A Brief History
On October 15, 1910, the non-rigid airship, America, set off from Atlantic City, New Jersey on the first attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean by humans in a powered aircraft. After a flight of over 1300 miles, not all in the right direction, and after a harrowing 71 hours of flight, the crew of 5 managed to signal a ship passing below them and along with their cat, entered the lifeboat carried aboard the airship and abandoned the ill fated blimp, watching it drift away never to be seen again.
The “genius” behind the record setting flight attempt was Walter Wellman, born in Mentor, Ohio in 1858. Wellman’s father was a veteran of the American Civil War and took his family to Nebraska after the war. Walter entered a career in journalism as a young adult, which took him to Cincinnati and then to Washington, D.C.. Wellman turned to the life of an explorer and adventurer, attempting an expedition to the North Pole and becoming enthralled by flying machines. In 1905, Wellman had the idea of a powered airship, with the technology of internal combustion engines coming into common use by this time. He went to France to have the America constructed, a balloon made of 3 layers of cloth and 3 layers of rubber, into a more or less cigar shaped craft powered by 3 gasoline engines driving 2 propellers, one forward and one aft. The engines made a total of about 80 horsepower. America was 165 feet long with a maximum diameter of 51 feet, capable of holding about a quarter million cubic feet of Hydrogen gas. Wellman’s intention was to fly the America over the North Pole, but his attempt never even got started, with trouble erecting the airship and engines that fell apart.
Never to be totally defeated, Wellman set his sights on a transatlantic flight, and had his airship sent to the United States. The grand expedition took off with a crew of 5 people and 1 cat in the gondola positioned under the gas bag. An innovation for the trans-oceanic flight was the inclusion of a primitive radio set aboard, and the gondola was equipped with a lifeboat in case the airship went down. The airship was enlarged for the flight, given a new capacity of 345,000 cubic feet of Hydrogen. Early in the flight, radio messages were sent from America, some of the first ever sent from the air to the ground. Apparently, it did not occur to Wellman or the crew that using a “spark gap” type radio was extremely dangerous on a Hydrogen filled airship!
The flight attempt ran into trouble almost right away. Water condensing on the skin of the balloon created unplanned for extra weight, and rough weather made navigation difficult. Engines failed as well, causing the crew to remove and discard one of the engines and start jettisoning excess weight. About 71 hours into the flight, the crew spotted the RMS Trent below, and used their radio and a Morse code signal lamp to report their distress, probably the first instance of an aircraft signaling a ship about an emergency. Enough gas was let out of the envelope to allow the airship to get to water level and the crew to abandon the airship. The Trent almost ran over the lifeboat in the heavy winds! Crew and cat were saved, but the America was gone and lost, never to be found, at least not yet. Not until 1919 were people able to successfully cross the Atlantic Ocean by powered aircraft.
In 1912, another attempt to cross the Atlantic by airship was made, this time in the airship Akron (named after the city in Ohio), an American built airship, which sadly exploded on its test flight, killing the entire crew. Among the dead was Captain Chester Melvin Vaniman, who had been a crew member of the America transatlantic attempt.
Wellman spent his final years in New York City, dying of liver cancer in 1934. A Liberty ship was named in his honor during World War II.
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you know who made the first successful powered flight across the Atlantic? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Bissonette, Evans. Explorer!: The Adventures of Walter Wellman. CreateSpace, 2016.
Bristow, David. Flight to the Top of the World: The Adventures of Walter Wellman. University of Nebraska Press, 2018.
Crouch, Tom. Lighter Than Air: An Illustrated History of Balloons and Airships. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by George Grentham Bain of Airship America, from the rescue Steamship Trent during the Atlantic crossing in Oct. 1910, is from the George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress. According to the library, there are no known copyright restrictions on the use of this work. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ggbain.08853.