Six airship pioneers and a cat over the Atlantic, 100 years ago today

On Saturday morning October 15, 1910 Walter Wellman and his five-man crew set off on their daring attempt to cross the Atlantic in the airship 'America'...

They were tired yet content to be on their way at last after weeks of waiting in Atlantic City. Europe was their destination, especially Ireland or England.

"I don’t mind where we land", said navigator Murray Simon on leave from the White Star Line. "Hampstead Heath or Salisbury Plain would be just fine". On board there was also a stowaway: a cat.

1Walter Wellman was the driving force behind this adventure. This was not his first attempt to achieve something extraordinary as an explorer. He had been a journalist since his teens and employed since many years by the Chicago Herald as their Washington correspondent. With enormous energy and an iron will he had succeeded on a number of occasions in mobilising his broad network of contacts to finance half-crazy projects.

This time, after Wellman’s failures to be first to reach the North Pole in previous versions of the `America´, three powerful newspapers (the Chicago Herald, New York Times and Daily Telegraph of London) put up the necessary finances. Now he wanted to be the first to cross the Atlantic by air. And it became a sort of world event which these and other jealous newspapers followed, commented and criticised during September and October 1910.

On September 10, 1910 the New York Times had written: `Sailor to Pilot Wellman Airship. Junior Officer Simon of Oceanic gets Leave of Absence for Across the Atlantic Flight. Has no Fear of the Winds´.

Murray Simon was the only Englishman on board and was also the only crew member with the feel and experience of the unpredictable weather conditions of the Atlantic. He made an important contribution and documented his experiences during the flight with objectivity and humour in a logbook. He even took photos which, together with the contents of the logbook, will be an important part of a presentation by his grandson to the Zeppelin Museum on October 21, 2010 in Friedrichshafen Germany.

The waiting time was tough. There were problems with parts of the equipment and, in particular, with the weights. The British life-boat was admirable but much heavier than specified. The infamous `equilibrator´ (a 100 metre long metal and wood tow-rope filled with gasoline) was considered vital to stabilise the airship during temperature changes but received very mixed comments from the Press. The weather was unusually poor and many were convinced that it was just another Wellman bluff and that they would never fly.

The sceptics, however, underestimated the stubborn Wellman and his courageous fellow travellers. Early on October 15 the airship was hauled out of its hangar outside Atlantic City and equipped with life-boat and `equilibrator´. At 08.00 it disappeared above the sea into the fog on course for Europe. The fate of the howling cat which Murray Simon had protected in the hangar was delegated by Wellman to chief engineer Vaniman. Vaniman stuffed the cat into a bag and lowered it towards the sea, trying to hand over to the motor launch which was following them. It was too late. He had to pull the cat back up again in its bag onto the ship. As Simon wrote in his logbook: `You must never cross the Atlantic in an airship without a cat – more useful than a barometer´.

Wellman and his crew believed that with a bit of luck they would need five to six days to reach Europe. Unfortunately for different reasons they did not come anywhere near the European continent. But they remained seventy-two hours in the air over the Atlantic and travelled a distance of 1008 miles before being picked up and saved with much luck and effort by the British mailship Trent north-west of Bermuda. The first day of the flight brought fog and significant engine problems. The second day brought gale-force winds and the miraculous `equilibrator´ turned into a nightmare. On the third day they found themselves in sunshine but without power. They had had to jettison as much as possible into the sea during the first two days in order to stay aloft. This included the big engine which never really worked properly, gasoline, equipment, food, etc.

The rescue itself was successfully accomplished thanks to the skill of the crew of the Trent and the professional competence of Murray Simon. He writes: `My shipmates seem to favour sliding down a rope onto the Trent’s deck. I urged my views with much sailor language and finally it was decided to launch the boat´.

The crew of the `America´ and the cat were brought back to New York City by the Trent. There as well as later in Atlantic City they were treated as heroes. In New York they were housed in the Waldorf-Astoria and given a `ticker-tape parade´. They received best wishes from President Taft. Regrettably he could not attend the festivities in Atlantic City. The cat in the life-boat was put on display in GIMBEL’S. Offers for vaudeville, lectures, articles, marriage proposals etc. rained down upon them!

Wellman and his crew did not make it to Europe this time but they did break various records. For instance, not just for distance and time in the air but also for the first radio message sent between an aircraft of any kind and land (on Marconi equipment), and for the first air-sea rescue of an aircraft, also using radio. Navigator Murray Simon ended his logbook with the following words:

  • Our reception has been far beyond our deserts.
  • Defeated in our attempt to reach Europe but not discredited.
  • Establishing a record of which we are proud.
  • Covered 1008 miles and in the air 72 hours.
  • Sacrificed our airship but saved our lives.
  • Gathered a vast amount of useful knowledge.
  • And we also saved the cat!

Walter Wellman immediately wrote lots about this adventure. This included reflections on future military applications of airships in war, specifically their potential role as deterrents. Mervin Vaniman tried once again two years later to cross the Atlantic in the airship Akron using the same America life-boat. Unfortunately he lost his life and those of all the crew.

Only the life-boat was saved - for the second time. She spent 98 years in a Goodyear warehouse and will soon be put on permanent display by the Smithsonian near Washington alongside the Concorde! The cat (named Kiddo) spent a quiet life with Edith Wellman, one of Wellman’s daughters. Murray Simon died in South Devon in 1969 at the age of 87. The 'America' saga had impacted all his life. In May 1936 he was invited as a lecturer to fly on the official maiden voyage of the Hindenburg across the Atlantic. His subject: the 'America' over the Atlantic in 1910!