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Thousands of people waited anxiously for the British airship R.34 to arrive on the morning of July 6, 1919, at Hazelhurst Field, at Mineola, New York. Looking like a huge aerial whale, it glided into view. What happened next is described by Grover Loening in his book Take Off Into Greatness. As the airship ‘floated stationary over the field at an altitude of 1,000 feet, a sudden burst of white fell from its control cabin… in a moment the object opened into a parachute, and with a chic that only the English can put over, the R.34 executive officer landed lightly and unconcerned in full be-ribboned uniform, carrying a swagger-stick.’

Major J.E.M Pritchard’s unique arrival had a serious purpose. No one on the field was qualified to handle the landing of a large airship. Pritchard volunteered, took command and efficiently organized the landing party while R.34 made a circuit of the field. With engines stopped and propellers in the horizontal position, she was carefully eased into the hands of the landing party at 9:50 a.m.

R.34 had flown the Atlantic ocean in 108 hours and 12 minutes from its base at East Fortune, near Edinburgh, Scotland. The flight was a landmark in aviation history, though in 1919 it seemed a natural progression in the onward march of aviation.

Although the rigid airship-constructed with gasbags inside a frame strengthened with a keel-was considered a failure in war, it was now seen as a potential passenger carrier. A meeting at the Air Ministry in London on March 4, 1919, discussed a flight to test its suitability for that role. On March 13, Alan R. Hawley, president of the Aero Club of America, invited the Air Ministry to send an airship to Atlantic City, N.J., to attend a muster of aviation groups to be held in May.

The Admiralty, which owned the airship, ceded to the Air Ministry the responsibility for the flight, and the new airship R.34 was chosen. The purpose of the flight was to obtain information about flying conditions over the Atlantic and to demonstrate the airship’s capability on long voyages. Strict conditions of acceptance imposed by the Air Ministry were beyond the scope of the Aero Club. The U.S. Navy agreed to provide R.34 with hydrogen gas, supplies and other facilities.

The chosen route, some 3,000 nautical miles, began at East Fortune, continuing via Newfoundland to New York. The Admiralty sent the battlecruisers HMS Renown and Tiger to provide weather forecasts along the route. In London a control room was established. The Americans did not have experience with rigid airships, so two Royal Air Force (RAF) officers, Lt. Col. F.W. Lucas and Major H.C. Fuller, with eight experienced airmen, were sent to form the nucleus of a handling party.

Fostered by the press, public interest in Britain and the United States grew. The London Times commented, ‘there would be only ginger beer to drink in America but the crew of the R.34 would get a hearty reception.’ The Times correspondent in New York reported: ‘the… flight has put the city in a flutter of excitement. Discussion has entirely superseded [the prospect of] Prohibition as the… preoccupation of the bulk of the citizens.’ He added, ‘there will be enormous crowds… which has led the authorities to issue elaborate regulations for the handling of the thousands of spectators and motor-cars.’

Success depended on the 30 experienced RAF men, with their army-style ranks, flying in a naval airship. They were led by Major George Herbert Scott, an Air Force Cross recipient who was also an experienced and skilled airship officer. His wife, Jenie, the daughter of the senior yard manager of William Beardmore and Company, (builders of R.34) at their site at Inchinan, Scotland, when asked if the flight concerned her, replied: ‘My father built her, my husband commands her. Why should I worry?’ This trust showed in the crew, who never doubted that they would succeed, asking only, ‘How long will it take?’

The crew included three officers with special duties. The most senior, Brig. Gen. E.M. Maitland, a professional soldier and experienced balloonist, had in 1908 made a record-breaking balloon flight of 1,117 miles from London to Mataki Derevni, in Russia. Considered by many the father of military ballooning in England, Maitland was strong and adventurous. His attitude about the Atlantic voyage was, ‘What more wonderful or more delightful adventure could anyone be called upon to undertake?’

Lieutenant Commander Zachary Lansdowne represented the U.S. Navy. In his definitive work, Giants in the Sky, Douglas H. Robinson said Lansdowne was ‘an officer of the highest professional qualification and an unforgettable figure in the history of the rigid airship.’ (Sadly, while serving as commander of the airship USN Shenandoah, he would be killed when the craft broke up over Ava, Ohio, early on September 3, 1925.)

Major J.E.M Pritchard, an experienced airship officer, had an unusual background. English by birth, American by descent, his father had left America after the defeat of the Confederacy. Pritchard was R.34‘s photographer.

The crew were experienced and dedicated servicemen, mainly riggers and engineers. The riggers’ hazardous tasks included the continuous maintenance of the airship’s gasbags with patches of rubber solution. Singing and whistling were encouraged, because a change in tone indicated escaping gas. A dangerous aspect of their work required a walk along the spine of the airship to inspect the skin and gas valves. A rope was attached to them for safety, but most riggers were skilled in walking without the rope, leaning into the wind.The engineers had a difficult, dirty and noisy time of it. The temperamental engines, constantly troublesome, required ‘mothering’ to keep them operational-pumping fuel, cleaning and repairing.

The crew were divided into two watches, port and starboard. All wore heavy-duty flying suits that incorporated life-saving collars and a parachute harness. The parachutes hung in their packs from girders in accessible places.

Meal times were crucial. The watch going on duty ate first, followed half an hour later by the men coming off duty. The schedule was breakfast at 7:30 a.m., with lunch at 11:30 a.m., tea at 3:30 p.m. and dinner at 7:30 p.m. The food was basic but filling. Beef, ham, eggs and potatoes were precooked. Plenty of bread, cheese, jam, fruitcake, chocolate and tinned milk supplemented the diet, while drinks consisted of Oxo, Bovril, tea and cocoa, along with plenty of drinking water.

East Fortune, Scotland, lay under low cloud and mist, and a slight, cold wind blew from the north-east early on the morning of July 2, 1919. R.34, surrounded by the handlers, was ready in her floodlit hanger. The crew, comfortable after a midnight meal, settled at their stations. Scott, assured that all was correct, signaled, and a heavy tractor pulled the massive doors apart. ‘Walk her out!’ Scott ordered, and a bugler emphasized the command. The airship slid out, and once clear she was turned into the wind. The engines fired at 1:42 a.m. Scott ordered the start, the ropes were released and the hull lifted slowly. Engine clutches engaged, the engines roared and, nose-up, R.34 disappeared into the clouds.

The airship was heavily laden, even after a quarter of the main water-ballast was dropped. But with all engines working hard, Scott maintained height on a course set to the west. Keeping south of the Lennox Hills, Stirlingshire, they flew through the night along the Firth of Forth on to Glasgow, arriving at dawn, and then proceeded down the Clyde River, where they encountered rough weather.

Once they were over the ocean, the clear skies changed to rolling mist. Scott tried to avoid it by going low, but he was compelled to climb, flying at an attitude of 12 degrees to maintain height. Moisture permeated everything; the crew would endure cold and dampness throughout much of the flight.

It was particularly hard for William Ballantyne, 22, a former member of the crew. Left behind, he had sneaked on board, hiding on a girder between gasbags 6 and 7 above the crew’s quarters, feeling cold and ill.

Maitland, in his diary The Log of HMA R.34, described what happened when Ballantyne was discovered. ‘Scott came to my hammock… stowaway on board… cannot help sympathizing with his motive… bad from disciplinary point of view… risking the success of the flight… had there been land beneath us instead of ocean we would put him off at once in a parachute.’ Instead, Ballantyne ‘worked’ his passage by acting as a cook and pumping oil.

The misty weather of the first afternoon gave way to thinning clouds, at which point the crew could make navigational sightings. Scott’s task was like that of an old-time sailing master, where a delicate balancing act of all the forces-temperature, wind, lift and weight-was needed. Flair was required, and Scott possessed it.

It was not all work and discomfort, however. Their first tea that day was, as Maitland described it, ‘bread and butter, greengage jam and two cups of scalding tea which has been boiled over an exhaust pipe ‘cooker’ fitted to the forward engine.’ Entertainment was provided by a gramophone, on which they enjoyed listening to the ‘latest Jazz tunes.’

Weather reports from the two naval cruisers enabled Scott and his meteorological officer, Lieutenant G. Harris, to plan ahead. Harris observed unusual cirrus clouds to their southwest and identified them as the first sign of a depression moving north. It was good news, as Scott hoped to take advantage of a good tail wind.

At 3:30 p.m. 2nd Lt. R.F. Durrant, the wireless officer, managed to communicate with St. Johns’s, Newfoundland, although the signal was quite faint. They were still in contact with East Fortune and Clifden, a radio station on the Irish west coast.

That evening the weather grew colder. Flying at 3,000 feet, R.34 was plunging in and out of the clouds, and the airship’s gas was cooling. To maintain altitude, the crew had to keep all engines at full throttle to drive her at an uncomfortable nose-up angle.

They reached the halfway point across the Atlantic Ocean at about 9 a.m. on July 3, but the bad weather persisted. However, there were a few idyllic moments. Maitland described one such time, when ‘the deep blue of the sea being matched by the light blue of the sky.’ The stand-down watch was occasionally able to relax in the fresh air at the stern. Some sat on top of the hull, backs against the tailfin.

According to Maitland’s diary, R.34 was soon creeping through swirling fog ‘in a stranglehold of grey darkness’ that later turned to gale conditions with fierce gusts and heavy rain. The crew had to bellow to be heard above the hammering of the airship, which developed water leaks that soaked everything. Throughout it all, R.34 remained stable, with a slow, pitching motion.

Wireless traffic was brisk throughout the flight. At this point in the journey, greetings arrived from the governor of Newfoundland and the Canadian Pacific Railway. They seemed premature to R.34‘s officers, who were still struggling to reach North America’s coast.

Everyone on board was alert for the first sight of land. At 12:50 p.m. on July 4, Scott spotted some small islands lying off the east coast of Newfoundland. Maitland recorded it as ‘the most thrilling moment of our voyage-successfully accomplished the first stage… the first to bridge the gulf from east to west by way of the air.’

They reached Newfoundland at Trinity Bay, where they looked down on an awesome wilderness of bleak lakes and dark forests. Patrick Abbott, in his book Airship, makes an interesting point: ‘the loneliness was in marked contrast to the condition experienced by the men… crammed together in the restricted living quarters… there was no privacy… most of the men were not only unshaven, but also distinctly dirty, for the supply of fresh water [was] very much depleted.’ They still had 1,000 miles to go.

At Fortune Bay, Newfoundland, the crew dropped a package of letters. One man threw overboard a postcard addressed to his wife in Scotland. Surprisingly, she actually received it-although it was somewhat battered-three months later.

R.34 flew on southwest, toward Nova Scotia. The weather cleared, but a serious, although not unexpected, problem arose-they lacked sufficient fuel to complete the journey. Scott decided to call at Montauk Air Base, on the eastern tip of Long Island, to refuel.

The airship encountered strong winds on the morning of July 5 that aggravated the fuel crisis. Scott headed for the Bay of Fundy, a long inlet between Nova Scotia and the mainland, seeking relief from the wind. He also considered alternative landings (Boston for one) and requested a warship in case a tow was needed. The United States sent two, Bancroft and Stevens. In New York, Major Fuller drove from New York to Boston to organize a landing party.

R.34 flew on down the bay and was caught by a thunderstorm that came up behind it. Although the airship was badly shaken and fell several hundred feet, pitching violently, no one in the crew was hurt in the storm, although one man came close to falling out of a hatch in the rough conditions. Second Lieutenant J.D. Shotter, the hard-pressed chief engineer, had been caught off guard, near the open drogue hatch in the bow. The ship’s violent motion propelled Shotter along the keel toward the hatch, and only by jamming one of his feet around a girder did he manage to save his life.

The evening was calm at first, and then there were a series of violent bumps-the worst the crew had experienced during the whole flight. R.34 pitched up and then went into a steep, nose-down position, ‘like a playful whale disporting itself,’ according to Abbott. He continued, ‘when looking back from the control-cabin… it was even possible to see her tail flex under the strain.’ But they also encountered a tail wind that encouraged Scott to think of reaching New York again. He asked Shotter to organize a small party armed with containers to drain out the last drop of gasoline from 80 fuel tanks. After taking stock of the remaining fuel, Scott decided to press on for New York.

The crew sighted Mineola at 9 a.m. on July 6. Below, there was confusion on the field. Major Fuller, who had traveled to Boston, anticipating their arrival, had not returned to New York. An experienced officer was needed on the ground to organize the landing, and Pritchard volunteered. He washed and shaved in hot water from one of the engine radiators, then two fellow officers helped him through one of the windows, and he parachuted into the history books.

It had been a close-run flight. Only 140 gallons of fuel remained when they landed, but no one on the field knew how narrowly the airship had avoided tragedy. A band played ‘God Save the King’ as the crew emerged, but the music was drowned by cheering crowd. Thousands had arrived to see the airship touch down. Newspapermen and photographers recorded every aspect of their reception.

Among the formal reception party were military and naval officers who made speeches to which General Maitland replied in kind. The formalities over, the crew took advantage of hot baths followed by a luncheon and press conference at the nearby Garden City Hotel.A thousand men were detailed to cater to the needs of R.34 and its crew. Hydrogen, gasoline and other items were provided. Maintenance assistance was offered as well, although the crewmen ended up doing most of their own work.

The next few days continued in the same vein. When Maitland had a tooth repaired, the dentist asked only for his signature in payment. The Americans were universally generous in their response to the crew.

Not everyone was impressed by R.34, however. Aircraft designer Grover Loening wrote: ‘my first impression was how ‘unrigid’ it really was… close up one was astounded to see how the frame squeaked, bent and shivered with the cloth covering almost flapping in wind gusts… I was shocked at its flimsiness… frantically the crew and many others tugged and pulled on ropes and handrails to restrain the monster… .’ Surely his reaction is further evidence, if any is needed, of the crew’s skill and courage.

Some Americans looked beyond the euphoria. The New York Times commented on the threat of British commercial airships in the future: ‘John Bull is hard-headed and business-like. He is set on being master of the air. What is Uncle Sam going to do about it?’

Although the crew enjoyed the celebrations, they also had to prepare for the return journey, and the moment for departure soon came. Scott, while at dinner on July 9, received news of high winds approaching, and he decided to leave at once. The crew assembled, and the airship was filled with hydrogen and fuel. At the last moment, a man barged his way through the crowd surging around R.34 and dumped a wooden box aboard-a case of rum.

The engines barked into life, and Scott ordered: ‘Let go all.’ Four hundred men obeyed, and R.34 lifted cleanly into the night sky at 11:54 p.m. The cheers of the crowd reinforced the crew’s confidence. They knew what to expect and believed that their discipline, skill and attention to detail would take them safely home.

To show their gratitude for all the Americans had done, Scott agreed to fly over New York. He took R.34 to 2,000 feet, uncertain of the height of the skyscrapers. Abbott described the moment this way: ‘the probing white fingers of searchlights crept through the darkness… there were many thousands of sightseers still in the streets… the crew looked down on their upturned faces, garishly illuminated in the multi-colored lights as they waved wildly and mouthed unheard farewells.’ For a time R.34 rode the bumpy air currents around the tall buildings. After 10 minutes, they left the searchlights behind and turned eastward, toward the Atlantic Ocean.

The airship made good progress that night. By morning, with their groundspeed of 90 mph helped by the prevailing wind, they had covered 400 miles. Scott knew that two large depressions near Newfoundland and Iceland could be helpful if he flew close to their southern edge and made use of the westerly airflow. As things continued to go well, their progress tempted Scott and Maitland to change the original flight plan and aim for London. But that scheme was dashed when, early on July 11, the starboard engine of the two engines in the rear car failed.

The weather deteriorated, with great clouds rolling in. Scott took the airship up to 3,000 feet to get the benefit of the tail wind. Later in the day, a gray world of rain and damp returned to make the crew’s life miserable. All the engines needed constant attention, and the forward engine in the control car had to be closed down for two hours to replace broken valve springs.

In spite of those problems, R.34 steadily neared the Irish coast. The crew could now hear wireless traffic from Clifden. One signal surprised them. At 10 a.m. on July 12, the Air Ministry ordered Scott to land at Pulham, north of London. Maitland recalled their reaction: ‘This not understood as, according to weather reports, conditions seem better at East Fortune than at Pulham. Besides, the wives, families of the crew are all at East Fortune, waiting to welcome them… this comes as a great disappointment.’

Scott queried the signal. Confirmation of the order came at 11:30 p.m. No explanation has ever been given. According to Abbott: ‘those who supported only an aeroplane programme may have contrived the altered destination in order to avoid the publicity of the great welcome that was being planned at East Fortune. Pulham, by contrast, was comparatively isolated… so ensuring the minimum fuss and excitement. If this theory is true-and it accords with later policy development and the shabby treatment soon meted out to everyone on board-then the manoeuvre was an unworthy affront to servicemen who could neither disobey nor complain.’

On R.34, hopes remained high that they would successfully complete their flight. Improving weather ensured a smoother flight on July 12. Now at 5,000 feet, the crew looked out over the ocean and were struck by the ‘awful emptiness of the Atlantic.’ For some time they saw few ships, but five hours later, at a distance of about eight miles, they sighted two trawlers to the south-seemingly an indication that land was close by. Two hours later, Lt. Col. W.N. Hensley of the U.S. Army (the only American on R.34, who had replaced Lansdowne and was on a mission to Europe to try and negotiate the purchase of an airship for the army), sighted land.

Once across the Irish coast, the airship moved over a landscape of valleys and woods. A small bi-plane buzzed them, then flew away. The crew felt that they were almost home as they crossed the English coast near Liverpool. Tired but jubilant, they retained discipline as they ploughed on through the night. The engines continued to be troublesome right up to the end, when only two were operational. To make a good impression to the waiting crowd, the crew allowed the propellers of the silent engines to rotate freely in the airstream.

Pulham, with 400 men ready to bring her safely in, tried to make it a good homecoming. A small RAF band had been hastily assembled, joined by a number of reporters and spectators who had somehow managed to get to the remote spot in time for the airship’s landing. It was July 13, a Sunday. But the contrast between the reception here and the one in New York was marked. ‘Rather tepid reception was already obvious, even from the air,’ said one observer, and one reporter who witnessed the landing wrote: ‘The ship was met by a motley crowd dressed in all varieties of Air Force uniform.’

Scott had R.34 make two circuits of the field. The airship was positioned into the slight wind, bows down and all engines shut down, when Scott realized that it was coming in too nose-heavy. He emptied a bag of water ballast to adjust the trim, just as the unfortunate band beneath them was playing ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes.’ Drenched, the musicians played on.

At 6:57 a.m. the journey finally came to an end. It had lasted three days and three hours. The airship had covered 7,420 miles at an average speed of 37.1 knots. It is interesting to note that the surface speeds of the outward and homeward flights were 28.9 knots and 44.2 knots, respectively.

Maitland’s reaction was typical of his optimistic personality. ‘R.34‘s journey was just one long, wonderful and delightful experience,’ he said.

R.34 had set several new records. It was the first east-west crossing of the Atlantic by air, the first double crossing and the first by an airship. Many hoped that those accomplishments would be recognized in an appropriate manner, but their hopes were largely disappointed following the flight.

Shortly after their return, Maitland and others presented a report on the journey at a special meeting in the Air Ministry before a small group of distinguished people. It marked, according to author Peter Abbott, ‘the signing off of the whole venture.’ But despite enthusiastic coverage of the feat in the press, the British military establishment downplayed the event. Although the news media were convinced that the venture was epoch-making, Air Ministry officials and some experts appeared to treat the crew of the R.34 with neglect as time went on.

In his book Great Flights, Edwin Colston-Shepherd, sums up the remarkable accomplishments of R.34‘s crew in the face of personal danger as well as bureaucratic apathy: ‘The crew had taken all the chances that go with a first attempt and had made them look small and ordinary by their diligence and attention to detail. The accidents of later years showed how great their achievement was… nothing can rob the feat of its own inherent greatness and none can dispute the courage of men who did so fine a job so greatly and well.’

This article was written by Peter Holt and originally published in the May 2002 issue of Aviation History.

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