The airship America

Analysis: Radio fans celebrate wireless double centenary

Amateur radio enthusiasts around the world will join in a special event this month to mark a double centenary in the history of wireless communications.

On Sunday 17 October, members of the Chelmsford Amateur Radio Society will transmit from the Marconi Hut at Sandford Mill Museum using a special event call-sign to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the first advertised airborne wireless and the first air-sea rescue involving wireless. Other amateur stations around the word are expected to take part, including the Marconi Radio Club of America, W1AA.

They will be commemorating a series of events that began in 1906 when 52 year old American writer and explorer Walter Wellman purchased a non-rigid dirigible airship from Mutin Godard in France with the intention of becoming the first person to reach the North Pole by air.

The attempt was abandoned, but Wellman set about planning the first crossing of the Atlantic by airship with the help of balloonist and inventor Melvin Vaniman, who set about enlarging and refining the airship, which had been named The America.

Aware of the use of wireless on board ships, Wellman contacted the Marconi Wireless Company of America who supplied him with equipment manufactured in Chelmsford and arranged for one of their employees, 26 year old Australian Jack Irwin, to operate it. It was installed in a waterproof cupboard in the lifeboat that hung below the airship's gondola.

On the morning of 3 September 1910, the America's gas envelope was inflated with 9,760 cubic metres of hydrogen, produced by mixing 80 tons of sulphuric acid with 60 tons of iron filings in a vat. After many tests and trials, and a gale that threatened the whole mission by almost destroying the wooden structure housing the airship, the crew were ready to take off from Atlantic City on 28 September. Alongside Wellman, Vaniman and Irwin were navigator Frederick Murray Simon, and mechanics Albert Louis Loud and John Aubert.

Early attempts to launch were thwarted by bad weather, but on 15 October the America finally set off. Soon after take-off, however, one of its two engines failed and had to be jettisoned. Then, 38 hours into the journey, the second propeller engine failed and the America was at the mercy of the wind. Three days into the trip, and being blown in the wrong direction, hope of getting across the Atlantic faded away and survival was the only thing on the crew's mind.

On 18 October Irwin descended into the lifeboat and made a ‘CQD' distress call, but without success. His next step was to take a small electric torch and start signalling in Morse that the America was in trouble and needed help. His signal was eventually answered by the RMS Trent, a ship that would not normally have been 350 miles off the Norfolk coast but which luckily for the America's crew was making a detour to Antilla in Cuba.

Once it had been confirmed that the America had wireless, the Trent's operator was woken up and, in a world first, instant communication was established. After sending a last message - "We are going to launch the boat. Stand by to pick us up." - Irwin cut the America's aerial and earth wires, put watertight doors over the openings of the wireless cupboard, and stood by.

After a series of manouevres, the crew got near enough to the Trent to to catch a line and climbed to safety by rope ladder while their lifeboat and all the wireless equipment were winched aboard. Despite not achieving their main objective, their 72 hour, 1008 mile voyage had been the longest powered flight in history to that date. On their return to New York they were given a ticker tape welcome.

The first crossing of the Atlantic by an airship was not achieved until July 1919, when the R34 took 108 hoursto travel from East Fortune in Scotland to Mineola, Long Island. It immediately made the return journey to Pulham in Norfolk in just 75 hours.

Walter Wellman never flew again and died February 1934 aged 75.

Frederick Simon did cross the Atlantic many years later as a Commander with the White Star Line when aged 54 he travelled on the first crossing of the Atlantic from Germany to North America aboard the Airship Hindenburg on 6 May 1936. The crossing took three days and landed at Lakehurst, New Jersey.

Two years after The America's flight, Melvin Vaniman persuaded the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company to build the gas bag for an airship that would be known as The Akron in honour of the company's home town and would use the recovered lifeboat from the America. On 2 July 1912, after a series of test flights, Vaniman, his younger brother, Calvin, Walter Guest, Frederick Elmer and George Bourillion steered the Akron up and away from its Atlantic City hangar.

The airship had hardly crossed the coast when, 150 metres up in the air, the 11,300 cubic metres of hydrogen in the gas bag caught fire plunging the crew to their deaths. The lifeboat was salvaged from the shallow waters and shipped back to Goodyear where it was stored for 98 years before being donated to the Smithsonian Institute on 10 June 2010. Unfortunately there is no trace of the Wireless equipment which was involved with the rescue of the America.

Details of the Chelmsford event can be found on the CARS website at www.g0mwt.org.uk. Thanks to CARS chairman John Bowen MIET (G8DET) for providing information.

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