The story of the world’s first transatlantic aircraft passenger
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.
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