The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. is donating an important piece of U.S. aeronautical heritage to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum: the historic lifeboat used on two early attempted crossings of the Atlantic by airships. The earliest attempt was made by the airship America in 1910, and the first wireless message from a powered aircraft was sent from the radio position in the lifeboat. The second attempt was the flight of the Akron, the first Goodyear airship, in 1912. The lifeboat is 27 feet long with a 6-foot beam and is constructed of three thicknesses of mahogany veneer.
"We are delighted to have acquired this forgotten piece of early aviation history," said Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics. "After a period of clean-up and a conservation assessment, it will be displayed at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, close to two other historic trans-Atlantic aircraft—the Double Eagle II gondola, which carried the first balloonists to Europe, and the Concorde, which pioneered supersonic trans-Atlantic travel."
Newspaper publisher Walter Wellman purchased the sturdy craft from an English firm in 1910 as he was preparing to attempt the first powered flight across the Atlantic in the airship America. In addition to its basic role as a refuge for the crew should they be forced down at sea, the lifeboat doubled as a kitchen, pantry, dispensary, smoking lounge and radio position. It also served as a hiding place for “Kiddo,” a feline stowaway discovered by Wellman and his five man crew after take-off
Oct. 16, 1910. The airship, its crew and the cat remained aloft for 38 hours, but were forced down with engine problems near Bermuda and rescued by a steamer.
Wellman retired from the field, but Melvin Vaniman, his chief engineer, began planning for a trans-Atlantic flight of his own. Frank Seiberling, the founder of Goodyear, agreed to manufacture the gas bag for the airship that would be known as the Akron, in honor of the company’s hometown. Vaniman decided to reuse Wellman’s lifeboat. On July 2, 1912, after a series of test flights, aeronaut Vaniman and his five-man crew steered the Akron up and away from his Atlantic City, N.J., hangar.
The airship had barely crossed the coastline when, 500 feet in the air, the 11,300 cubic meters of hydrogen in the gas bag caught fire, plunging the crew to their deaths. The lifeboat was salvaged from the shallow coastal waters and shipped back to Goodyear, where it would spend the next 98 years in storage at the company’s Wingfoot Lake airship facility outside Akron.
The National Air and Space Museum building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is located at Sixth Street and Independence Avenue S.W. The museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is located in Chantilly, Va., near Washington Dulles International Airport. Both facilities are open daily from 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free, but there is a $15 fee for parking at the Udvar-Hazy Center.