Monday 22 July 2013, 09:00
Pendine Sands on the coast of southern Carmarthenshire is a seven mile stretch of rock-hard beach that runs from Gilman Point in the west to Laugharne Sands in the east. It is an incredibly beautiful stretch of coast but Pendine is famous for more than just its location.
Over the years the sands have seen TT races, world land speed record attempts and tragic death, when JG Parry-Thomas died trying to regain the speed record in 1927. But as well as racing cars and bikes the sands were also a perfect venue for aircraft – obviously not the modern day jet aeroplanes but the rather flimsy canvas and wood biplanes of the 1920s and 30s.
Following the success of the area as a base for land speed records, in July 1933 the famous flyers Jim Mollison and Amy Johnson came to Pendine Sands to begin their own attempt on a new world record. Both flyers were well used to setting "firsts" in an era when flying was still in its infancy and long-distance pilots had a glamour akin to that of movie stars.
In 1931 Jim Mollison had set the record for a flight from Australia to England, then followed it up with another record, England to South Africa in 4 days 17 hours. Amy Johnson, the most famous British woman pilot of the age, met and married Mollison in July 1932. She then set off to break her husband's South African record – a task she happily achieved.
Dubbed the Flying Sweethearts, the couple's record breaking flights continued. By the summer of 1933 they were planning a round the world flight, the first stage of which was to cross the Atlantic to New York. The attempt was due to end in Baghdad but the starting place was to be Pendine Sands in south Wales.
Their aircraft was a de Haviland Dragon Rapide, named Seafarer. It had been modified for the trip and fitted with extra fuel tanks for the long haul across the Atlantic Ocean. In the event, even these extra tanks were not enough.
For three weeks people flocked to Pendine, hoping to see the pair set off and it was reported that there was a carnival atmosphere in Pendine. The aircraft was on show each day and the pilots, who were staying at the Beach Hotel in the village, were happy to talk to their fans.
Unfortunately, while the weather in Carmarthenshire was fine, out in the Atlantic there were severe storms and the attempt had to be delayed.
Seafarer was taken to Cardiff for a short while. There she again went on display, and members of the public flocked to see the machine. Then conditions out in the Atlantic improved and the plane, along with Johnsone and Mollison, quickly returned to Pendine.
At around noon on 22 July 1933, Seafarer took off. Hundreds of people watched and waved from the beach as she turned slowly to the west and was lost to view.
The trip was difficult and, unfortunately, Seafarer ran out of petrol before she could reach New York. She did arrive over the American mainland, however - the intrepid pilots had to crash land at Bridgeport in Connecticut. The crash was bad and both Johnsone and Mollison were injured.
The attempt at flying around the world had failed but the Atlantic had been crossed. Johnsone and Mollison became the first married couple to cross the ocean.
Following their flight, the two pilots were entertained to lunch by President Roosevelt. Amelia Earhart, who in 1928 had become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, was also present. There is another Welsh connection as Earhart and her male companions – they flew the plane, she was merely an observer – landed at Burry Port outside Llanelli.
Sadly, the crashed remains of Seafarer were left unprotected and she was literally broken into pieces by the crowds who came hunting for souvenirs. Whether she could have been repaired and re-flown will never be known.
The marriage of Amy Johnson and Jim Mollison did not survive much longer either. They were both egotists and both chasing the same records. Strains turned into cracks and the two were divorced in 1938.
Amy flew as a delivery pilot during the Second World War and was killed somewhere over the Thames Estuary while Jim turned more and more to alcohol. He lost his pilot's licence and died in October 1959.
Nowadays it seems incredible that aircraft capable of Trans-Atlantic flight could land and take off from Pendine Sands. But 80 years ago this month that is exactly what happened when Amy Johnson and Jim Mollison took to the air to set another new record.
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