THE AIRSHIP AMERICA - THE FIRST TRANSATLANTIC CROSSING - 1910
It was the first attempt to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. On October 15 1910, the airship America, with a crew of six – and a cat – crept out of its hangar in Atlantic City and headed out to sea.
The voyage was being led by Walter Wellman, an American journalist and adventurer who had turned his attention to the vast ocean after being thwarted in his efforts to set records as a polar explorer.
With the airship craze in full swing, Wellman had also managed to persuade three newspapers – The Daily Telegraph and The New York Times among them – to finance the daring expedition.
One member of the America’s crew was especially excited. Murray Simon, a 29-year-old junior officer serving on the Oceanic, one of the many sister ships of the yet-to-be-launched Titanic, had been given special permission by his employers to become the America’s navigator.
Steering such a vessel would be no easy task. The airship was comprised of a cotton and silk balloon 228ft long, filled with hydrogen, beneath which ran a long slim ‘car’, or enclosed catwalk, which housed the crew as well as engines to power four propellers. The vessel was steered by a rudder at the stern and a wheel in the front of the car.
Slung beneath the car was a lifeboat and an ungainly, metal ‘tail’ called an equilibrator, which trailed 300ft behind the airship. It was designed to drag in the water and to hold the airship at a steady height.
The idea was that as the air temperature rose, the hydrogen in the balloon would expand, causing the airship to rise. This would pull the equilibrator from the water, making it heavier and controlling the ascent. When the temperature fell, the reverse would happen.
With favourable weather, the crew expected to reach land in northern Europe after around five days. As The Daily Telegraph reported: ‘Mr Simon has no preference for landing places. Hampstead Heath would suit as well as Salisbury Plain.’
The voyage was to make celebrities of its crew – feline as well as human. However, its ultimate failure meant that this remarkable and pioneering flight has since been overshadowed in the annals of aviation.
Now, 100 years on, its significance is being reappraised. A new, permanent display at the Smithsonian museum in Washington will mark the centenary, and on October 21, Anthony Simon, whose grandfather Murray, from Devon, was the navigator, is to give a presentation to the Zeppelin Museum, in Friedrichshafen, Germany, based on his relative’s light-hearted log of the expedition.
In the event, the expedition itself was delayed, and as the crew waited in Atlantic City for better weather, certain sections of the press became increasingly sceptical. When the America finally set off, on Saturday, October 15, Simon wrote in the log that it was time to ‘make those blooming critics eat their words’.
As the crew, which also included a radio operator, a chief engineer and two mechanics, climbed on board, Simon picked up a stray cat that had been living in the America’s hangar. Like many sailors, he was superstitious. ‘We can never have luck without a cat on board,’ he wrote.
Not everyone on board saw it that way and as the airship was being towed from the coast by a tug boat, Melvin Vaniman, the chief engineer, stuffed the cat into a bag and tried to lower it into the boat. However, the attempt to jettison the animal failed and it was dunked into the sea, before being pulled back onto the America.
Simon was relieved, opining that ‘you must never cross the Atlantic in an airship without a cat – more useful than a barometer’. Nevertheless, the animal did not appear to bless the voyage with luck. The crew were beset with problems with the engines and equilibrator, sometimes flying as low as 20ft. At one point, Vaniman accidentally released air rather than hydrogen, causing the balloon to shoot up from around 200ft to an altitude of 3,600ft.
He then opened the correct valve, bringing the airship plunging back down again. ‘Quite a fine sensation,’ Simon joked in the log, ‘the White City scenic railway being far outclassed.’ As the vessel moved out of range of the coast and other ships, the crew lost all radio contact. The world’s waiting press was left in the dark.
Despite all this, the airship initially made good progress towards Cape Cod, where, flying low, it narrowly avoided striking the masts of a passing schooner. However, it was then hit by a gale that pushed it first to the north-east and then in an arc back towards the US coast. By the end of the first day, the crew knew they would not cross the Atlantic. They also knew there was a hurricane heading north up the coast towards them.
Their salvation depended on crossing the path of a Royal Mail Ship, the Trent, which Simon knew was sailing from Bermuda to New York at the time. At 5am on the morning of October 18, when they were about 400 miles from the North Carolina coast, Wellman spotted the ship. Soon, the America’s crew were communicating with the Trent by Morse code and then by radio.
After a hazardous operation, with the airship being blown along at speeds of up to 25 knots, the lifeboat was eventually lowered safely into the sea, complete with all crew, including the cat. The airship, still airborne, and now considerably lighter, vanished over the horizon.
The Trent gave the crew safe passage to New York, where they were welcomed as heroes. ‘Kiddo’ the cat was especially well received and put on display in a gilded cage in the famous Gimbels department store. He later went to live a quieter existence with Wellman’s daughter, Edith.
Although the crew had not even got close to crossing the Atlantic, the 1,008-mile, 72-hour flight had broken many records – becoming the longest in terms of time and distance. The crew had also sent the first radio message from an airship to shore and to other ships, and achieved the first rescue of an airship crew at sea. The voyage had also taught aviators vital lessons about the problems of weight and power that would need to be overcome.
‘It was a brave adventure,’ says Anthony Simon, 65, of his grandfather’s attempt. ‘It taught the world a number of things about what does or doesn’t work in aviation.’
A year after the flight, Murray Simon set off on a lecture tour around Britain recounting his experiences. During the First World War he joined the Royal Navy, and remained in service until the early part of the Second World War, having reached the rank of Commander. Yet, according to Anthony, his grandfather lived the rest of his life in the shadow of the events of 1910.
‘Without any question, I feel that he was resentful, maybe even embittered, that the flight of the America was slightly overlooked and overshadowed,’ he says. ‘I think that this was a man who wanted to tell the story again and again.’
Murray may have felt that the 1910 expedition had been unjustly passed over, but he remained famous for his association with it, and in 1936, to his great joy, he was invited to fly on the maiden transatlantic voyage of the Hindenburg – at that time the biggest airship in existence.
‘Simon’s face beams when you ask him how he likes this cruise,’ wrote Louis P Lochner, a fellow passenger on the trip, in his diary. ‘“I vowed at the time that I’d fly across the Atlantic yet – and now that moment has come,” Simon said, “I’m supremely happy!”’
Two years earlier, Murray had left his wife, Louise, and severed all contact with their five children, his family apparently unhappy with his authoritarian approach to home life. This meant that although Anthony was 22 when Simon died, in 1969, he never met his grandfather. Indeed he knew nothing of his exploits until 2007, when a cousin discovered a copy of the logbook, which had featured in a 1911 book about flight by Wellman.
The pioneering nature of the 1910 voyage was proved by the fact that it would be almost a decade before the first successful flight across the Atlantic, in 1919 – and that was following technological advances precipitated by the First World War.
As for the America itself, no trace was ever found, although there were reported sightings of it from as far afield as South America and off the coast of Ireland, raising the slim but tantalizing prospect that it might actually have achieved a fabled transatlantic first.