Air­ship’s cat:

The story of the world’s first transat­lantic air­craft pas­sen­ger

EDP Norfolk - - INSIDE - WORDS: Chris Crowther

Per­haps you’ve never heard of Wop­sie, but 100 years ago this sum­mer, most peo­ple on both sides of the At­lantic had, and a small for­tune was be­ing of­fered for her pur­chase. So, how did a small stray tabby of un­known lin­eage achieve such fame?

Her story starts when she was found in Scot­land, by Ge­orge Gra­ham, an air­ship crew­man in the Royal Naval Air Ser­vice. The First World War was rag­ing and his du­ties lay over the North Sea,

held aloft by a mil­lion cu­bic feet of highly-in­flammable hy­dro­gen.

Fast for­ward to 1919 and the R34 air­ship, com­pleted too late for the war, lifted off on a test flight. Cats of­ten served as lucky mas­cots and Wop­sie was on board. The con­trols jammed and the air­ship pitched up­wards vi­o­lently be­fore crash land­ing. The re­pair work cost R34 its place in the race to be­come the first air­craft to fly the At­lantic non-stop but two chal­lenges re­mained – the first east-to-west and the first re­turn cross­ings. A fortnight later, R34 took of with fuel, food and wa­ter for a four day flight. All sur­plus weight had been re­moved. But reck­on­ing they would need all the luck they could get, the crew smug­gled Wop­sie aboard, with a crew of 30 – and an­other stow­away. Wil­liam Bal­lan­tyne had been dropped from the crew to save weight but de­ter­mined not to miss this voyage of a life­time the ex-prize-fighter hid on top of the gas bags. Sick­ness from in­hal­ing

dis­charged hy­dro­gen drove him down into the keel area. He was told he was lucky they were now hun­dreds of miles out over the At­lantic. Over land he would have been dumped by para­chute. Four hours later the fe­line stow­away was found.

By teatime on the fourth day the R34 was over New­found­land. From there she ran south so low that a dog could be heard bark­ing in wood­land, caus­ing Wop­sie to arch her back and bris­tle. It was the only time the brave lit­tle tabby showed any fear, other­wise ful­fill­ing her role of bring­ing calm to a tense at­mos­phere.

The air­ship ar­rived over New York on the morn­ing of July 6 with just over two hours’ worth of fuel left. Thou­sands of New York cit­i­zens watched her land. An of­fi­cer was parachuted down to su­per­vise the land­ing, be­com­ing the first per­son ever to en­ter the US by para­chute. Much at­ten­tion was fo­cussed on Wop­sie, called Jazz by the Amer­i­cans. A wealthy ac­tress of­fered £1,000 for her, more than a year’s pay for an air­man, but Ge­orge Gra­ham turned it down. In­stead, she was back on board for the re­turn journey.

With the pre­vail­ing west­erly winds it took just three days, three hours and three min­utes and as R34 touched down in Pul­ham St Mary on July 13, Wop­sie be­came not only part of the first east-to-west and dou­ble cross­ing of the At­lantic, but also, as ev­ery­one else on board was crew, the first trans-At­lantic air pas­sen­ger.

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The R34 at Pul­ham’s gi­ant air­ship sheds on July 13, 1919, af­ter com­plet­ing the first dou­ble cross­ing of the At­lantic at an av­er­age speed of just over 40mph

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