When the time comes for all good Smithsonian curators to list the most important or interesting object acquired during the past year, I will be calling attention to a historic lifeboat. The story begins, or ends, with a tragedy. On July 2, 1912, aeronaut Melvin Vaniman steered the hydrogen-filled Akron, the very first airship manufactured by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, up and away from his Atlantic City, New Jersey hangar. Dangling beneath the craft as it nosed out toward the ocean was a lifeboat that was already a veteran of one attempt to fly the Atlantic.
The American journalist and adventurer Walter Wellman purchased the sturdy craft in 1910 as he was preparing the airship America to attempt the first powered flight across the Atlantic. S.E. Saunders of East Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, built the lifeboat for the Wellman expedition. “That celebrated builder thinks it the finest piece of work he has ever turned out,” Wellman remarked. “Sailors who have seen this lifeboat admire it very much,” he continued, “and say it is non-capsizable and non-sinkable.”
The boat is 27 feet long, with a six-foot beam and 3.5-foot depth amidships. The hull is constructed of three layers of mahogany veneer. The mid-section, protected by a canopy, was the cockpit. The fore and aft ends were decked over to create watertight compartments. One compartment contained the Marconi set, used on the 1910 America flight to send the first wireless message from the air. It came complete with a kite and lightweight antenna wire, so that if the airship were forced down at sea, the crew could send the antenna aloft and continue broadcasting.
In addition to its basic role as a refuge for the crew should they end up in the water, the lifeboat served as a kitchen, pantry, and smoking lounge. During the 1910 flight, the airship, its five crew members, and a cat named Kiddo remained aloft for 71 1/2 hours, but were forced down near Bermuda with engine problems. All were rescued by a steamer.
Wellman retired from the field, but Melvin Vaniman, his chief engineer, began planning for a transatlantic flight of his own. Frank Seiberling, the head of Goodyear, agreed to manufacture the gas bag for the airship that would be known as the Akron, in honor of the company’s hometown (not to be confused with the Goodyear-built airship ZRS-4 Akron of the 1930s). Vaniman decided to reuse Wellman’s lifeboat. After a series of test flights, the five-man crew took off on their Atlantic attempt on July 2, 1912. They had barely crossed the coastline when, 500 feet in the air, the 400,000 cubic feet of hydrogen caught fire, destroying the gas bag and sending Vaniman, his brother, and three other crewmen to their deaths. The lifeboat was salvaged from the shallow coastal waters and shipped back to Goodyear, where it spent the next 98 years in storage at the company’s Wingfoot Lake airship facility, outside Akron, Ohio.
Following several months of negotiation, Goodyear has donated this important piece of its aeronautical heritage to the National Air and Space Museum. After a period of cleanup and a conservation assessment, it will be displayed at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, close to two historic transatlantic aircraft—the gondola of the Double Eagle II, which in 1978 carried the first balloonists from the United States to Europe, and the Concorde, which pioneered commercial supersonic travel across the Atlantic.
Finally, it is interesting to note that the lifeboat not only survived the first two attempts to cross the Atlantic with a powered aircraft, but was also the first aeronautical product of what was to become a distinguished firm of aircraft builders. In 1929 the British aeronautical pioneer Alliott Verdon-Roe purchased the Saunders firm and created Saunders-Roe Ltd, one of the world’s great producers of flying boats. And it all began with a lifeboat.