America (airship)

America (airship)

The "America" was a non-rigid airship built by Mutin Godard in France in 1906 for Walter Wellman's attempt to reach the North Pole by air. Wellman had been inspired to fly to the pole during a failed overland attempt in 1893. When he saw a French dirigible at the Portsmouth Peace Conference in 1905, he believed that he had found his solution. He listed the Wellman Chicago Record Herald Polar Expedition as a public company to raise the $US 250,000 required for the expedition and ordered his airship (publisher Frank Noyes himself contributed $75,000).

As originally constructed, the "America" was 165 ft (50.3 m) long and 51 ft 10 in (15.8 m) at its greatest diameter and enclosed a volume of 258,000 cu ft (7,300 m³) of hydrogen. The envelope was of three layers of fabric and three of rubber, and contained no internal formwork. The gondola could hold a crew of five, and power was supplied by three internal-combustion engines delivering a total of 80 hp (60 kW) to two propellers, one fore and one aft. It was delivered by ship to Spitsbergen on July 8, where Wellman and his team attempted to erect it. Their efforts met with failure when the engines fell apart. In September, the "America" was dismantled and returned by ship to France.

Wellman returned to Spitsbergen with the "America" in June the following year. The airship had a new centre-section sewn into it to increase its length to 185 ft (56.4 m) and volume to 272,000 cu ft (7,700 m³). The weather was very unfavourable, however, and it was 2 September before the "America" could even leave the hangar. Wasting no time, Wellman launched later that day with mechanic Melvin Vaniman and navigator Felix Reisenberg in an attempt to reach the pole. Unfortunately, more bad weather forced this to be abandoned after only a few miles and the "America" was deflated to avoid a crash landing. "America" once again returned to France for repairs.

She returned to Spitsbergen one more time in July 1909, and at 10 AM on 15 August, launched with Wellman, Vaniman, Russian balloonist Nicolas Popov and Vaniman's nephew Louis Loud on board. The flight began well enough, but two hours and 40 miles (64 km) later, a device Wellman called the "equilibrator" failed. This was a long, leather tube filled with ballast that was intended to help gauge and maintain a fixed altitude over the ice. "America" gained altitude rapidly, until brought under control at 5,000 ft (1,500 m) and gradually lowered back to the ground by venting Hydrogen. The crew was rescued by the Norwegian steamer "Farm". Wellman began plans to extend the hangar so that he could return the following year with a larger airship, but on learning of the Dr Frederick Cook's claim to have reached the pole, abandoned the adventure.

Instead, Wellman resolved to make the first aerial crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. He had the "America" enlarged again, now to 345,000 cu ft (9,760 m³) and on 15 October 1910 took off from Atlantic City. The engines failed 38 hours into the flight, and "America" drifted. The crew jettisoned all excess weight, including one of the defunct engines. After another 33 hours, and having now travelled a total distance of 1,370 miles (2,200 km) from launching, they sighted the Royal Mail steamship "Trent" near Bermuda and abandoned the "America" in a lifeboat. "America" drifted out of sight and was never seen again.


* Nelson, Stewart (1993) "Airships in the Arctic" "Arctic 46" (3) 278-83.
* Robinson, Michael (2006) "The New Machines: Walter Wellman and Robert Peary" in "The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture" (University of Chicago Press)
* [ State Library of New South Wales website]
* [ The 1931 Polar Flight of the Airship Graf Zeppelin An Historical Perspective]
* [ Arctic Postal History 1906-09]
* [,9171,746912,00.html Wellman's Obituary in "Time" magazine]

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