Kiddo, the first cat to navigate the Atlantic by airship

Walter Wellmen attempted first to reach the North Pole, and then to cross the Atlantic in an airship called The America–it is the second of these trips where Kiddo found fame. Kiddo’s story is captured in the pages of Wellman’s The Aerial Age: A Thousand Miles by Airship Over the Atlantic Ocean (1911). It is most poetically written by Wellman himself, a bit comes from the notes of laconic wireless operator Jack Irwin, and everything most sympathetic from the journal of Simon Murray, ship navigator. It has been told before in snippets on purr ‘n’ furr, and aviation humour. But here it is in its entirety for, I believe, the very first time as told by the crew in a series of gripping excerpts.

“M. Vaniman and cat.” Melvin Vaniman, the first engineer of the hydrogen airship America, with the tabby cat mascot, “Kiddo,” after boarding the steamship Trent in October 1910. 

The America was rather splendid, a great balloon affixed to a long steel car with the rudder, the marconi wireless, supplies. Beneath this hung a life boat, which is where the crew spent much of their time.

In a few moments the lifeboat had been hooked to the steel car–the shackles and fasteners were all ready. One by one we of the crew bade good-bye to families and friends; no tears were shed by anyone, though all of us felt the seriousness of the moment. The cat was placed on board amid the applause of the on-lookers.

… we drifted out into the silence of the mist, as vague and uncertain as the fate that lay before us. (Walter)

Just then attention was directed to that member of our crew destined to be the real hero of the voyage–because real heroes are never self conscious, are always unconscious of suspicion and slander, of danger, of over-generous praise and therefore are never two-legged. The young gray cat, taken on board half in jest as a mascot, was howling pitifully amid these strange surroundings. (Walter)

All the time we have been towed to sea, I am chiefly worried by our cat, which is rushing around the airship like a squirrel in a cage. I was at the wheel and Jack Irwin, the wireless man, who was seated in the lifeboat suspended from the car of the airship, cried out to me, “This cat is raising hell; I believe it’s going mad.” He said we had better leave it behind. I replied, “We must keep the cat at all costs; we can never have luck without a cat aboard.” … our first counsel together aboard the airship America related to the fate of the cat! (Simon)

Mr. Vaniman, afraid of having his short sleeps disturbed, insisted that “Kiddo” be left behind. The momentous question was referred to me. Without any fear of midnight howls on the one hand, and without any superstitions on the other, it all seemed rather trivial, and I told Mr. Vaniman to do as he liked about it. (Walter)

And thus, the first in-flight radio transmission in history was “Roy, come and get this goddam cat!”

Finally we put pussy in a canvas bag and lowered him down to the water’s edge. How he must have scratched and struggled. We could feel the rope vibrating and we knew that the cat was mad with rage all the time.

Mr. Vaniman thought the newspaper representatives would like to keep the cat as a souvenir. However, the water is so rough that the motor was unable to approach and take the sack. So we decided to haul poor pussy aboard again. It is a good thing for us that we didn’t lose the cat, because he suddenly discovered that he could have been in a worse place than an airship, (Simon)

Kiddo was pulled up again, a narrow escape from losing all his fame. Later we were all right, glad chance had decided in favor of the retention of the feline member of our crew.

So off we went to the eastward, the seven of us, including the cat. In a quarter of an hour the eight-cylinder motor was started: the propellers cut the air: the America vibrated, responded, moved over the water with her own power. She was a real cruiser of the air. Down below through the fog we could see the equilibrator swimming along, for all the world like a great sea serpent, its head in the air, with a tortuous foamy wake. There was a gentle breeze from the northwest. The ship was making fair headway.

We all felt the exaltation of this moment, and said little but smiled at one another. All were happy, save Kiddo, the cat, and he was still sullen with the strangeness of his garret. A strange garret indeed, perched upon a frame of steel, suspended underneath a mass of silk and cotton and rubber, lifted by a ton of hydrogen, a whirring engine disturbing the silence and moving through gray space–pioneers in navigation of the atmospheric ocean which covers the world’s high sea. It was no wonder that for an hour or two Kiddo’s eyes stared a trifle wildly.

All about me were radiant faces–all save Kiddo’s, it still a bit sour with strangeness; cats have no imagination, no ken of chemistry and human nature and the history of progress; no vanity in pioneering. (Walter)

I have discovered by accident what our cat will eat. Irwin happened to drop a piece of biscuit and pussy eagerly pounced on it and devoured it. Apparently airship cats must not be epicures if they want to feel comfortable. (Simon)

We ate at all times, cold ham, ship’s biscuits, tinned meats, Horlick’s malted milk tablets, drank much water, and not an ounce of spirits was used on the trip. The cat ate, too: now the garret was not so strange. We were all settling down to the strange life. (Walter)

During this racket kitty seems much put out, and she is howling piteously. I never heard a cat make such a noise before. I threw it into my hammock and put a blanket over it, after which it quieted down. (Simon)

Thus we drifted an estimated 140 miles beyond Nantucket, when the wind shifted to the west-northwest, and now we drifted toward the transatlantic steamer lanes, and wondered if we should meet a ship. So great was the hazard that the lifeboat would be torn loose in the heavier gusts we took care to put the cat up in the car, where it would be safer. But it was not a very happy cat. It had little appetite, but was finally induced to eat, and whenever we of the crew could find time to snatch a few minutes’ sleep puss had a way of nestling close to the face of one of us under the blanket, there sleeping soundly. (Walter)

But we knew, each one of us, this was our last night; (Walter)

To end the discussion of other plans of escape I announced that there was nothing for it but to go back to our first proposal and take our chances in the launching of the lifeboat. Every thing was made ready for the maneuver. Vaniman passed the gas cord down within reach, and began opening the valve, letting out hydrogen and causing the airship to descend slowly; Simon saw that all the boat tackle was in proper trim: we took our places in the boat, ready for the plunge.

But stop the cat! (Walter)

I cut the sections of the canvas from the ship with my clasp knife and will hand them to Messrs. Bullen and Russell as soon as I see them. They are the only relics of the ship to be taken away by the crew apart from the lifeboat and its contents. Meanwhile the cat has been taken to the lifeboat and is put in the after chamber and screwed down. (Irwin)

Vaniman, who had wanted to leave Kiddo behind, now worried lest puss in the water-tight compartment should not have enough fresh air, and in his excitement asked for time to make an opening. Critical as the moment was, we had to laugh: there must have been enough fresh air in that compartment to keep kitty going for at least a month! We had to have our joke at Vaniman’s expense, even if we were to die with it the next minute! (Walter)

For, to tell the truth, we were glad enough to have the ship somewhere near by when we resorted to the dangerous experiment of launching our lifeboat. Now we were in our boat, the cat and all, and barring accident or hurricane could probably have taken care of our selves.

But there was the splendid and now famous Trent, a ship’s length away, her passengers and crew waving welcome to us in their joy that we had escaped the perils which beset us. (Walter)

The Trent came back, steamed alongside, threw us lines, which I made fast, and hauled us to the gangway. Passengers cheered. Captain kindly consented to take our lifeboat aboard. I remained in boat making shackles fast to haul her away.

When boat hauled aboard I opened air-chamber and found the cat curled up fast asleep. I took kitty out. You should have seen her eyes open at the strange sight. Started to scratch and tear and howl wonderfully, but soon settled down to a breakfast they brought her. (Simon)

We are defeated in our attempt to reach Europe but we are not discredited. We have established a record of which we are proud. We covered 1,008 miles; we were in the air 72 hours; we sacrificed our airship but we saved our lives, and, above all, as Mr. Wellman and Mr. Vaniman will show when they write their technical reports, we have gathered a vast amount of useful knowledge which will help largely in the solution of big problems re lating to the navigation of the air. And we also saved the cat! (Simon)

To conclude

You must never cross the Atlantic in an airship without a cat. We have found our cat more useful to us than any barometer. He is sitting on the sail of the lifeboat now as I write washing his face in the sun, a pleasant picture of feline content. This cat has always indicated trouble well ahead. Two or three times when we thought we were “all in” he gave most decided indications that he knew we should shortly be getting it in the neck. (Simon)

Wellman, Walter (1911) The aerial age: a thousand miles by airship over the Atlantic Ocean; airship voyages over the Polar Sea, the past, the present and the future of aerial navigation. New York: A.R. Keller

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.