Caturday felid: Kiddo, the cat who nearly beat Lindbergh

October 16, 2010 • 5:45 am

Exactly one hundred years ago today, six men and a cat set out to cross the Atlantic in an airship.  Leaving from New Jersey in a hydrogen-filled contraption called America, they hoped to reach Europe in only a few days. Had it succeeded, it would have been the first crossing of the Atlantic by air, preceding Lindbergh’s crossing by 17 years and Alcock and Brown’s by 9.  The Telegraph reports:

Steering such a vessel would be no easy task. The airship was comprised of a cotton and silk balloon 228ft long, filled with hydrogen, beneath which ran a long slim ‘car’, or enclosed catwalk, which housed the crew as well as engines to power four propellers. The vessel was steered by a rudder at the stern and a wheel in the front of the car.

Slung beneath the car was a lifeboat and an ungainly, metal ‘tail’ called an equilibrator, which trailed 300ft behind the airship. It was designed to drag in the water and to hold the airship at a steady height.

The idea was that as the air temperature rose, the hydrogen in the balloon would expand, causing the airship to rise. This would pull the equilibrator from the water, making it heavier and controlling the ascent. When the temperature fell, the reverse would happen.

Would you get in something that looked like this?:

America, seen from the deck of the ship that ultimately rescued the crew

And there was a cat aboard: a gray tabby named Kiddo.

As the crew, which also included a radio operator, a chief engineer and two mechanics, climbed on board, Simon picked up a stray cat that had been living in the America’s hangar. Like many sailors, he was superstitious. ‘We can never have luck without a cat on board,’ he wrote.

Here, courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum, is Kiddo (with crewman Melvin Vaniman), snapped in 1911:

Vaniman, the engineer, apparently tried to kill Kiddo as America set out:

Not everyone on board saw it that way and as the airship was being towed from the coast by a tug boat, Melvin Vaniman, the chief engineer, stuffed the cat into a bag and tried to lower it into the boat. However, the attempt to jettison the animal failed and it was dunked into the sea, before being pulled back onto the America.

Alas, Kiddo did not bring luck: the ship was beset by problems, and the crew (including Kiddo) was rescued by a mail ship after six days, only 400 miles off the U.S. coast.  The America, still aloft, disappeared over the horizon (see The Telegraph link for the full account). Nevertheless, it was a worthwhile voyage:

Although the crew had not even got close to crossing the Atlantic, the 1,008-mile, 72-hour flight had broken many records – becoming the longest in terms of time and distance. The crew had also sent the first radio message from an airship to shore and to other ships, and achieved the first rescue of an airship crew at sea. The voyage had also taught aviators vital lessons about the problems of weight and power that would need to be overcome.

The Purr ‘n’ Furr “Famous Felines” website (a site that well repays ailurophilic browsing) recounts Kiddo’s fate:

The crew, including Kiddo, were rescued by the steamboat Trent, with Simon reminding them that it had been a good idea to bring a cat, as they have nine lives!

A tumultuous welcome awaited them in New York, and Kiddo achieved celebrity status by being displayed for a while in Gimbel’s, one of the leading department stores of the time, where he reclined on soft cushions in a gilded cage.

He retired from aviation to live with Walter Wellman’s daughter, but Vaniman was not so fortunate, as he died when the airship Akron, on which he was intending to make another Atlantic attempt, exploded on 2 July 1912, killing all on board.

Vaniman’s premature death is clearly the work of Ceiling Cat, punishing the man for trying to deep-six Kiddo.  Here’s another picture of Kiddo with the nefarious Vaniman:

h/t: Stash Krod

20 thoughts on “Caturday felid: Kiddo, the cat who nearly beat Lindbergh

  1. “Would you get in something that looked like this?”

    Hydrogen filled, you said?

    No thanks.
    Wouldn’t even get close to it.

  2. “We can never have luck without a cat on board”

    The cat must have been defective.

    Or, no wait, they MUST have been lucky: some horrible fate would have surely awaited them, had they reached Europe.
    (religious reasoning)

  3. I question the superstition that cats bring good luck because they have 9 lives. Humans only have one. Everyone else can die, and the cat still has 8 lives left. Having a cat on board is just asking for trouble.


  4. I see it was not a black cat.

    Echoing Jacobus, the hydrogen’s the thing. As far as looks, it doesn’t look much different from the Hindenburg and contemporary airships.

    Without benefit of hindsight, would one take the place of one of the Wright brothers 12/17/1903, or the French balloonists in 1789(?)? Do I correctly recall that that balloon took a pig and a dog (maybe a cat)?

  5. They put a cat near a balloon? A balloon full of hydrogen?
    A brief living-room experiment with a kitten and a toy balloon would have quickly illustrated their error.
    Or maybe Kiddo was declawed.

  6. Are you falsely accusing Vaniman of trying to murder Kiddo? He was only trying to lower him into the tugboat according to the quotes, not deliberately dropping him into the sea, which wouldn’t have required a rope. So he just didn’t need him underfoot at the time. He must have had some fondness for Kiddo to be photographed with him twice subsequently.

    Poor Melvin’s demise is more probably attributable to a lack of a luck-bringing cat aboard the Akron. You really need something like this when your craft is bouyed by pure stupidity er I mean pure hydrogen.

    1. So you say purr superstition beats pure stupidity any time?

      Can’t really argue with that, at least on Caturdays.

      1. Well strictly speaking I only intended to argue that my supernatural explanation was the best among the supernatural explanations. I suppose if you want to allow non-supernatural explanations, then it’s possible the hydrogen combined with nearby oxygen as part of some mysterious natural process. This would probably require a sequence of unlikely and difficult-to-describe events to occur, however. That’s why the supernatural explanations are better.

  7. Hey ho, Kiddo Cat!

    @ Filippo:

    Regarding Hindenburg, from its Wikipedia entry:

    Helium was initially selected[7] for the lifting gas because it was the safest to use in airships, because it is not flammable. At the time it was extremely expensive, and was only available from natural gas reserves in the United States. Hydrogen, by comparison, could be cheaply produced by any industrialized nation and had more lift. American rigid airships using helium were forced to conserve the gas at all costs and this hampered their operation.[8]

    Btw, I remember now when prompted by Wikipee: US banned helium exports, so was morally involved in the problem and accidents that stopped the market eventually.


    “Wellman returned to Spitsbergen with the America in June the following year.[when?] The airship had a new centre-section sewn into it to increase its length to 185 ft (56.4 m) and volume to 272,000 cu ft (7,700 m³).”

    Just in case anyone was wondering what that funky looking lighter colored section in the middle was.

    You can find a better picture of the America on the wikipedia page too. It’s the same photo but obviously the copy here on Mr. Coyne’s blog has been doctored by cats.

  9. So the importance of this anniversary is that it’s first time a kitteh attempted a trans-oceanic flight, yes? Anyone know when and who the first successful kitteh was?

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