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Kiddo was the first cat to take to the air over the Atlantic Ocean in an airship, although the crossing was not completed. He was a grey tabby, one of twins, but unfortunately his brother was killed in the hangar by a wolfhound, a few weeks before the flight. Kiddo usually referred to by the crew as 'Kitty' belonged to one of the crew members of Walter Wellman's airship America. Wellman (1858-1934) was an American explorer, aeronaut and journalist.
In 1910 he and five companions attempted to cross the ocean, leaving from Atlantic City, New Jersey on 15 October that year. A motorboat, occupied by journalists, towed the airship away from land until deep water was reached, and then cast it off when the sea became too rough for the small boat. While that was going on Kiddo really did not seem to enjoy his first experience of flying, mewing, howling and rushing around 'like a squirrel in a cage', according to the log, and generally getting on the nerves of the first engineer, Melvin Vaniman. The America carried radio equipment, the first aircraft so equipped, and apparently the historic first, in-flight radio message to a secretary back on land read:
Kiddo was unceremoniously stuffed into a canvas bag, with the idea that he would be lowered into the motorboat beneath the airship. The bag, wriggling furiously, was lowered to just above the sea, but the weather was too rough for the boat to reach it and so it was hauled back up again. Kiddo soon regained his equilibrium and his spirits and behaved 'fairly well'; indeed, the crew found him 'more useful than any barometer. You must never cross the Atlantic in an airship without a cat,' as Murray Simon put it. 'He is sitting on the sail of the lifeboat now as I write, washing his face in the sun: a pleasant picture of feline contentment. 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 would be shortly getting it in the neck.' The cat did not like it when the weather became rough and the airship lost height, though; he became agitated and, as Simon describes, was 'howling piteously. I never heard a cat make such a noise.' Kiddo was thrown into a hammock and had a blanket put over him, which calmed him down.
Unfortunately the weather and various other problems meant that the Atlantic crossing could not be completed, and eventually the ship had to be ditched and the crew, cat included, took to the lifeboat. They were rescued by the British steamship RMS Trent, which was en route from Bermuda to New York and with which they had been communicating by Morse lamp. When the boat had been hauled aboard Trent, Kiddo was found to be fast asleep in the aft chamber where he had been secured, but he started howling again when he saw the unfamiliar surroundings. However, he 'settled down to a breakfast they brought him'. Simon reminded the crew 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. Although the Atlantic had not been crossed, the America had broken all records by remaining aloft for almost 72 hours, and during that time had travelled just over 1000 miles (1600 km). A great deal of useful information had been gained, which could be put towards a future attempt 'and we saved the cat!'
Kiddo 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, crashed at sea on 2 July 1912, killing all on board.
Note: Tabby kitten Whoopsy (or Whoopsie), later renamed Jazz by American admirers, outdid Kiddo in July 1919 when he stowed away aboard British airship R-34 and became the first cat to complete the trans-Atlantic crossing from Britain to America. He was brought on board by a human stowaway, William Ballantyne. They hid in the cramped space between the girders and the gas-bags, but not long into the flight Ballantyne became ill and nauseous and had to reveal himself. There wasn't much to be done, as the airship was by then over the Atlantic, so after recovering Ballantyne worked his passage as cook and general factotum. As for Whoopsy, he was looked after by George Graham, the oldest airman on board, and earned his place by providing entertainment and comfort to the other crew members. He became the airship's regular mascot until it crashed in 1921; the only injury was to Whoopsy, who suffered a bruised paw. We don't know anything of his later history.
Some of the information about Kiddo comes from Allan Janus's marvellous book about animals that have flown in balloons, planes and airships, Animals Aloft (Bunker Hill Publishing, Piermont, New Hampshire, 2005). We are also most grateful to Allan for his help with obtaining permission for Kiddo's and other photos belonging to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. You can read about Allan's own cats Max and Maxine here.
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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Simon of HMS Amethyst.
He remains the only cat ever to have been awarded the Dickin Medal for gallantry under enemy fire,
in what became known as the 'Yangtse Incident' (1949).
Read Simon's story.
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Page created December 2006, with later revisions and additions