Airship America's landmark crossing attempt recalled

  • Published
The America nears the Trent
Image caption,
The ship made it more than 1,000 miles before the crew were forced to abandon her in the Atlantic ocean

One hundred years ago to the day, a crew of six men and a cat left New Jersey in the first-ever attempt to cross the Atlantic in a powered flying machine.

Although the voyage of the Airship America ended in failure three days later, the effort gripped the world and hinted at what the future of air travel could hold.

The America flew out of Atlantic City on 15 October, 1910, after weeks of build-up and speculation over whether she would ever leave the ground.

Image caption,
The crew spent the 72-hour voyage crammed into a boat under the balloon

Murray Simon, the ship's British navigator, described the feeling in his logbook as the ship took off.

"We will make those blooming critics eat their own words," he wrote. "They have been hammering us for the last month, ridiculing our 'worn-out gas-bag,' and 'old coffee-mill for motor,' telling us we should never leave sight of land, that the wireless plant we carried is a mere bluff, and that all the men engaged to work the ship have 'cold feet.'"

"It was the aviation age, and this journey was front-page news," says Dr Tom Crouch, senior curator of the aeronautics division at the National Museum of Air and Space in Washington DC.

"Flying the Atlantic was an old dream, going back to the invention of the first air balloon in 1783. By 1910 they were in a place where they could attempt to do it - and in 1919 it actually happened."

Good luck mascot

Walter Wellman, a Midwestern newspaper man and explorer, was the driving force behind the adventure. He had tried before to reach the North Pole by airship, and this time newspapers funded his voyage.

The crew's first crisis was a howling protest from their good luck mascot, a cat named Kiddo.

Chief Engineer Mervin Vaniman stuffed Kiddo into a bag and attempted to lower it onto the motor launch following the airship. But the boat was too far behind and the cat was pulled back up again.

Murray Simon wrote: "You must never cross the Atlantic in an airship without a cat - more useful to us than any barometer."

Image caption,
Walter Wellman, the voyage's driving force, had been a newspaper man since his teens

From the moment its voyage across the Atlantic began, the America was making history. Using Marconi radio equipment, the first-ever message was sent between an aircraft and land. The crew spent most of the trip crammed into a lifeboat below the balloon - their radio room, bunk, dining quarters, and resting place for the cat.

The airship flew through thick fog, an alarming experience, as Murray Simon recorded.

"Sitting at the helm tired and anxious as we rush into the dense fog, unable to hear anything but the noise of our motors, I realize this trip is no picnic," he wrote.

Vanishing hopes

The crew remained focused on the airship's equilibrator, a 100m-long metal and wood tow rope filled with gasoline and designed to stabilise the craft during temperature changes.

Image caption,
The crew of six spent most of the voyage crammed into the lifeboat with a skittish cat named Kiddo

But on day two, as the wind and the seas picked up, the equilibrator began dragging the ship down "until the seas touch the lifeboat at times, straining at the car until we expect the ship to go to pieces at any moment".

"All our hopes of getting across seem to be vanishing," wrote Simon.

By the third day, the crew realized their dream of crossing the Atlantic was dying. The America had lost too much gas and could stay aloft for another 24 hours at most. They began to make plans to abandon the airship. On the morning of the fourth day, they were rescued by the mail steamship Trent just north-west of Bermuda.

Hero's welcome

"We are defeated in our attempt to reach Europe but we are not discredited," Simon wrote, noting the ship had travelled more than 1,000 miles (1,600km) and stayed aloft 72 hours. "We have established a record of which we are proud.

"We sacrificed the airship but we saved our lives, and above all, we have gathered a vast amount of useful knowledge which will help largely in the solution of big problems relating to the navigation of the air. And we also saved the cat!"

The crew returned to New York, where they were welcomed as heroes with a ticker tape parade and a banquet.

"My grandfather received marriage proposals from damsels captivated by his adventure," Anthony Simon, the navigator's grandson, tells the BBC. "Offers for vaudeville, lectures and articles rained down from the skies."

Image caption,
Murray Simon, the ship's British navigator, wrote "this trip is no picnic"

A New York department store, Gimbels, mounted a window display with the lifeboat and the cat in a golden cage, Mr Simon says.

Rather than being seen as a glorious failure, the America's journey showed what was possible and heralded future developments in military and civilian aviation, Dr Crouch of the National Air and Space museum says.

By 1915, it had paved the way for the world's first strategic bomber, the German Zeppelin.

"Walter Wellman was an incredible visionary who understood how aviation could connect Europe and America," Dr Crouch says.

The America "planted the notion in people's minds that although we can't do it now, it won't be too long before we can pull it off".

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