In 1910 the airship America made the first attempt in history to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air.
Designed and flown by Walter Wellman and Melvin Vaniman, among a crew of six, the airship left Atlantic City, New Jersey on October 15, 1910. The crew abandoned both the flight and the airship after 71-1/2 hours and were rescued by a passing steamship.
Origins of America:
Walter Wellman and the North Pole
America was originally built to fly to the North Pole and was commissioned by American journalist Walter Wellman (1858-1934).
Wellman had started a weekly newspaper in Sutton, Nebraska when he was just 14 years old and a few years later, in 1879, he founded the the Cincinnati Evening Post. In 1884 he became the Washington correspondent for the Chicago Herald but his real obsession was finding the North Pole. Wellman made three polar expeditions by land — in 1894, 1898, and 1899 — but failed to reach his goal and decided it would be better to try by air.
In 1905 Wellman formed the “Wellman Chicago Record-Herald Polar Expedition Company” with a $75,000 investment from his newspaper and the support of adventure-loving President Theodore Roosevelt. Within a year Wellman had raised the funds to commission a 50.3 meter non-rigid airship from the Godard family of France — famous for their balloons — and he built an airship hangar and base camp on Dane’s Island (DanskÃ¸ya) off the coast of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago of Norway.
The America of 1906: Built for the North Pole
Wellman named the airship America. It arrived at his camp on July 8, 1906, but the engines failed before Wellman could attempt a flight to the Pole. Wellman crated the deflated blimp and returned it to France where the airship was enlarged to 56.4 meters in length, with a gas volume of 7,600 cubic meters, and equipped with a 75 hp Lorraine-Dietrich engine.
Wellman returned to Norway with the rebuilt airship in 1907, along with experienced aeronaut Melvin Vaniman as his mechanic and Felix Reisenberg as his navigator. America left its hangar for a polar flight in September, 1907, but was forced down by a squall after only 20 miles. Once again the airship was crated and returned to France for repairs.
Wellman and America returned to Norway again in 1909 and attempted a flight to the Pole, but the airship was forced down after only 40 miles.
The America of 1910: Rebuilt for the Atlantic
When Wellman learned of Robert Peary’s claim to have reached the North Pole in 1909 he abandoned his polar dreams but he did not abandon his airship: Wellman shipped America back to the United States on the White Star liner Oceanic and organized an attempt to cross the Atlantic by air for the first time in history. With Vaniman as his engineer, Wellman modified and enlarged America for a transatlantic flight.
The rebuilt airship was now 228 feet in length and 52 feet in diameter, with a volume of 345,000 cubic feet; the envelope was three layers of fabric — silk and cotton — bonded together with a rubber emulsion to prevent gas leakage.
The airship had a rigid structure beneath the envelope that was referred to as a “car.” More like a catwalk than a keel, the 156-foot framework was made of steel tubing forming a triangular truss, at the base of which was a steel fuel tank with a capacity of 1,500 gallons of gasoline. The assembly hung from 80 steel cables attached to a belt sewn into the cloth of the envelope.
The car was fully enclosed in doped fabric and housed the airship’s navigation bridge, propulsion engines, crew quarters (which were not much more than sleeping benches), and a 10-12 hp donkey engine that powered a blower to inflate the airship’s six ballonets, cranked the main engines, and provided electric power for lighting and the ship’s radio.
The airship had two propulsion engines: A 80-90 hp Lorraine-Dietrich automobile engine driving two 12-foot wooden propellers at 500 RPM, and an eight cylinder E.N.V. engine driving two 10.5-foot wooden propellers at 750 RPM. Wellman’s plan was to operate with one engine at a time, allowing maintenance to be performed on the other engine.
In a remarkable innovation, the 10.5-foot propellers were mounted on a swiveling bevel that could be adjusted to provide thrust upward or downward as well as forward.
Slung beneath the car was a 27 ft. mahogany-and-canvas lifeboat that the crew could use in an emergency and which also contained a spark radio apparatus for wireless communication.
Wellman estimated that the airship had a “lifting force” of 23,650 pounds by calculating that the ship displaced 345,000 cubic feet of air, weighing 25,800 pounds, and carried the same volume of hydrogen, weighing 2,150 pounds. He provided the following breakdown of the airship’s weight in his 1911 book The Aerial Age:
One of the airship’s most unusual features was a device that Wellman and Vaniman called an “equilibrator,” a wood and metal tail designed to drag in the water to keep the airship at a constant height.
The equilibrator was intended as an alternative to ballast; rather than dropping ballast to compensate for the loss of lift as the airship cooled at night, the equilibrator would allow weight to rest on the surface of the ocean rather than being jettisoned.
The device was a 300-foot long steel cable with 30 steel tanks containing gasoline and 40 wooden blocks. Each steel tank was 4-feet long and 9 inches in diameter and weighed about 100 pounds when filled with gasoline; the concave end of one tank fit into the convex end of another, like a ball and socket joint, and was padded with felt to absorb shocks and minimize wear and abrasion. The far end of the device consisted of 40 solid wooden blocks, tapering in diameter like the tail of a snake, that would float on the surface.
Wellman and Vaniman’s idea was that as the airship lost lift at night, and settled toward the surface, the equilibrator would descend into the ocean; for every four feet the airship descended one gasoline tank would be lowered into the sea, reducing the airship’s load by 100 pounds and ultimately checking the ship’s descent. When the airship gained lift during the warmth of the day and began to rise, it would lift a number of the gasoline tanks into the air, increasing the ship’s load and thus checking its ascent.
Wellman described the device in his 1911 book about the flight:
Thus the steel serpent becomes an automatic governor upon the upward and downward move ments of the ship due to meteorological changes. Hence the name “equilibrator” or “stabilizator.” The huge snake and its valuable stuffing is really ballast which may be used over and over again without ever losing it.
It is unnecessary to carry sand or water to throw overboard. Our serpent, if he behaves as well as a well-made reptile ought, should hold the America at an altitude of from 150 to 250 feet above the ocean, save us ballast””which means fuel””on one hand, save us gas on the other, and enable us to prolong the voyage from the forty-eight hours practicable without a serpent to the seven or nine or ten days which may be required for crossing the Atlantic.
Walter Wellman’s The Aerial Age (Chapter 31)
America’s Attempt to Cross the Atlantic
America departed Atlantic City, New Jersey, at 8:00 on the morning of Saturday, October 15, 1910, heading for Europe.
“While the plan is to follow the steamer tracks the best we can,” Wellman told reporters, “we do not aim to make a landing at any particular place, nor even in any particular country. Any spot between Gibraltar and the North Cape will look good to us.”
Wellman had assembled a crew of six to cross the Atlantic: Melvin Vaniman as chief engineer; mechanics Frederic B. Aubert and Louis Loud as assistant engineers; Murray Simon, junior officer of the White Star liner Oceanic, as navigator; and Jack R. Irwin as radio operator.
The ship carried a mascot as well. Like many sailors, navigator Murray Simon was superstitious and picked up a stray cat who had been living in America’s hangar. “We can never have luck without a cat on board,” he said. Kiddo became the first cat ever to attempt to cross the Atlantic by air.
At a speed of 20 miles per hour it was expected that the airship could cross the Atlantic in six days, but just four hours after departure one of the ship’s two engines failed, likely due to the lack of a flywheel to dampen vibrations. The crew decided to proceed with just the remaining engine but additional problems soon became obvious; when the darkness of Saturday night fell it became apparent, for the first time, that the hydrogen airship’s engine threw significant sparks. Because the ship had been traveling through a thick fog the fabric of its envelope was wet, reducing the danger of fire, but the hazard was obvious.
America made reasonable progress for the first two days of its flight, eventually reaching a point northeast of Cape Cod by Sunday afternoon, but as the flight progressed it became necessary to jettison gasoline to reduce weight and when the cool air of Sunday night shrank the gas inside the envelope it became necessary to drop even more fuel, along with the damaged engine, just to stay aloft.
On Monday morning the hot sun warmed and expanded the airship, causing it to ruse. According to Wellman’s account, Vaniman accidentally valved air rather than hydrogen, causing the ship to rise even more rapidly to 3,000 feet, with the ultimate loss of 1/17th the ship’s hydrogen.
The wind then changed direction and strengthened, and with only one engine the airship was pushed southward, off course, toward a point south of where it had departed.
It became obvious that the flight could not be continued: Even if the airship survived the next day, when the cool air of Tuesday night contacted the airship’s hydrogen it would not be able to stay aloft.
Wireless operator Irwin began sending the CQD distress signal Monday night but got no response. It was the first radio distress call ever sent from an aircraft.
On Tuesday morning the crew was able to attract the attention of a steamship with a Morse lamp and informed the ship they had a wireless set aboard; the steamer’s wireless operator, Louis Ginsberg, was awakened, and when Ginsberg and America’s radio operator, Jack Irwin, began communicating, Irwin informed the ship that America’s crew were going to abandon the airship and requested assistance.
The six crew members and Kiddo the cat entered the lifeboat and detached it from the airship; without the weight of the boat, the airship shot up in the air and drifted out of sight, never to be seen again.
The steamship — the SS Trent, a British steamer of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company bound for New York from Bermuda — picked up the crew of America, including Kiddo, along with the airship’s lifeboat, and carried them to New York.
Although America failed to cross the Atlantic as planned, the airship accomplished records both for time in the air — 71-1/2 hours — as well as distance, having travelled 1,008 miles.
William Wellman retired from aviation after America’s unsuccessful flight. He wrote about his airship adventures in a book published in 1911, The Aerial Age; A Thousand Miles by Airship over the Atlantic Ocean. Wellman died in 1934.
Melvin Vaniman made another attempt to cross the Atlantic in 1912 in the Goodyear-built airship Akron. Akron ignited and crashed shortly after departing Atlantic City on July 2, 1912, killing Vaniman and his four crew members.
The lifeboat used by America was also used on Akron. It was salvagde from the wreck and shipped back to Goodyear where it spent the next 98 years in storage. Goodyear donated the lifeboat to the National Air and Space museum in 2010.
Kiddo the cat was put on display at Gimbels department store in New York after being rescued from America. He lived the rest of his life quietly with Wellman’s daughter Edith.
- Wellman, W. The Aerial Age. New York, NY. A.R. Keller & Company (1911).
- Ventry & Kolesnik. Jane’s Pocket Book of Airships. Collier Books (1977).
- “Airships in the Arctic.” Arctic, September, 1993: v. 46, no. 3, 278-283.
- “Proposed Transatlantic Airship Flight.” Scientific American, October 1, 1910: 259.
- “Story of the Wellman Ocean Air Trip.” Scientific American, October 29, 1910: 340.
- Dilks, J. “Jack Irwin, Marconi Wireless Man,” QST, August, 2010.
- Dilks, J. “The First Air-going Wireless Man” and “Jack Irwin and the Airship America,” QST, September, 2010.
- Dilks, J. “The CQD and Rescue,” QST, November, 2010.