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Early Airships

In 1907 and 1909, newspaperman and adventurer Walter Wellman tried unsuccessfully to fly over the North Pole in his non-rigid airship built by Mutin Godard in France (top photo, right). When he learned that USN officer Robert E. Peary reached the pole in 1909 (today it's generally believed that Peary did not reach the North Pole), Wellman scrapped his polar plans and decided to make the first aerial transatlantic crossing.


His airship, America, was lengthened (bottom photo, right), filled with hydrogen, and took-off for Europe from Atlantic City, New Jersey on October 15, 1910. The America was propelled by gasoline engines, used a drag line or 'equilibrator' to help maintain steady altitude, and had a wireless radio station in its lifeboat suspended below the ship. Wireless operator Jack Irwin likely participated in the first wireless communication between land and an airship over the sea.


The transatlantic crossing was unsuccessful due to engine failure and weather but America managed to cover 1008 miles by both powered flight and free ballooning. On October 18th, Irwin sent the first aerial radio distress call CQD (used prior to SOS) to the passing surface vessel Trent which rescued the crew between New York and Bermuda. The photo above was taken from the Trent after the crew escaped in the lifeboat. The photo below shows the America crew in Atlantic City, NJ prior to embarking on their attempted transatlantic flight on October 15, 1910.


Wellman's obituary from Time Magazine, Feb. 12, 1934:

As it must to all men, Death came last week to Walter Wellman, 75, old-time Polar explorer, who tried to fly the Atlantic when Charles Lindbergh was eight years old.


At the Century's turn Walter Wellman was an adventuring journalist. Having discovered the exact landing place of Columbus, and led two unsuccessful searches for the North Pole, he persuaded Publisher Frank B. Noyes in 1906 to put up $75,000 for an airship flight to the Pole. The money paid for the dirigible America I, in which Explorer Wellman & party collided with a glacier. Two years later America II also got into trouble. Before America II could make another try, Peary reached the Pole afoot and Explorer Wellman lost interest. However, his Arctic experience enabled him to sense, prove, and write a famed report of Dr. Frederick Cook's monumental hoax.


Against such a background Walter Wellman became the talk of two continents when in 1910 he attempted to fly from Atlantic City to Europe in the rebuilt America, with a crew of five and a mascot kitten. The America had a bag 228 ft. long filled with hydrogen generated from sulphuric acid and iron filings. She carried a long control car, the keel of which was a cylindrical fuel tank. From it were suspended a lifeboat and a long cable trailing a cluster of 30 hollow steel cylinders. This last device, called an "equilibrator," was supposed to touch the water, keeping the dirigible at an altitude of 200 ft. If the warm sun should cause the ship to rise, the equilibrator would act as ballast. There were two 80-h. p. engines.


The America took off on a Saturday morning, amid intense public excitement. She chugged out to sea, sent four wireless messages (the first from aircraft) including one reporting that the kitten had jumped overboard and was rescued by a rope. A shifting wind drove the ship off her northeast course. The equilibrator bounced from wave to wave, threatened to wreck the ship. Early Tuesday morning, after traveling 1,008 mi., the America sighted a steamer which came alongside, took Capt. Wellman, crew & kitten aboard.


The America vanished into the skies. Walter Wellman never went aloft again. He wrote prolifically for a few years, then lapsed into complete obscurity in his Manhattan home. Few months ago cancer of the liver laid him low.

Read more about airship America from John Dilks' Vintage Radio column in QST Magazine:

Part I

Part II

Part III

After the Rescue

More on Irwin

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