Monday, October 15, 2012

Airship America

I have to tell two related stories about October the 15th. We're at a flight anniversary that gets neglected because its end was a failure, but the adventure was an amazing feat of daring. The anniversary also falls on a similar achievement in flight that's overshadowed by advances in aeronautics a century later.

Middle school history books promote the idea that the Age of Flight began with the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903, but people had been flying long before then. Another set of brothers, the Montgolfiers, worked on conquering flight more than a century before the Wrights.

Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier were the sons of a paper manufacturer in south central France. Joseph, a scruffy-looking guy who had an inventive streak, tried to come up with a workable method of attacking Gibraltar -- a British fortress said to be impenetrable. Joseph had the idea that perhaps soldiers could somehow be airlifted by the same force that drove burning embers up a chimney. He explained his idea to his business-minded brother Jacques-Étienne, and built a small paper model balloon that would capture hot air and lift objects via a frame built around the balloon. The model worked, and Joseph built larger and sturdier models based on his previous successes.
Scruffy Joseph-Michel, and suave Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier

In September of 1783, the marketing-oriented Jacques-Étienne went to Paris to sell the idea of human flight (in a much larger test balloon) to the Court of Louis XVI. Government contracts were as lucrative then as they are now, so hawking a high-tech vehicle to the highest levels of government made a lot of sense. Jacques-Étienne was a more polished guy than his nerdy brother Joseph, so he was the point man on construction and operations in the Paris venture.

King Louis was certainly interested, but concerned about the effects of altitude on humans. Could Jacques-Étienne try this new vehicle with condemned prisoners, before regular passengers were boarded? Jacques-Étienne refrained from the offer of human test subjects, choosing to launch a sheep, a duck, and a rooster instead. On September 19th, Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier's balloon lifted the menagerie to a height of 1,500 feet over Versailles. The sheep, duck, and rooster landed with no ill effects, so human air flights would soon commence.
A sheep, a duck, and a rooster get into a balloon...
 Thanks to the success of the mission, King Louis XVI commissioned the largest balloon built to date. It was 75 feet tall and more than 50 feet in diameter. The inner surface contained a volume of more than 60,000 cubic feet, which would be plenty to lift several men off the ground.

The public demonstration would be scheduled for late November of 1783. Of course, Jacques-Étienne would not risk the possibility of a public failure, so on October 15th, 1783, he climbed aboard the just-completed balloon and began a tethered flight to a height of 80 feet. That day, Monsieur Montgolfier became the first man to fly aboard an actual air vehicle.

Let's skip ahead through the next century. The Montgolfiers continued their hot air balloon experiments, while another set of brothers, Anne-Jean and Nicolas-Louis Robert, constructed hydrogen balloon vehicles. Hydrogen became the predominant lift method in ballooning, and was used in achievements such as crossing the English Channel in 1785. Speculative fiction about ballooning increased in popularity, with novels such as Jules Verne's Five Weeks in a Balloon laying out the possibilities of long-distance air flight.

Do yourself a favor and read the book instead of watching the movie.

While all this interest in ballooning continued through the 19th Century, the unexplored margins of the world began to be filled in. Sir  Richard Francis Burton explored the headwaters of the Nile, while Heinrich Barth investigated the deepest mysteries of Sudan and the Congo. While voyages on land and sea pushed back the edges of the unknown parts of the planet, it became obvious to many adventurers that aerial exploration could be faster and easier than terrestrial-based expeditions.

Walter Wellman was one such adventurer. A reporter, explorer, self-promoter, and general Type 'A' personality in the days before we had such classifications, Wellman wrote newspaper articles about his exploits for the Chicago Record-Herald. In 1892, Wellman journeyed to the supposed landing site of Christopher Columbus in the Bahamas and built a stone monument to note the 400th anniversary of the Santa Maria's arrival. In 1894, Wellman mounted an expedition to the North Pole from Svalbard, Norway, but only managed to get to 81° North Latitude. He made two further attempts in 1898 and 1899, but succeeded only in reaching 82° North Latitude.
Walter Flippin' Wellman

After the failure of the Norwegian expedition, Wellman decided that it would be more practical to launch a fast trip to the North Pole by balloon, bypassing the massive equipment logistics and spending weeks trudging through the arctic snows. In 1905, he announced that he would make an attempt at the North Pole in a French-built airship the following year. The voyage, named the "Wellman Chicago Record-Herald Polar Expedition,"would be funded by his employer's newspaper to the tune of $250,000. A French balloonist, Mutin Godard, designed Wellman's airship using the latest in ballooning technology.

Never sausage a ship.

Wellman's ship, named America, would be a sausage-shaped affair, with a leather tube ballast compartment running the length of its 165-foot base. Suspended from the sausage would be a metal gondola, capable of lifting a crew of five and three kerosene-fired engines. America was delivered to Wellman and his crew in Norway late in July of 1906. Unfortunately, when the crew attempted to attach the engines to the propellers, the gondola fell apart and the ship dismantled itself on the beach at Dane's Island. Wellman packed the whole thing up and shipped it back to Paris for improvements.
Back to the Paris drawing boards.

The next year, Wellman added an additional twenty feet of balloon length to improve the ship's lift capability, but the second attempt at the Pole failed after just two hours, when the crew couldn't maintain level flight with the balloon. The ship crash-landed in the sea, and the crew (and the ship's remains) were hauled onboard a fishing trawler.

The ship was a really popular image on cigarette packs.
By 1910, Wellman had decided to attempt a different balloon feat, in more temperate latitudes. His 1910 expedition would be the first attempt at a transatlantic crossing, from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to wherever in Europe it was possible to land. Wellman's patched-up America ship had been lengthened again, and a wireless transmitter had been installed in the gondola in order to maintain communication with his ground-based followers.
Looking out the back of the expanded "America" gondola.

Saturday, October 15, 1910, Walter Wellman and his crew launched America from the beach at Atlantic City.  Unlike the dry climate of Norway, though, the Jersey shore was very humid, and condensation on the surface of the balloon kept the ship from gaining altitude. Despite this early setback, the sunshine on the ship slowly evaporated the water from the damp balloon, and the America gained altitude.
The gondola was not really a great place for restless sleepers.

By Monday morning, though, things had turned extremely bad. The early morning brought a severe storm, making navigation nearly impossible. Later that morning, the overtaxed (and possibly beach sand-contaminated) engines seized up off the coast of New Hampshire, leaving the ship at the mercy of the weather. The crew ditched all excess weight, including the now-useless engines, and clung helplessly to the ship as America was blown south with prevailing winds.
The RMS Trent's last view of the "America."

On Wednesday, the crew found themselves just west of Bermuda. They spotted a Royal Mail steamship, the RMS Trent, and sent a distress signal in the first wireless communication between airship and sea vessel. After venting most of their hydrogen, the crew ditched their gondola in the ocean near the Trent. The entire airship crew, and a stowaway cat, were saved, but the America lifted into the air as the crew abandoned ship, and was never seen again.
The stowaway cat, "Kiddo" became a celebrity in NYC and lived at
Gimbel's Department Store for many years.

A successful transit of the Atlantic by air wouldn't occur until 1919, but Wellman's flight was an amazing first try. If his attempt actually succeeded, maybe we would be hailing Wellman as a pioneer like the Wright Brothers. Unfortunately for Wellman, the winds didn't blow the right way.


  1. I didn't know any of that. Thanks for the infotainment, much appreciated!

  2. Thanks, Brian. I'm trying to tell stories of the roads less-traveled, so I've created a list of a dozen "ignored" historical events for the rest of the year. Expect more of this ilk in the weeks to come.