THE "R 34" was not the sexiest name for an aircraft but in 1919 it was the biggest and best of its kind, a symbol of innovation and the attraction of people the world over. This super-Zeppelin made history for being the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic from the east, as well as the first-ever transatlantic return voyage by air.
The R 34 was stationed in an airfield at East Fortune, the new home of that other super aircraft. Exhibits for both share the spotlight at the Museum of Flight, the East Lothian attraction where the Concorde Experience opened in March under the direction of Alasdair Dodds, the museum's curator of transport.
"It was a relatively significant moment in aviation terms," Dodds says of the R 34 and its non-stop crossing of the Atlantic. "There were a lot of epic journeys to be undertaken then and people tended to grasp hold of these stories."
The trip departed in the early hours of 3 July and was quite an accomplishment for its time. This was only the second successful, non-stop flight, the first coming only a month earlier when John Alcock and Arthur Brown travelled from Newfoundland in a converted First World War bomber that crashed-landed 16 1/2 hours later in Ireland – a successful if not smooth flight. Other attempts failed before the July journey of the R 34.
Eight officers and 22 crew were on board – and two stowaways. William Ballantye had worked with the crew but was among the people dropped from the travelling group because of concerns the craft might be too heavy. He hid in a compartment onboard and, once discovered was put to work the rest of the way. The other "passenger" went by the name of Wopsie, a cat brought onboard by a crewmember for good luck.
The airship had the latest equipment to monitor communications and the weather. Even brandy was available for medicinal purposes; the bottle survived a drop to the floor and remains, unopened, part of the museum collection today.
On the trip the crew overcame head winds that consumed an inordinate amount of fuel, a thunderstorm over Canada and bitter-cold temperatures at higher elevations.
The flight was completed in 108 hours, 12 minutes – some 4 1/2 days - a far cry from the six- or seven-hour journey associated with today's transatlantic flights or the 3 hours required for Concorde.
Thousands of onlookers were on hand when the R 34 approached its destination, an airfield in Mineola, Long Island. Maj. G.E.M. Pritchard parachuted from the rear gondola to help co-ordinate the landing, becoming the first person to arrive in the New World from Europe by air.
"Golly! But I'm glad to get ashore," Maj. Pritchard was quoted. "Feel fine, but a trifle stiff."
After a few days of rest and refuelling, the airship was bound for home. With the wind at its tail, the trip east was smoother although much colder, the ice and wind causing severe damage to the airship’s fabric. On orders of the British military, the craft was diverted to a remote airfield at Pulham, Norfolk, where it landed safely at 8 a.m. on 13 July – a "swift" 75 hours, 3 minutes after departing Mineola.
"It was a most successful voyage in every way," said Maj. George Scott, a Dunbar resident who headed the crew. "I think the most striking point was the fact that we were actually able to complete the return voyage against the most adverse and difficult weather conditions."
Then and now, the cost of building a state-of-the art aircraft is one of the most expensive projects known to man. The R 34, for example, cost 350,000, a huge sum for its time. Each Concorde, meanwhile, had an estimated 23 million price tag, excluding development costs. As for travel speed, the airship could move at up to 85mph; Concorde travelled at 1,350mph – often leaving Heathrow Airport at sunset and arriving in New York with more daylight to enjoy.
"R 34 was much more a human endeavour," Dodds says. "The people designing Concorde had the real challenge, including the test crews and engineers."
Flying nearly twice the speed of sound and 10 miles above Earth would put a strain on any flying object, thus making the Concorde a significant achievement.
"I compare it to landing on the moon, practically a greater challenge of landing on the moon," says Dodds. "The only people flying in supersonic craft were Air Force, in pressure suits for 10 minutes at a time. It was really cutting edge."
The entire Concorde fleet retired from service by October 2003. Last year, the Museum of Flight received G-BOAA, the first Concorde to cross the Atlantic, as the jet's final resting place. Assembled in Filton, near Bristol, in 1975, Concorde first landed in New York a few months later, in 1976. The legendary craft retired in 2000 after notching 22,769 flight hours and 6,842 trips.
"I think it is quite significant to have the Concorde here because of the history of East Fortune," Dodds adds.
Good fortune, one might say.