In 1910, manned flight was still a tantalizing dream, a just-off-our-fingertips notion that promised freedom and glory and the kind of casting off our earthly shackles that had lured in romantics for ages.
And so it was in October of that year that the entire world — or at least a good portion of the eastern United States — looked heavenward, toward the latest fantastical attempt at real, sustained flight. All eyes were pointing toward New Jersey — not exactly heavenward, granted, but you get the idea — where the airship America and its crew aimed to be the first manned flight to cross the Atlantic.
"In the early 1900s ... there's this mystique about aviation. It's futuristic. It's this incredible thing. You have the first powered, heavier-than-air aircraft with the Wright brothers [in 1903]," says Thomas Paone, a museum specialist at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. "Aviation is thrilling. And that excitement is building."
We say manned, of course, because flight in 1910 still was mostly the provenance of men.
And, as it turned out with America, one unruly tabby cat.
Up, Up and Away
In 1910, there were those who thought that, if long-distance manned multi-passenger flight were to become a reality — if those longing eyes on the ground in New Jersey were to have a real chance to fly to Europe — it would be on lighter-than-air airships like America or the rigid-framed German zeppelins. Both got their lift either from hydrogen or helium. Both had small engines to propel the crafts. The difference was that the zeppelins had a large frame that held up the fabric of the balloon that surrounded it.
The America, then, was basically a big balloon, some 200 feet (61 meters) long, first built in France in an attempt to reach the North Pole. Its owner was American newspaper publisher Walter Wellman, a self-defined explorer and aeronaut. Wellman's try for the North Pole failed miserably but, undaunted, he brought his ship to America, built it bigger and set his sights on the Atlantic.
Wellman and his crew took off from Atlantic City, a small passenger cabin and a wooden lifeboat attached to the bottom. Among those onboard was Wellman, engineer Melvin Vaniman, navigator F. Murray Simon and a radio operator, Jack Irwin.
The flight struggled from the start, fighting bad weather and balky engines that apparently had been infected by sand from the New Jersey shore. Off New England, the engines failed and the ship began to drift southward. The trip seemed doomed at that point.
Even before then, though, the crew had to deal with that darned cat.
The Story of Kiddo
"I'm not sure whose cat Kiddo was," Allan Janus, a museum specialist in the archives department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, says via email. "He may have been a stray who was adopted by America's crew, though Wellman said he was the pet of one of the crew."
Whatever the case, Kiddo (as he later became known) did not, initially, want to be part of the historic voyage. Later, the navigator Simon gave this account to The New York Times:
Kiddo, notably, was the subject of the first wireless transmission from an aircraft.
"Roy," either Irwin or Vaniman wired, "come and get this - - -damn cat."
The crew was so discombobulated by the cat's antics early in the flight that Kiddo was put in a bag and lowered toward a trailing boat of newspapermen as the America was being towed to sea. The handoff couldn't be completed, though, and Kiddo was brought back onboard.
The cat eventually settled down as the hours passed and the ship drifted from its target. Some 72 hours later, after 1,008 miles (1,622 kilometers) in the air, the America was abandoned at sea near Bermuda — the ship was never to be seen again — and its crew was rescued by a passing steamship. The wooden lifeboat is now among the artifacts at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Back in New York, the crew was welcomed as heroes. Photos were snapped for The Times with Kiddo front and center. "For a time," Janus says, "he was displayed at Gimbels department store in a gilded cage. Afterward, he retired from aviation and lived with Wellman's daughter in Washington, D.C."
The last flight of America was not, technically, a successful one. But no airship had ever traveled so far (albeit in the wrong direction). America brought the dream of flight, of crossing oceans in a human-made flying machine, closer to reality than it ever had been.
"We sacrificed our airship, but we saved our lives," Simon wrote after America's voyage, "and, above all, as Mr. Wellman and Mr. Vaniman will show when they write their technical reports, we have gathered a vast amount of useful knowledge which will help largely in the solution of big problems relating to the navigation of the air. And we also saved the cat!"