Walk along the River Clyde today and you’d be hard pushed to conjure up an image of it as the second city of Empire. But hidden between the new builds and trendy museums are remnants left over from when ‘Clydebuilt’ guaranteed quality work and global recognition. Perhaps no story epitomises this age of experimentation, optimism and productivity more than the story of the record-breaking flight of the R34 Airship.
The R34, known fondly as Tiny, was built by William Beardmore & Co in Glasgow in 1918. The company employed thousands across the city in its Parkhead Forge and shipyards. They were one of the Government’s preferred suppliers during the war and enjoyed a reputation as one of the biggest engineering companies of the time, building everything from battleships to taxis and tin cans.
During early 20th century ‘lighter-than-air’ flight was considered by many to be the future of aeronautics and so an enormous building project to construct numerous airships, run on hydrogen, was rolled out across Britain.
Beardmore built a number of airships before the R34, but none were to capture the imagination so much as “Tiny”. And small wonder, as it was this Goliath that undertook the first east to west crossing of the Atlantic, setting down the record for the longest ever flight over water.
The R34 was the biggest aircraft in the world of its day; a massive 650 feet long, over three times the length of a modern jumbo jet, and 100 feet high. It took 19 bags of hydrogen to carry the ship. A notoriously unstable gas, it had to be held tight in impermeable sacks. The only material that could do this was Goldbeater’s Skin; manufactured from the intestinal lining of oxen each hydrogen bag alone took 60,000 skins. Every abattoir in the British Empire were sending the lining back to the UK for use in the airships.
The journey began on the second of July 1919 when the huge airship left East Fortune airfield, outside Edinburgh. One hundred and eight hours later, with virtually no fuel left, she landed in Mineola, Long Island. The crew had thought that they would have to land in Massachusets, so the ground crew had raced there in preparation. However, they made it to Mineola were it was left to an American Airforce team with no experience of handling large rigid airships to dock them. This proved problematic so Major Pritchard, one of the R34 commanders jumped out to help, becoming the first foreigner ever to reach America by parachute.
The American press went wild and as the silvery-blue flying whale flew overhead Manhattan emptied as crowds rushed to see the ship. The crew were feted across the city, everyone in awe of the bravery.
Two passengers in particular became the media darlings of the day. Billy Ballantyne was one of the original crew members, but was bounced off the flight to make way for an American observer, Zachary Lansdowne. Billy was having none of it and stowed away, only to be discovered over the Atlantic. As he later told the New York Times: “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. So I sneaks out a bit before midnight, about two hours before the R34 left Scotland. I hides in the rigging. No-one saw me and we were off.”
George Rossie, whose book on the R34 Flight of the Titan, speculates that Ballantyne was lucky to make it onto American soil: “It was later said that if they’d found him over land, they would have put a parachute on him and kicked him out.” As it was, Billy made it over. And he was not alone. Another stowaway was Wopsie, a ginger kitten, who was hidden on board by one of the crewmen. Her notoriety grew to the point where a Broadway actress offered to buy her for $1,000. She was told firmly by the possessive crew that the cat was a Scottish cat and was going to stay that way.
Whilst the crew enjoyed fame in America, the story remained very low-key in Britain. Rossie speculates that it may have been Churchill’s dislike of airships that led to a muted and almost hidden return. Instead of landing at East Fortune, where all the crew’s family and friends had gathered, the ship was diverted to a lonely airfield in Norfolk. The press barely covered the story and the crew were never honoured – as other air pioneers had been.
This lack of commendation seems all the more extraordinary when you consider just how dangerous the journey was. No-one knew whether an airship would make it across the Atlantic on such a long journey. The weather was unstable, they were not sure whether they would have enough fuel. They nearly didn’t make it, running into thunder and lightening storms off New Brunswick. Here the ingenuity of the predominantly Scottish crew came to the fore. When a piece of the engine fell off they repaired it using up the entire ship’s supply of chewing-gum – which had been issued in bulk as a substitute for cigarettes.
For Rossie, there is one real hero in this incredible “Edwardian ripping yarn of derring-do” and that is John Shotter, the engineering officer. MOD cut-backs had meant that the desired Rolls Royce engines were not signed off and the ship had to make do with inferior Sunbeam Maoris. Rossie believes Shotter “knackered himself to keep these engines, which weren’t up to scratch, going”. At one point he lashed himself to a post in a howling gale, 5,000 feet up and went outside to work on a propeller.
The story of the R34 is peppered with such heroism. There is the wonderfully named General Edward Maitland Maitland, a Boer War veteran: “a mad balloonist and old-style adventurer”, says Rossie. An account of his journey can be found in his log, which resides in the National Library of Scotland.
If there is ever any doubt about the bravery of these men, then it becomes clearer when you read of the fate of many of them. Maitland Maitland and Major Pritchard died when the R39, a later ship, broke up over Hull in 1921. George Scott, another crew member, died in an airship accident in 1930 and Zachary Landsdown, the American observer died when the USS Shenandoah broke up over Ohio.
In time, the amount of accidents put paid to the great ‘light flight’ experiment, and when the Hindenburg exploded over New Jersey in 1937, the concept was all but abandoned. As for the R34, she too broke up after a botched landing and only fragments now survive at the Museum of Flight, sited, appropriately, outside Edinburgh in the old East Fortune airfield from where she left on her historic voyage.