tad counterproductive. (It turned out that the decommissioned Cold War bunker at Hack Green had just been opened to the public. I’ll do a post on it later; if you can’t wait, follow the link to their website, listed under Featured Links.)
So on our recent getaway to south Wales, we weren’t surprised to see signs for Neolithic mounds, medieval castles, and ruined abbeys. But we were surprised to see a sign for an Amelia Earhart memorial in the little town of Burry Port (population about 4200)—and of course we turned off the main road to find it.
Of course we knew that Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, but what we didn’t know was that her first crossing wasn’t as a pilot, but as a passenger, or—to use her own description— “like a sack of potatoes”. She also went along to keep a log of that 1928 trip, but the pilot, Wilmer “Bill” Stultz, and the navigator/copilot/mechanic, Louis “Slim” Gordon, were men (and men with names out of a Hollywood war movie, at that) and she didn’t do any of the flying. For one thing, she wasn’t rated to fly using instruments only, and their flight path, planned to take them from Newfoundland, Canada, to Southampton, England, was fogged in for almost the entire crossing.
After 20 hours of fog, without reliable airspeed data and with the radio on the blink, with fuel running low and unsure of their position, the crew brought their souped-up Fokker F7, the Friendship, down below the clouds and found themselves crossing busy shipping lanes—good news, because it meant they were getting close to Europe. But they still didn’t know where they were; their best guess was that they were close to Ireland.
They tried twice to drop a message onto the deck of a convenient ship—in those days, such drops weren’t unusual, and ships would often help by marking their latitude and longitude on decks for pilots to see—but they missed. Earhart wrote the messages, tied them around oranges to weight them, and dropped them through the hatch, but they fell straight into the water. The captain had seen the aircraft, though, and when he realized it was the Friendship but couldn’t reach them by radio, had the ship’s position chalked onto the deck. But by that time the Friendship, too low on fuel to keep circling and with the crew getting worried, had flown on. They had to trust that they were still on course and that Ireland must be close, because otherwise they were going down in the ocean.
And they made it, pretty much just in time. Even with the two fuel tanks that were standard for the Fokker and the four extra ones added for their crossing, they had less than an hour’s worth left. They put the plane, which had been fitted with pontoons, down in an estuary, moored it to a buoy, and waited for someone to row out to get them—which didn’t happen for some time. People saw them waving, waved back, and went on about their business. Eventually and old man in a coracle paddled over, but as he didn’t speak English, there wasn’t much of an exchange of information. He was speaking Welsh, because they weren’t in Ireland after all: they were in Burry Port, Carmarthenshire, Wales.
That accidental visit put Burry Port on the map (or at least, it has kept Burry Port on the map, now that it’s no longer the region’s main gateway for coal export). It didn’t take local people long to realize exactly who had landed, and they swarmed the crew, with one souvenir hunter famously tearing Earhart’s flying scarf right off her. (Wonder where it is now?) The flyers wanted to refuel and go, but ended up having to stay the night—there’s a commemorative plaque at the hotel—because the fuel left wasn’t even enough to allow them to take off, and it must have taken hours even to partially fill the tanks. One report says the fuel was rowed out to them in 2-gallon cans.
Meanwhile, the press found them. Earhart tried her best to get Stultz and Gordon into the photos, but the reporters only wanted to publicize the first woman to cross the Atlantic, even though she had only come along for the ride, an adventurer rather than an aviator. She was already famous, with impressive records for altitude, speed, and distance, either as the best woman in those competitions or the best flyer, full stop. And in 1932 she did of course become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic at the controls of the plane.
I would never have known of the 1928 flight, and might never have seen the pleasant little town of Burry Port, either, if we hadn’t detoured to see the Earhart monument. It was erected in1930 and unveiled by aviation hero Sir Arthur Whitten-Brown, one of the team of two who in 1919 first flew nonstop across the Atlantic. (You thought that was Lindbergh? No, Lindbergh did the first solo flight.) The unveiling must have given Sir Arthur, who lived in Swansea, some satisfaction, although he missed getting to meet the crew of the Friendship. They took off for Southampton while he was being rowed out to see them, unaware that he was coming.
Nowadays it’s a heck of a lot easier to fly to the UK, so come on over, hire a car or get a rail pass, and see what you find. It could be a bit of our shared US-UK history, like Amelia Earhart’s landing in Burry Port. Or it could even be a Secret Nuclear Bunker.