Seaton, East Devon

From: Chapter XXII – August, One Summer – America 1927 (2013), by Bill Bryson:

“Although neither (William S. “Billy”) Brock nor (Edward F.) Schlee had any experience of distance flying, they set themselves the ambitious goal of circling the world in just fifteen days. Their plane was a Stinson Detroiter powered by a Wright Whirlwind engine. They took off the day after (Paul) Redfern, and for the next two and a half weeks their exploits gripped the world – largely because they were so constantly and thrillingly operating at the very edge of their competence. They successfully flew the Atlantic – a notable achievement in itself, of course – but had no idea where they were when they got to the other side. Passing over a beach crowded with holidaymakers, they dropped a message asking the name of the locality. A man with a stick obligingly traced the name “SEATON” in the sand and pointed to a Union Jack fluttering over the promenade. With their location fixed, they proceeded to a triumphant reception in London…”

On his UK Airfields & Airports site (website design by Lee Merritt) Richard J. Flute comments on this passage:

“Presumably then, they must have had a pretty decent map, but one is left wondering – why didn’t they choose the nearby town of Sidmouth instead for asking directions? Presumably there would have been plenty of holidaymakers on the beach there? Anyway, Bryson tells us; “With their location fixed they proceeded to a triumphant reception in London.” “

Which in turn led me to wonder if the Seaton in question might alternatively have been the one in Cornwall…

Dick Flute was prompt and generous in his reply when I got in touch:

Regarding Seaton in Cornwall, in those days it was just a small village, (not much bigger now), and was not a resort.

 I suspect, but only suspect, that it could well have been that they had been flying over fog, perhaps combined with a layer of low cloud. This would certainly explain why they had flown across or near to Cornwall before seeking directions.

 I have personal experience of how quickly sea fog can form so quickly, and not just in this region, even during summer months. For example, when attending a Fly-in at Bolt Head in Devon I had flown a quick circuit to take some aerial pictures of the aircraft attending the Fly-in. Not long after, we packed ourselves into the aircraft to fly home – this time I was sitting in the back-seat. As soon as we reached the end of runway we entered into sea-fog – and our pilot held his nerve, (I was glued to the instruments to monitor his flying and offer some advice)  and we did a slow turn inland, when it cleared, and we then flew a quick low-level circuit and landed – to stay the night.

 Either way, be it sea fog or low cloud, it is quite possible that Sidmouth was obscured, whereas SEATON was clear. Hence the very sensible precaution to try and ascertain exactly where they were ASAP.

 Needless to say, I couldn’t go into this in the ‘Guide’ as it is only supposition. But at least the question can be asked.

 Just in case you are interested, I have had two close encounters with sea fog on the north coast of France in August needing to divert and land very quickly. The two regions, on either side of the English Channel, both share this potential hazard.

 But I see I haven’t answered your second question. “Why would Sidmouth be the natural choice?” This is simply because Sidmouth is a much larger town with distinctive features – much more so than Seaton.

 When flying around at low level, it makes sense to pick on really distinctive features to confirm your position. These can be many and varied of course.


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