Aviation’s history books are full of names that have left their mark on flying: Earhart, Fokker, Lindbergh…Kiddo. What’s that? Don’t you recognize the last one? Well, perhaps because it was not a person but a cat who unintentionally set a world record. Confused? Let’s explain by first looking at what led to an unintentional historic flight.
A journalist’s dream
It was October 15, 1910, and the airship America was preparing to set off on a transatlantic flight. This non-rigid airship was built explicitly by Mutin Godard in France in 1906 for Walter Wellman’s planned flight to the North Pole. Wellman was a journalist by trade and first planned to conduct this flight using a hot air balloon after missing the mark via boat and sled back in 1894.
After analyzing options for his next attempt, Wellman was dissuaded from pursuing the balloon option to what he perceived was the lack of good steering and propulsion required to reach the pole. After ten years of pondering, he came across new French dirigible designs, which seemed to be a suitable platform.
After some planning and fundraising efforts, the America came to life. It measured 165 ft (50 m) long and 51 ft 10 in (15.80 m) wide and enclosed a volume of 258,000 cubic feet (7,300 m3) of hydrogen. The gondola could hold a crew of five, and power was supplied by three internal-combustion engines delivering a total of 80 hp (60 kW) and two in-line propellers in a push-pull configuration.
A purrr-fectly good trip gone wrong
The America was all set to take off from Atlantic City, New Jersey, for a transatlantic flight thanks to Wellman’s ability to persuade three newspapers – the New York Times, the Chicago Record-Herald, and Britain’s Daily Telegraph, to finance the trip. Just as the aircraft was ready to depart, ‘Kiddo’ a grey tabby, one of the former stray twin cats that lived around the airship hangar, jumped into one of the airship’s lifeboats. After unsuccessful attempts to remove him from the ship, Kiddo was left onboard as the America began to fly off.
The cat spent much of his time cuddled up to radio operator Jack Irwin at his post. As the craft moved about, Kiddo expressed his anxiety about being airborne by mewing, howling, and rushing around, as the crew log stated, “like a squirrel in a cage”. First engineer Melvin Vaniman had enough of the feline frenzy and made a famous radio call where he directly told someone to come get the cat. (We’ve decided to withhold the specific language he used.)
A flight worthy of nine lives
Once Kiddo’s worries had subsided, the crew was forced to deal with another situation. The dense fog later turned into a storm that came in from the northeast, which battered the aircraft and blew it off course. Adding insult to injury, the crew had to deal with engine failure. As a result, a distress signal was sent out. Kiddo and the crew were evacuated onto a Royal Mail steamship, RS Trent. Without crew or tie-downs, the America was left to drift away and eventually crashed off the coast of Maryland.
Finally, the crew (human and otherwise) was returned to New York via tugboat. A large welcoming party gathered, and Kiddo was renamed Trent in honor of the rescue ship. His celebrity status continued as Kiddo (aka Trent) was given a very comfy home at Gimbels, one of the leading department stores at the time. This restful retail abode included soft cushions for the famous feline to recline on.
Eventually, Kiddo retired from aviation to live with Walter Wellman’s daughter, Edith. First Engineer Vaniman met a different fate when he died when the airship Akron, on which he was intending to make another Atlantic attempt, crashed at sea on July 2, 1912, killing all onboard.
And that is the story of Kiddo…er…Trent… a feline who made history in a very unconventional way.