100-Year-Old Lifeboat Makes its Way to Air and Space

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In the early 1900s,  before American pilots tried to fly airplanes across the Atlantic Ocean, there was another challenge taking place in the skies: flying across the ocean in airships.

Last week, the National Air and Space Museum acquired an artifact important to those early attempts—the Airship Akron lifeboat, which was attached to two of the early (though failed) dirigible flights across the ocean.

"It played an important role in two really interesting flight attempts," said Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the museum. "It reminds us of those early dreams of flying the Atlantic."

The 27-foot lifeboat was purchased in 1910 by Walter Wellman, an American newspaper publisher who was funding an attempt to cross the ocean in the airship America. Lifeboats were attached to the bottom of the airships as a means to rescue the crews, Crouch said. But crews also climbed down into them to use them as a pantry, kitchen, smoking lounge and makeshift radio control center to communicate with the ground.

In fact, the first ever aerial radio message was sent from the lifeboat on that flight, Crouch says. Wellman's navigator, Murray Simon, secretly brought a cat, named "Kiddo" onto the airship shortly before the crew took off on October 16, 1910. When the airship left the ground, Crouch says, the cat began to yelp, howl and run around—apparently creating an unbearable ruckus for Wellman, who made history by using the radio to contact his secretary and son-in-law, Leroy Chamberlin, on the ground with the phrase “Roy, come and get this @#$%^&* cat!"

Unfortunately, returning the cat to the ground was possible sooner than Wellman expected. About 38 hours into the trip, while flying above Bermuda, the airship began to have engine problems. The crew was rescued—in the lifeboat—by a steamer.

That was the last trip for Wellman, Crouch says. But Melvin Vaniman, Wellman's chief engineer on the America flight, decided to retry the flight on his own.

Vaniman contacted the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, who agreed to help build a new airship for the journey: the Akron, Goodyear's first airship, named after the company's hometown in Ohio.  Vaniman re-used the lifeboat from the failed America flight. There were several test flights before the Akron took off on July 12, 1912. Sadly, the Akron caught fire just 500 feet in the air. Neither Vaniman nor his crew survived the crash.

But the lifeboat did. It was recovered and sent back to Goodyear's warehouse in Akron, Ohio, Crouch says. There, it remained for the next 98 years. Crouch has always known it was there,  but didn't get the chance to bring it to the Smithsonian until last year. Goodyear was cleaning out storage units, found the lifeboat and contacted Crouch to see if the museum wanted it.

So this past Thursday, Crouch waited eagerly as a large truck arrived at the Udvar-Hazy Center's warehouse in Chantilly, Virginia. After examining the lifeboat, he said it was in great condition. The boat won't need to be restored, Crouch said, but it does need "quite a bit of cleanup."

Though Crouch is not sure when the lifeboat will make its debut at the museum, he does know exactly where it will go—between the gondola of the the Double Eagle II, which made the first balloon flight to Europe in 1978, and the nose of the Concorde, an aircraft that helped pioneer supersonic travel.

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