2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the first transatlantic flight from Britain to the United States. On 2 July 1919 Airship R.34 departed from East Fortune Airfield, landing on Long Island, New York 108 hours later.
On a cold misty 2 July 1919, at 1.42am, R.34 and her intrepid crew of eight officers and 22 men, one stowaway, two pigeons and a kitten set off on the first ever return flight between Britain and the United States and the first east-west crossing by air.
The voyage began just a few weeks after Alcock and Brown’s record-breaking west-east Atlantic flight. The R.34’s trip also involved the first arrival in the USA by air when Major Pritchard parachuted from the airship to instruct the ground crew, as well as the world’s first human and feline trans-Atlantic aerial stowaways, Newcastle man, William Ballantyne and Wopsie the cat.
Airship R.34 at East Fortune Airfield in 1919.
The 634 ft R.34, nick-named Tiny, was stationed at East Fortune, now home to the National Museum of Flight but which started out as a Royal Naval Air Station. The airships came under the command of the Navy as their primary duties were convoy protection and anti-submarine activities.
HMA R.34 arrived at East Fortune in May 1919. She had been constructed at the Wm Beardmore factory at Inchinnan near Glasgow but was completed too late to see active service. She had one operational voyage over the Baltic Sea as part of a show of strength in advance of the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles.
© Estate of David Weston
When R34 left East Fortune for the United States, no photographs were taken but this painting depicts the scene.
The initial destination for R.34 in the United States was Mineola in Long Island, USA, where rolling grasslands and favourable winds made it a popular choice for aviators including the Wright Brothers.
The R.34 reached Mineola at 9.45am on 6 July 1919, 108 hours and 12 minutes after it departed East Fortune, following an adventure-filled journey that was hampered by dwindling fuel supplies, violent squalls and a leak that was repaired with the crew’s entire supply of chewing gum.
The story of the R.34’s record-breaking journey is told as part of Fortunes of War which brings to life the fascinating history of the National Museum of Flight's home.
It features objects such as the large bowplate from the R.34, the airship’s altimeter dial, binoculars and a camera used on the flight as well as a bottle of brandy taken on board for medicinal reasons. The exhibition also includes a piece of the linen fabric from the airship’s outer cover, part of one of the internal gas-bags and a piece of girder from the airship. Visitors can also see a memorial to the flight.
Header image: Construction of R34 was completed on 20 December 1918 and it was flown to East Fortune in May 1919.