Daring Aviation Feat: British Dirigible First to Cross Atlantic

On 6 July 1919, a huge British dirigible, the R-34, touched down at Roosevelt Field on Long Island after spending the past 4½ days making history: completing the first successful crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by a lighter-than-air aircraft. In fact, it was only the second time any aircraft had crossed the Atlantic; just two weeks before, British pilots Alcock and Brown had made the first nonstop transatlantic flight, flying a WWI bomber from Newfoundland, Canada, to Ireland.

Photo: British dirigible R-34 landing at Mineola, Long Island, N.Y., 6 July 1919
Photo: British dirigible R-34 landing at Mineola, Long Island, N.Y., 6 July 1919. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The R-34’s success proved the time of gigantic hydrogen-filled airships had arrived, ushering in a new era of passenger air travel that was abruptly ended by the spectacular and horrific explosion of the Hindenburg on 6 May 1937 (see: Hindenburg Disaster Ends the Airship Era).

Actually, the R-34 very nearly had its own disaster on that historic first crossing of the Atlantic. The huge, 643-foot-long balloon, slyly nicknamed “Tiny” by her crew, had flown the first 3,690 miles from Scotland to above Newfoundland without incident, departing on 2 July 1919 and safely crossing the Atlantic thanks to its five 275-horsepower engines. It was the last 1,944 miles to its landing, from Newfoundland to Mineola, Long Island, which almost proved the ship’s undoing.

First came two powerful electrical storms that tossed the dirigible about as though it were a ship at sea caught in a hurricane. Then dense fog wiped out all visibility, strong headwinds slowed the airship down considerably, and the officers and crew watched nervously as the level of gasoline in the ship’s tanks crept nearer to empty.

The airship’s commander, Major George Herbert Scott, and his crew had barely slept throughout the flight, and the trauma of the electrical storms had put them further on edge. Their British stiff-upper-lip resolve and composure began to sink along with the needles on the gas tanks. At 11 o’clock in the morning of July 5 Major Scott sent a message almost casually mentioning the airship’s fuel was getting low. Five minutes later another officer on board sent a follow-up message to the U.S. Navy Department asking if warships could be sent “if required.” Less than three hours later another message asked if the warships were on the way – the next message, two hours later, tersely requested that warships meet the dirigible “at earliest possible moment.”

As the exhausted crew and the battered airship limped into the home stretch, the northeast buzzed with anxious activity to lend whatever assistance might be possible. Wireless operators all along the coast stayed glued to their radios hoping to establish communication. Observers flocked along the shoreline straining their eyes skyward for a glimpse of the huge balloon. A whole line of Canadian tug boats steamed into the Bay of Fundy, as well as a French cruiser that was in the area. The U.S. Navy sent two military vessels out from Maine ports and a destroyer from Boston Harbor. Tense hours dragged by, with disaster seemingly ready to happen at any moment.

In the end, all the precautions proved unnecessary, as the R-34 safely made it to its original destination, Roosevelt Field, completing the 5,634-mile voyage in 108 hours and 12 minutes. When the airship finally landed, it had less than 90 minutes of gasoline left in its tanks! At Roosevelt Field, there was one last problem to overcome: the waiting American crew had no experience landing a giant dirigible, so a British officer parachuted out of the R-34, landing safely to conduct operations on the ground.

The following two newspaper articles are about the R-34’s historic flight. The first article was written on July 5, when disaster seemed imminent, and the second article was written after the airship safely landed.

An article about the British dirigible R-34's historic crossing of the Atlantic in 1919, Duluth News Tribune newspaper article 6 July 1919
Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 6 July 1919, page 1

Here is a transcription of this article:

Dirigible in Distress, Sends Call for Fuel,
Wobbles toward Boston in Raging Storm

Naval Vessels Race up Coast Bearing Help

Expected to Refuel This Morning and Continue Voyage to Roosevelt Field

Airship Emerges from Fog Once during the Day – Glimpsed at Parrsboro

WASHINGTON, July 5. – The following message was received from the R-34 at the Navy Department at 11:23 p.m.:

“Flying 1,500 feet above sea. Come and meet us. Making for Boston. Rush. Very short of gasoline.”

MINEOLA, N.Y., July 5. – The dirigible R-34 will put into Boston to refuel and will proceed to Roosevelt Field here Sunday, according to a message from Commander Scott, dated 11:04 p.m. and relayed to Mineola by the naval department of communications at Boston. The message requested that the dirigible be kept informed as to weather changes through the commandant of the First Naval District at Boston.

Battles Way South

NEW YORK, July 5. – Battling her way south short of fuel, and with an electrical storm raging across her path, the huge British dirigible, the R-34, was tonight in the vicinity of St. John, N.B., still about 500 miles from her goal, Mineola, N.Y. At the same time an American warship was rushing up the Maine coast in answer to wireless calls from the airship to the Navy Department at Washington.

After a long fight with fogs and contrary winds the dirigible’s commander flashed a message that his petrol supply was falling rapidly and that assistance might be needed.

The American naval authorities immediately ordered the converted yacht U.S.S. Satilla to start from Machias Bay, Me. The yacht was followed closely by the submarine chaser 407 from Bar Harbor and shortly afterward the United States destroyer Stevens left Boston Harbor under forced draught.

Tugs to Rescue

From St. Johns a cordon of British tugs was thrown out and in the stormy Bay of Fundy the French cruiser Somme answered the summons, starting out in an effort to cross the path of the airship.

All day long every wireless station from the northern coast of Newfoundland to the mouth of the Hudson was manned by radio men who strained every effort for sight or signal of the traveler of the skies, but only once did she emerge long enough from the mists to be recognized. This glimpse was caught from Parrsboro, N.S., 35 miles west of Halifax, the town at which the Handley-Page biplane in flight from Harbor Grace, Nfld., to Mineola, N.Y., made a forced landing today. The mammoth airship passed directly over the lighthouse of the port at 2:15 p.m.

Down by Head

When first sighted she appeared to be down by the head but before she had passed out of sight had apparently righted herself and was proceeding on an even keel. Sailors estimated she was making about 25 knots an hour.

The first intimation of possible trouble was contained in a wireless message intercepted at 11 a.m. and addressed to the British Admiralty, in which Major Scott, commander of the dirigible, reported his fuel was getting low. Three previous messages giving position had concluded with “All well.”

Five minutes after the message to the Admiralty, British Commander Z. Lansdowne, N.S.N. on board the airship, sent a query to the Navy Department on behalf of Major Scott asking if a destroyer could proceed to the Bay of Fundy “if required.” In less than three hours another message asked Washington if destroyers were coming and two hours later a more urgent appeal flashed to the Navy Department asked that destroyers meet the super-Zeppelin “at earliest possible moment.”

Earlier in the day [a] wireless expert had expressed the opinion that something had gone wrong with the R-34 receiving apparatus, and his opinion was confirmed by the apparent difficulty in communicating to the airship word that the American naval authorities were to render the assistance asked for.

An article about the British dirigible R-34's historic crossing of the Atlantic in 1919, Baltimore American newspaper article 7 July 1919
Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 7 July 1919, page 1

Here is a transcription of this article:

Big Blimp Lands at Original Goal after Hard Fight

Could Have Gone Only Ninety Minutes Longer

Crew Was Exhausted

Return Trip to Be Begun within Forty-eight Hours

Most Exciting Incidents of the Trip Occurred when Giant Dirigible Ran into Two Electrical Storms

By the Associated Press.

Mineola, N.Y., July 6. – Great Britain’s superdirigible R-34, the first lighter-than-air machine to cross the Atlantic Ocean, anchored here at Roosevelt flying field at 9:54 A.M. today (1:54 P.M. Greenwich mean time) after an aerial voyage of 108 hours and 12 minutes, which covered 5,634 miles.

Passing through dense banks of clouds, with sun visible only at rare intervals, the R-34 was forced to cruise 3,690 miles to reach Trinity Bay, N.F., from East Fortune, Scotland, and 1,944 miles from there to Mineola.

When the super-Zeppelin arrived here she had left only enough petrol to keep her moving 90 minutes longer. Her crew, almost sleepless for four and a half days, were weary almost to the point of exhaustion, but happy at the successful completion of their epoch-making trip. The return voyage will be started Tuesday at 8 A.M.

By 5,000 Devils

Haggard, unshaven, their eyes bloodshot from the long vigil and lines of care bitten deep into their faces, Major G. H. Scott, the commander, and his officers showed plainly the effects of the anxious hours through which they lived yesterday while they were cruising over the far reaches of Canada and the Bay of Fundy beset by fog, heavy winds and terrific electrical storms.

“It seemed as though the atmosphere was haunted by 5,000 devils,” said Lieut. Guy Harris, the meteorological officer.

The R-34, long overdue at its destination, petrol supply running low and buffeted by strong head winds, Major Scott decided yesterday while over the Bay of Fundy to send a wireless call to the American Navy Department to be prepared to give assistance if it were needed. This was merely a measure of precaution and did not indicate discouragement. While destroyers and submarine chasers were racing to her assistance the R-34 was plugging steadily ahead on the way to Mineola. Once clear of the Bay of Fundy the atmospheric hoodoo which had beset the craft from the time it took the air was gradually left in its wake.

Cut across Lots

The R-34 headed southwest out across the Atlantic along the coast of Maine, her nose pointed for Cape Cod, with the United States destroyer Bancroft hanging on her tail and in constant wireless communication with her. The destroyer stuck close to the wake of the air monster, running under forced draft, until Cape Cod was reached and then the dirigible cut across lots.

It had been decided on the voyage along the coast that unless a favoring wind came up the R-34 would be forced to land at Montauk Point, and early this morning a wireless message was sent out making that announcement. With the Cape left behind, however, fortune finally favored the dirigible and the wind veered to her favor. Headed straight for Montauk Point, she ran true and before the tip-end of Long Island was reached it was decided to go on to Mineola.

With the goal almost in sight, the R-34 flew majestically above the Island and headed straight down the center of it for Roosevelt Field, 100 miles away.

As she cruised over Riverhead the dirigible came within range of the wireless telephone installed at Roosevelt Field by the Navy Radio Service and perfect communication was established. During the night the wireless calls from the R-34 were received by the Navy Radio Station in New York.

Cruised in Circle

Over the wireless phone it was explained to Major Scott that a large part of the crew, assembled to assist him in landing, had been sent to Montauk Point in motor-trucks in the expectation that he would tie up there and that consequently preparations for receiving him had not quite been completed.

The mammoth balloon was sighted in the distance about 9 o’clock, and 15 minutes later was over Roosevelt Field. She cruised about in a circle at a height of about 1,000 feet, until word was telephoned that everything was in readiness for the landing.

While the R-34 was circling the field at a great height, Major Pritchard jumped off with a parachute. He landed safely near headquarters and, smilingly, hurried indoors before an ambulance that had been rushed to the scene could reach him. This was nearly a half-hour before the dirigible came to anchor.

Lets Go Huge Hawser

Lieutenant Hoyt, United States Navy, the ground officer, had assembled on the field a force of more than 500 soldiers and sailors ready for instant action as the R-34 circled lower and lower. When she was only 200 feet above the ground a huge hawser was let go from under her nose. British noncommissioned officers with American soldiers and sailors shouted gleefully as they seized the rope and hung on.

Then water ballast was dropped from the forward end of the dirigible and her nose tipped. Then she began to descend. Five more guide lines were dropped and landing parties grasped them as the water ballast was dropped from the stern. In both operations at bow and stern the landing crews were drenched by the cascading water. Major Scott directed all the details of the landing and it was carried out as smoothly as though the inexperienced landing crew had been anchoring dirigibles all their lives.

Like Ship at Anchor

The hawsers were attached to concrete blocks two at each end and one at either side in the center. When the great ship was safely anchored all the ropes except the ones at her nose were cut loose so she could swing with the wind like a ship at anchor. The landing crews will stand by all through the night to hold her safe.

The first man to step “ashore” was Major Scott. He obviously was tired out but happy. On his face was several days’ growth of beard and he showed plainly the strain he had been under. He wore the regulation air costume. Short and chunky and typically British, the military skipper of the huge airship shook hands with Gen. Lionel E. O. Charlton, British attaché in the United States, who was waiting for him. The greeting was as typically English as the appearance of the commander. There was no demonstration and the two officers met as casually as though the trip had been across the English Channel.

Brigadier General E. M. Maitland, D.S.O., official observer for the British Air Ministry, was the next to step out of the car. He looked fresher than his companions for he had no duties to perform on the way across except to keep the ship’s log. He said he had slept well and he had taken time to shave. He wore an officer’s cap, top coat, woolen breeches and felt shoes. His only regret seemed to be that he “had caused anxiety” by sending out the wireless call saying assistance might be needed.

The American Observer

Lieutenant Commander Zachary Lansdowne, the American observer on board the R-34, looked almost [as] haggard as Major Scott, whom he had assisted all the way across. The same was true of the other five officers and the 23 men of the crew.

The men of the R-34 were greeted by General Charlton, Lieutenant Colonel Frederick W. Lucas and Major Hugh Fuller, representing the British government, and by Rear Admiral Glennon and Major General Menoher, representing the American Navy and War Departments, as well as by Lieut. L. B. Clarke, U.S.N., designated to receive from General Maitland the log of the trip.

“All’s well that ends well,” was the greeting of Admiral Glennon before he read an official message of welcome from Secretary of the Navy Daniels, welcoming the R-34 to the United States and extending warmest congratulations upon her wonderful achievement.

All the air voyagers were in excellent physical condition, except that they were very tired. They suffered no hardships except lack of sleep. There was plenty of food and water, and it was not necessary to reduce the ration of either, notwithstanding the unexpectedly long voyage.

Start on Return Tomorrow

General Maitland announced that the return trip would be begun Tuesday at 8 A.M. The orders from the Air Ministry, he said, are to return as soon as the ship can be made ready. Full supplies of petrol, oil, hydrogen, food and water were ready at the landing field, and the work of putting them aboard was begun almost as soon as the dirigible was anchored. The work will be continued through the night under the glare of huge searchlights.

As the R-34 passed over Long Island she was followed by a steadily lengthening procession of automobiles. The stream of motor-cars soon was augmented from all directions and all day long thousands of cars passed in and out of the fields adjoining that in which the airship was anchored. Thousands of other sightseers went to the fields by every means available and many who could not find anything in which to ride walked from the nearest railroad stations.

The most exciting incidents of the voyage came when the R-34 was over Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, when two distinct electrical storms were encountered. The wind increased suddenly from a velocity of 10 miles an hour to 50 miles, and the huge craft rocked from side to side like a ship in a tempestuous sea. It was feared for a short time during each storm that the R-34 would be destroyed, but she rode them out safely.

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers.

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