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The Brief Voyage of the Airship America: Walter Wellman's Early Attempt at Trans-Atlantic Flight



At the age of fourteen, Walter Wellman started his own weekly newspaper, serving the community of Sutton, Nebraska. That was momentous for him, affording him a career that would take him around the world. A wunderkind in the field, he found incredible success at a young age. The crux of his legacy was not, however, in his journalistic success: it was in his aeronautical failure.

Within a few years of his hiring at the Chicago Herald, Wellman earned a reputation as an adventurer. The Herald funded a voyage into the Caribbean, charging him with determining Christophe Columbus's first landing point in the Americas. Wellman traveled throughout the Bahamas, conducting research and, in time, selecting San Salvador Island as the most likely site. There, he erected a monument, to mark the point.


Although little known to his readers in the Herald, Wellman harbored a dream outside of newspapers and history: he wanted to visit the North Pole.

In 1894, 1898, and 1899, Wellman made three attempts to travel to the North Pole by land. Each time, he came up short, forced to turn back because of the inhospitable terrain and his dwindling supplies. It was in 1909, after hearing of Robert Peary's – since disputed – claim to have visited the North Pole, Wellman shifted his focus. He decided that instead of any more attempts at visiting the North Pole, he would become the first man to cross the Atlantic by air.

For this purpose, Wellman enlisted engineer Melvin Vaniman to modify a large airship, America. America left Atlantic City on October 15, 1910, coming up shy of Nova Scotia before drifting southward. For thirty-three hours, America continued in that general direction, ending up in Bermuda, where the steamship Trent spotted Wellman's lamplight distress signal.


The onset of World War I prevented further attempts at transatlantic flight until the late 1910s. In May 1919, a group of aviators spent twenty-three days, stopping six times, to get from the United States to Portugal and then the United Kingdom. Eight years after that, on May 20th, 1927, Charles Lindbergh made the first nonstop flight from the United States to continental Europe.

Although alive to see all of these milestones, Walter Wellman did not play an active role in any of them. He lived out the rest of his life in New York City, publishing books about the adventures of his youth. His attempt, however, was not for nothing. On the path from the flights of the first dirigibles of the mid- nineteenth century, over Paris, to those of the propeller planes and then jets across the Atlantic, attempts such as Wellman's were necessary junctures. Goodyear Tire and Rubber, which had manufactured America's lifeboat, recognized that, storing the lifeboat. They then donated the lifeboat to the Smithsonian Institution, which has ever since displayed them – alongside the recovered fragments of America – in the National Air and Space Museum.

May 22nd also marks another breakthrough for human travel: the first transoceanic voyage by a steamship, the P.S. Savannah in 1819. The achievement is commemorated as National Maritime Day, first established by Congress in 1933 to recognize the key role Merchant Marines play in the development of commerce and security.