Page last updated at 13:38 GMT, Thursday, 2 July 2009 14:38 UK

Flight clocks 90-year milestone

R34 airship
The R34 airship's crew had to undergo violent bumps and thunderstorms to reach North America

On 2 July, 1919, the giant R34 airship departed from a station in East Fortune, en route for Mineola, New York, on the first ever return flight across the Atlantic and the first east-west crossing by air.

Coming just a few weeks after Alcock and Brown's record-breaking west-east flight in a plane, the 6,000 mile trip was a huge story at the time on both sides of the Atlantic.

The BBC Scotland news website's Angie Brown looks back on the 90th anniversary of the epic Scottish transatlantic airship crossing.

By now, exactly 90 years ago, the R34 and its 30-strong crew, was well on its pioneering journey to North America having departed at about 0200 BST.

There was a huge buzz of excitement on board the great ship, ironically nicknamed "Tiny", as the crew set about their chores.

With nearly one ton of food on board there were potatoes to peel and pre-cooked meat to prepare as Major G H Scott guided them towards their goal of reaching the other side of the Atlantic.

The food was cooked on the starboard engine, which had a large plate welded to the exhaust pipe and there was a regimented plan of shifts in place to keep the whole operation flowing.

R34 being built
The R34 was built at the Beardmore factory at Inchinnan near Glasgow

One lunchtime, too many staff in one area affected the balance of the airship, which meant the R34 started to go down by the bow as the off-watch crew assembled in their quarters for their meal. Some of them had to retreat to restore balance.

Another tense moment aboard the 643ft long ship happened mid way across the Atlantic when the starboard wing engine water-jacket sprang a leak.

A rapid repair job was carried out using the crew's entire supply of chewing gum (carried as a smoking substitute) to stick a piece of copper sheet over the hole.

Then as the airship approached the Newfoundland coast, concerns were raised over the fuel supply, with only 2,200 gallons of petrol remaining. The petrol was used in its five engines to propel the ship.

The cold Arctic air also meant there was continued loss of gas as the hydrogen, held in 19 gas bags above, was warmer than the surrounding air and expanding.

But Captain Scott managed to avoid disaster by taking the ship up to 4,000ft to reduce the gas loss.

Violent bumps

Then above Nova Scotia, R34 was battling strong head winds. Fuel shortage did not allow the ship to veer further west to avoid the wind, so the now very buoyant ship had to be held down by the bows to fly only 800ft above ground.

It then entered into a violent squall, with one crew member almost thrown out through an open hatch.

As they continued to head over sea, the varying temperatures produced violent bumps and thunderstorms.

Many of the crew, especially the engineers, were unable to take time off to sleep in their hammocks, remaining awake for most of the four-and-a-half day trip.

William Ballantyne and Wopsie the kitten
William Ballantyne and Wopsie the kitten were both stowaways on the ship

The R34 reached Mineola at 0945 BST on 6 July, 1919, 108 hours and 12 minutes after it departed East Fortune.

As there was no experienced airship crew on the ground, Major Pritchard parachuted to the landing grounds to instruct the ground crew in bringing the airship in. In doing so, he became the first man to reach the United States by air.

Only 140 gallons of the 2,500 gallons of petrol remained in the tanks on landing.

During the trip it emerged two stowaways had climbed onboard - William Ballantyne and Wopsie the kitten - giving the lighter-than-air-ship all the excitement of a seafaring voyage.

Mr Ballantyne was "one of the unlucky ones" when it had been decided the crew had to be lightened by three before they set off.

So he took it upon himself to hide in the ship, telling the New York Times in 7 July, 1919: "I'd worked hard, I had, blasted hard, on the bally blimp, but that didn't matter so much.

"You see, I'd never been to America, had my heart placed on it, and my mind, too.

He was a frail 82-year-old in a wheelchair, but he had that cheeky look about him that you see in period photographs
Alastair Dodds
National Museums Scotland

"So I sneaks out a bit before midnight, about two hours before the R-34 left Scotland. I hides in the rigging. No-one saw me and we were off."

However, he was caught after he was forced to come out of hiding after becoming very ill with a fever of 102F because he had hidden near the area where fumes were being released. He lay in a hammock for 20 hours recovering.

After being treated by the doctor he took his place and worked his way across the pond, saying: "I certainly did more work than any other two, but that was nothing. I made the trip and here I am."

Wopsie the kitten, who had been sneaked on by another crew member, LAC Graham, was also a cause of news in North America.

Both were featured in many newspapers in the USA about their exploits. Mr Ballantyne was not allowed to travel back to the UK on the R34 but had to sail back by boat and was taken off flying duties for a year.

However, Wopsie went back to the UK by airship, despite the fact her master, was offered $1,000 for her from a North American actress.

Alastair Dodds, National Museums Scotland's principal curator of Transport, said he met Mr Ballantyne, from Newcastle upon Tyne, 30 years ago when he was aged 82.

He said: "He was a frail 82-year-old in a wheelchair, but he had that cheeky look about him that you see in period photographs.

"He was quite a forward person, he was a cheeky chappie with a glint in his eye.

"He told me he had done it because he didn't want to be left behind."



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