My Voyage in The World's Greatest Airship
The Hon. C. S. Rolls
A WHITE fog pressed close to my bedroom window like a blanket of fleecy wool. Not a pleasant sight for a man who has to take his first voyage in an airship. I had visions of being fogbound in the seas of the air, of drifting helplessly on to the grey stones of Notre Dame, or crashing against the great steel structure of the Eiffel Tower. The whole city would be a submerged reef of rocks.
It was to be my hundredth balloon ascent, and was to be made in the company of my friend, Mr. Frank Butler, who had also accomplished ninety-nine ascents. Like the true sportsman that he is, he had waited for me to get level with him, so that we could make the century together.
And this was to be no ordinary balloon ascent. Monsieur Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe had courteously placed his dirigible airship, the “Ville de Paris,” at our disposal. It was an occasion—something to be remembered in after years. The densest fog that was ever conceived in the smoke of London would not have prevented us from hoping that we should be allowed to take the trip.
We drove in a taxicab to Sartrouville, and found the fog denser than it was in Paris ; and when we entered the enormous garage, or shed, where the “Ville de Paris” lay like some sleeping leviathan, we could
hardly see from one end to the other. Then the chief and second engineers arrived. They made the final adjustments to the mechanism and tested the engines. Before they had finished, the chief navigator—the captain—came upon the scene, and held council with his officers. They decided to have lunch. It was possible that the fog might clear by the time we had finished our meal.
The airship shed was in a deserted spot, and so we motored to St. Germain, and lunched at the famous Pavilion Henri Quatre. On our way there we were turned back by the gendarme in the park. He informed us that no kind of mechanically propelled vehicle was allowed in the vicinity of this sacred enclosure. Little did he think that a couple of hours later we should be sailing over his head, and jeering at his impotent wrath.
On our return to Sartrouville the fog had almost dispersed. The crew of the airship were ready. M. Kapferer, the chief navigator, gave a signal, and the quiet shed became a scene of bustling activity.
Bang! Bang! Bang! My heart went into my boots. Something had exploded? There had been an accident ! There would be no ascent, after all.
But I was mistaken. It was only a prearranged signal to some paid helpers in the neighborhood, who were required to hold the vessel down at the start. Before many minutes had elapsed they were on the scene, and twenty lined up on each side of the framework. The word of command was given, and the huge cylinder, nearly two hundred feet in length, began to thrust its nose out of the end of the shed.
Foot by foot it emerged, like some antediluvian monster creeping Trom its lair, until it stood on the open manoeuvring ground. I was busy with my camera, when I heard my name called. It was my turn to go on^ board. Mr. Butler was already seated on a camp stool in the stern of the ship. He looked warm and comfortable in the thick suit he used for tobogganing in Switzerland. It would doubtless be cold when he rushed through the air, for this was not ballooning. It was an aerial motor-ride.
I took my place behind the navigating bridge, and watched the trimming of the ship, which was evidently a matter of supreme importance. Ballast was being discharged in small quantities from bow and stern alternately. The captain kept his eye on the clinometer, an instrument for indicating the exact horizontal poise of the vessel.
It was a long time before there were any signs of buoyancy, for the balloon was still heavy with the moisture from the fog. Then at last the bows lifted, first a few inches, then a foot or two. She was still “down by the stern,” however. It was suggested that Mr. Frank Butler should move for’ard, but the difficulty was met by the discharge of more ballast from the afterpart of the vessel.
“All clear!” The words rang out above the chatter of voices. I had often heard them before, but never under such circumstances as these. The voices grew fainter and fainter. The voices dropped away from us. The voyage had begun.
“Slow ahead !” No voice this time, but a ring on the telegraph to the engine-room. The engine roared ; the ship trembled from stem to stern ; the wind brushed past our faces. This was something worth living for. It was the conquest of the air.
Then suddenly the engine stopped. The vessel turned round at right angles to her course, and we drifted broadside on with the wind, like any ordinary balloon. I began to think of unpleasant things. The
descent of our 200 ft. cylinder, shorn of
its motive power, and left to the mercy of the wind, was something I did not care to contemplate.
The engineers struggled with the machinery in the fore-part of the vessel. Our navigator shouted down the telephone to ascertain the cause of the stoppage. No intelligible reply was received, but the men gesticulated wildly. I began to feel uncomfortable. I thought of all likely and unlikely accidents. I almost wished that I had made my hundredth ascent in an ordinary balloon, where there was no machinery. Those wild movements, that speechless excitement which can give no intelligible answer to a captain’s questions or commands! Many a vessel had been wrecked at sea through the crew and engineers losing their heads. And a wreck here—hundreds of feet above the earth-
My thoughts were interrupted by the welcome sound of the engines. I had made no allowance for the Gallic tempérament. Nothing serious had happened, after all. A faulty adjustment of the carburettor—a mere incident in the daily life of a motorist.
We made up our leeway, and headed for Paris. Then the captain spoke down the telephone, and a few minutes later the engine-room telegraph was moved to “Full speed ahead.” We had already felt the cold rush of the air, but now the wind roared past us with the fury of a gale. The navigator drew his peaked cap tighter on to his head, and put on his goggles and a scarf. We turned up our coat-collars, and clung to the side of the ship, which trembled like a torpedo-destroyer as the powerful engines forced it through the atmosphere. This was speed with a vengeance; not the silent speed of a balloon, which, even when it is traveling at forty miles an hour, seems to be almost at rest, but the fierce speed of something that is being driven against a resisting force— the speed of power.
The course was set for Issy-les-Moulineaux, where we hoped to witness some aeroplane trials on the parade ground. But as we approached Paris we entered a slight fog. So we decided to take a trip in the open country.
The ship was swung round, and as we again approached Sartrouville the. „fog began to clear, and the huge garage-shed came into sight. Thence we sailed to St. Germain, and floated over the Pavilion Henri Quatre, where we had been lunching earlier in the day. The hotel people came out and waved to us frantically. When we had told them we were going a voyage in an airship they had refused to believe us, but now they had the evidence of their own eyes.
By this time we were quite used to the novel sensation of being on an airship, and we walked about the deck like seasoned mariners of the air. We took photographs and admired the view.
It might be supposed that this voyage provided hardly any new experiences for a man who had already made ninety-nine ascents in a balloon. But such was not the case. The sensation of being in an airship is entirely different to that of being in a balloon.
If I was asked to describe the difference in a few words, I should say that my
hundredth ascent in the air was less pleasant but more exciting than any of the others that preceded it. A balloon moves at the same rate as the wind, and there is no sense of motion. One glides peacefully through the air, which seems almost still ; and even where there is a strong breeze one does not feel the cold.
But in an airship the conditions are quite different. One is driven rapidly through the air; the cold is intense, as the wind rushes past with the fury of a gale ; the framework of the ship quivers with the vibration of the engines. There is, however, practically no pitching or oscillating, except for a moment when the course is altered, or when the vessel is struck by a sudden squall.
Moreover, there is no tendency to airsickness of any kind. As in a balloon, one feels no giddiness, for there is no connection between the eye and the ground ; it is like looking upon a map. If there were anything between the ship and the ground that the eye could follow, such as a precipice, a man would grow dizzy as he looked into the depths.
I must confess that it took me some time to attain the same feeling of security that one has in an ordinary balloon. A number of unpleasant things occurred to me as we rushed through the air.
I wondered what would happen if the rearmost propeller-shaft bearing were to break. The whole propeller would probably fall to earth, and carry with it a portion of the shafting. The airship, released from the weight, would shoot up like a rocket and drift away with the wind like an ordinary balloon. As it ascended, the gas would expand and blow out of the safetyvalve. The ship would rise through the clouds, and, as the rays of the sun fell on the envelope, the gas would expand still more rapidly. Then there would come a point when the lifting power of the balloon would become less than its weight, and it would begin to fall.
As it re-entered the clouds the gas would contract, the envelope would grow heavy with moisture, and the whole structure would fall with terrible swiftness. The weight of the airship, with all its machinery, would be so great that it would be almost impossible to check the descent with the quantity of ballast usually carried. It would crash on to the ground ; and the framework, which is necessarily rigid and unable to withstand serious blows, would probably break in pieces. Another portion of frame or machinery would be lost, and the ship would once more soar up into the clouds.
The same process of expansion and contraction would take place, but this time the descent would be more rapid, and there would be little or no ballast left to break the fall. The aeronauts’ only chance of escaping with their lives would be to descend into a thick wood.
Such an accident as this is not very likely to arise in a carefully constructed airship, but a mere breakdown such as was not unheard of in the early days of motoring—a stoppage in the petrol pipes, a short circuit, or a hot bearing—might be attended with serious consequences. The airship would be turned into an ordinary balloon ; while its great weight and bulk and its 78
unyielding rigidity would render a descent at the same speed as the wind both difficult and dangerous.
In the case of an ordinary balloon the passengers are protected by a flexible wicker-work car, which gives to the shock, and from which it is very difficult to fall out ; but in the case of an airship the car is a light wooden or tubular framework, with sides that are open in places, and which would easily fracture on contact with the earth.
I thought of all these possibilities while we were flying through the air, and I realized how much depended on the motor and the man in charge of the engine. But the latter seemed so supremely happy, and the engine was beating with such perfect rhythm, that I gradually became as confident as the captain, and I soon lost all sense of fear.
The “Ville de Paris’’ had been rightly called a ship, for in many ways she resembled her sisters of the sea. The captain stood, or rather sat, at his post on the bridge ; close to his hand were the telephone and telegraph to the engineroom, the two steering wheels (for an airship moves both in vertical and horizontal planes), the aneroid for indicating altitude, the self-recording barometer, the thermometer, and a number of mysterious levers and gauges.
Like the captain of a vessel, the navigator steers by chart and compass, consults them frequently, and traces his course on the map. And, like any other sailor in charge of a ship, he has to keep his undivided attention upon his work; he has to be quick to think, and quick to act, cool in moments of danger, a man of authority.
We sailed out into the clear sky again, and continued our voyage. As we passed over the forest of St. Germain we caught sight of a hunt, in which M. Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe was taking part. Needless to say, we descended, and skimmed just over the tops of the trees, exchanging greetings with the huntsmen, much to their amusement.
At one time a fort lay beneath us. How easv it would have been to have dropped a bomb behind the ramparts, and blown the defenders to pieces ! Small wonder that the military experts of all the great nations are devoting their brains and energies to the development of this new and terrible engine of war.
Before our voyage came to an end, M. Kapferer put the airship through her paces, just to show us how wonderfully she answered her helm. She moved as gracefully and easily as a bird. Upwards and downwards, to right and left, however the navigator chose to guide her, she swooped and curved with incredible swiftness and accuracy. Twice she described a complete figure of eight as skilfully as any skater at Prince’s.
Our starting place was now near at
hand, and the crew began to make preparations for our descent. I fancied that the final landing would be by no means the least exciting part of the journey.
We were traveling with the wind, which had freshened somewhat since the start, and were running before it at the rate of nearly forty miles an hour. To an ordinary balloonist it seemed that we were in for a lively time. It was still misty, and it was necessary to keep a sharp look-out ahead. My task had already been allotted to me. I was to discharge the huge trailrope at the word of command, and I “stood by," as the sailors have it. At a time like this there was no place for an idle passenger.
Then, suddenly, the great garage-shed loomed up out of the mist, and in a moment we had flashed past it, only just clearing the roof.
“Overshot the mark,” I said to myself, “and badly too.” I expected to hear the beat of the engine die away into silence, or, at any rate, throb more slowly as the speed was reduced. But we continued to rush through the air at full speed.
Then suddenly the airship lurched, like a vessel struck by a squall. I clung to the side, as the helm was put hard over, and the great machine swerved round into the wind.
I understood the manoeuvre at once. I had been a fool to think that we had accidentally overshot the mark. They were going to shoot her up to her moorings against the tide, in this case a swift current of air instead of water.
The speed slackened as we fought our way back against the wind ; the shed came in sight again, and the aeroplanes were set so as to force us downwards. We were now almost over the manoeuvring ground, and a great concourse of people had gathered to await our return.
The engine-room telegraph rang, and the speed was reduced till it just held us up against the wind. Lower and lower we sank towards the earth ; the word of .command was given ; I discharged the great trail-rope, which unwound itself as it fell, and was gripped by a score of willing hands ; the propeller still moved to keep us
head-to-wind ; and then we floated on to the ground without even knowing that we had touched it.
Cheers went up from the crowd as they watched this supreme triumph on the part of the navigator. We collected our cameras and instruments, and alighted on solid earth once more.
We bade farewell to M. Kapferer and to M. Poulhain, the clever and genial young engineer of the ship. Then we returned to Paris, delighted to have been the first Englishmen to go a voyage in a private airship.
We spent the evening at our hotel in the company of M. Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe, the owner of the “Ville de Paris” and one of the most hospitable men in France. His name will always be remembered in connection with the early days of the conquest of the air, for he has done much to further the science of aeronautics; and among the numerous valuable prizes he has offered is the one recently captured by Mr. Farman.
The next morning the whole experience seemed like a dream, and it was hard to believe that we had not merely been reading a story by Jules Verne or H. G. Wells.
Exactly twenty hours after our ascent the “Patrie” was lost; and the “Ville de Paris,” thanks to the generosity of its owner, was handed over to the French Government.
We were glad to think we had taken the opportunity when it had been offered to us. If we had waited another day or two, the chance would have been lost to us for ever-