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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.

An epic journey

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.

Most of the crew of the R34, including their mascots Wopsie the cat and the dogs Punch and Judy.

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.

Airship R.34 at East Fortune Airfield in 1919.

Tiny at East Fortune

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. 

Construction of R34 was completed on 20 December 1918 and it was flown to East Fortune in May 1919.

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.

Painting depicting the departure of the British Airship R34 on 2 July 1919 from East Fortune by David Weston, England, 1979.

© Estate of David Weston

Departure from East Fortune

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. 

During the crossing

This letter was written by the chaplain at East Fortune to his sister and carried by the R34 across the Atlantic.

The forward control car of R34 taken during the transatlantic flight. The altimeter is displayed in Fortunes of War at the National Museum of Flight.

The envelope for the letter carried by the R34, which notes it was dropped over Nova Scotia then found in November 1919 and posted on.

The plank walkway in the keel of R34 with aluminium fuel tanks to the left and canvas bags containing water ballast on the right, plus crew hammocks.

The R.34 reached Mineola at 9.45am on 6 July 1919.

Arrival in United States

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.

Flying feline

William Ballantyne with Wopsie the cat, photographed in the United States. They both stowed away on the voyage to the US.

Leaving the United States

R34 at Mineola, with the White Ensign of the Royal Navy flying from the tail, as preparations are made for the return to the UK.

R34 returns to the UK, at Pulham in Norfolk. The tracked vehicle is a tank that was used to move the airship shed doors.

100 years on

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.

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