Welcoming home a transatlantic hero: 100 years on
- Credit: Archant
He was hailed an 'Aerial Columbus'. As commemorations are held in Norfolk to mark the centenary of the first-ever double crossing of the Atlantic which ended at Pulham air station, Steve Snelling charts a remarkable story of Jack Pritchard, one of the heroes of the record-making airship R34
Jack Pritchard was in no doubt about the dangers facing him. As one of Britain's foremost airship experts, he knew better than anyone that the mission represented an aeronautical journey into the unknown.
Nothing like it had been attempted before. To cross the Atlantic once was challenging enough, but to fly to the United States and back entailed not just an extraordinary leap of faith but a willingness to travel beyond the limits of his or anyone else's experience.
To many it seemed akin to entering the realms of a Jules Verne fantasy. But to the 29-year-old mining engineer turned visionary aeronaut, it was a case not so much of staking his life on a dream as on an unshakeable belief in the airship as the wonder of the age and the future of inter-continental travel.
Something of that conviction may have been in his mind as he scribbled a hasty farewell letter to his wife late on July 1, 1919, just four hours before the bugle blast that would send R34 on its way. More likely he was simply trying to ease her fears by downplaying the myriad hazards that lay ahead.
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"Please dearest one," he wrote, "we are probably leaving for USA at about 2 am tomorrow morning… I know you won't be able to prevent yourself from worrying a certain amount but please dearest try to be serene. All the conditions are most favourable and the risk is really quite small…"
Whether or not she was convinced is unclear, but the reality would quickly prove to be far removed from his somewhat fanciful forecast as he and the intrepid crew of R34 found themselves tested time and again by elemental as well as mechanical challenges during an epic two-way journey which would culminate in a memorable if unscheduled Norfolk homecoming a century ago.
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In truth, the record-making double flight, which is being celebrated with two days of commemorative events at Pulham St Mary next weekend (July 13 - 14), was a mixture of the farcical, the fantastical and, at times, the downright fearful.
It was also hugely significant and undeniably heroic, albeit in a peculiarly British understated sort of way.
"Almost everything about it was extraordinary and experimental and so very brave."
The words belong to Wendy Pritchard, grand-daughter of Jack, and proud keeper of the family archives. "The sheer courage of it all is almost beyond belief," she adds . "But then again, I suppose, they were very young men on the brink of what they saw as a huge adventure and were caught up in the excitement of what they were doing and what they wanted to achieve."
None more so than John Edward Maddock Pritchard, whose short life seems to encapsulate the triumph and the tragedy of Britain's airship industry.
His story is a remarkable one that emerges over the course of a morning at Wendy's home in Burnham Norton, a short walk away from the creek-laced coastline that was a way marker for many a marauding Zeppelin and which had become a favourite family playground before the First World War intervened to change the course of Jack's life.
An only child, born to an American-Welsh father, he was, says Wendy, a "shy but very clever boy and incredibly good looking", who went to Cambridge, where he met his future wife, Hilda, at a May ball.
"They just hit it off straightaway," says Wendy. "It was a real love story. He was a bit of a daredevil, liked speed and cars which were still quite rare in those days, and she was of a more literary, poetic bent, but they clicked.
"It was she who introduced grandfather to Norfolk. They came to Brancaster for summer holidays and after they were married in 1913 and had children they would regularly decamp up here and that was the beginning of the family's connection with the county."
As with many others, the upheaval of war in the summer of 1914 transformed everything. Within a year, the highly qualified mining engineer with a penchant for fast cars was a newly commissioned officer in the 'Ballooning and Aerostatics' branch of the Royal Naval Air Service.
It was, on the face of it, an unlikely role. "According to his staff reports," says Wendy, "they weren't sure, given his love of speed, he'd be suited to airships, which were a bit on the slow side. But, in fact, he very quickly got completely hooked on the engineering side of things."
Between 1915 and 1917, he commanded a series of non-rigid airships engaged in coastal patrol work over the North Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean where he carried out a record-breaking 8½ hour flight.
Such feats, coupled with his wide experience of flying nearly every conceivable airship type, his technical accomplishments and his growing reputation for innovation, earned him promotion and a posting to the Admiralty Airship Department which was in the process of developing a fleet of rigid airships based to a large extent on the designs of German Zeppelins.
It was a transfer that would shape the rest of his career and, indeed, his life. In his key role as 'rigid acceptance pilot and technical flying officer', he would not only test every new 'rigid' airship that was built, he was also responsible for the secret surveys of crashed German Zeppelins in Britain and France which influenced their designs, the R34 among them.
"It was an incredibly important job," says Wendy. "He was responsible for effectively 'vetting' each airship, carrying out trials to ensure they were airworthy which was not without its dangers."
More than that, the posting brought him into close contact with Brigadier-General Edward Maitland, an officer revered as the 'Father of Britain's Airship Service', and the pair soon forged a strong personal as well as professional relationship.
"They clearly got on well," says Wendy. "From what I have read, it is obvious they had a great mutual respect for one another and, together with their other friend, George Scott, they shared the same faith in airships as the way ahead for long-distance air travel."
That Maitland also appreciated Jack's spirit as well as his technical know-how is also plain from a transcript of a speech he delivered and which Wendy found in her grandfather's papers.
In it, Maitland referred to Jack's "magnetic personality" and his "cheery optimism" which had "endeared him to all in the Airship Service". "His laugh is so infectious," he added, "that one has to join in when hearing it."
Such virtues were to be at a premium just a few months after the Armistice as the R34, a giant of an airship built for war but handed a trail-blazing role in peace, was made ready for what Wendy calls the "great adventure" of the double Atlantic crossing.
Hurriedly launched just a fortnight after Alcock and Brown's historic if harrowing non-stop, west-east flight ended in a crash-landing in an Irish bog, the mission's ambitious objectives were both political and commercial: to demonstrate Britain's emergence as a leader in airship development and to advertise the commercial potential of the airship as a long-range passenger carrier to rival the sea-going ocean liners.
It was also, in the way of all pioneering operations, an opportunity, albeit a somewhat dangerous one, "to gain experience", as Jack noted, "which could be practically applied to the improvement of future ships".
In other words, it was, in Wendy's words, "a complete learning journey" aboard a specially adapted airship, the length of two football pitches but lacking almost everything in the way of creature comforts.
Not surprisingly given its importance, the mission brought together the nation's three leading airship officers: George Scott, as captain, Edward Maitland, in overall command as special duties officer, and Jack Pritchard, as Admiralty observer and honorary photographer.
They were among a 30-man crew, plus an as yet undiscovered stowaway, a stray kitten called Woopsie and a brace of carrier pigeons, on board as the airship, dubbed 'Tiny' on account of its size, slowly rose above East Fortune on the Firth of Forth at precisely 1.39 am on July 2, 1919.
Rousing cheers followed them into low cloud before they were swallowed in the "inky darkness". As the land disappeared beneath them, they were assailed by a momentary feeling of "utter loneliness", characteristic of night flights but more keenly felt than usual, Maitland mused, on account of the fact that they were bound "for a totally unknown destination across the wide Atlantic".
The first few hours as R34 steered westwards across Scotland were, in Maitland's estimation, "among the most anxious" of the entire trip and gave the lie to Jack Pritchard's show of nonchalance in his letter to his wife.
A hundred years later, his grand-daughter can hardly resist a smile at the irony of it all. "It's quite funny really," she says. "Only hours after he wrote about the risk being 'really quite small' there they were, flying in the dark and the fog, unable to see where they were going, with such a heavy load of petrol aboard that they could only reach 1,500 ft and yet having to find a way past hills that rose in places to 3,000 ft!"
The journey that followed was anything but smooth. John Swinfield, Norwich-based author of a ground-breaking history of airship development, explains: "There were all sorts of problems to overcome. The cover flapped. It lost its waterproof capability which meant it was absorbing moisture and water, thus adding to its weight, which is pretty fundamental for an airship.
"The engines were under-powered and inefficient and the gear-boxes were losing oil at an alarming rate and there was a very real fear that even with its extra load of petrol they might actually run out of fuel."
At one point, when one of the engines played up, three engineers were compelled to chew the "entire supply of [the] ship's chewing gum" in order to make running repairs to a cracked cylinder!
Such comic-opera moments were matched by incidents of black humour, not least when trying to rest in hammocks swinging above the ship's cavernous keel. As Maitland noted, "the luckless individual who tips out… would in all probability break through [the] fabric cover and soon find himself in the Atlantic."
And yet, incredibly, they still managed to eat heartily and take afternoon tea - bread, butter and green-gage jam washed down with scalding tea boiled over an engine exhaust pipe - while listening to Miss Lee White on the gramophone and the less tuneful efforts of the first officer to find "the culprit who used his toothbrush for stirring the mustard at lunch!"
Through it all, Jack busied himself with taking photographs and making notes for the detailed report that was intended to identify shortcomings and to recommend improvements.
As the first glimpse of land hove into view on Independence Day 1919, he had no idea that the biggest drama was yet to come nor that it would culminate in his own elevation to leading role.
The trouble began on July 5 when R34 was caught by a ferocious electrical storm as it headed down the eastern seaboard of America on course for New York. The next few hours were the most terrifying of all.
At the mercy of gale-force winds, R34 pitched and rolled violently "like a playful whale disporting itself". One moment the ship dropped several hundred feet before recovering. Engines suddenly cut out before bursting back into life. The crew, donning parachutes and lifejackets, were forced to cling on for dear life.
"Things were so bad," says Swinfield, "that they thought they might even have to ditch in the sea and an American destroyer was launched out of Boston."
With fuel supply ever more precarious from fighting the gales, preparations were made for an unscheduled refuelling stop. But in the end, it was unnecessary and, free of the storm, R34 pushed on to Mineola, Long Island, assisted by the last drops of petrol drained from near empty tanks.
Jack Pritchard's big moment had arrived. With the American landing party absent, having departed for the emergency landing site, he volunteered to take charge of a scratch ground crew - by parachuting out of R34 and becoming, in the process, the first man to land in the United States after an aerial crossing of the Atlantic.
Determined to set an example, he insisted on shaving first, using water from one of the ship's radiators, before leaping out of the forward control tower in full uniform complete with his 'swagger stick'.
His "hard" landing ensured a smooth 'docking' for R34. After an epic journey lasting 108 hours it was time for the celebrations to begin. These would continue wildly for three days during which Jack was feted by the US press as the 'Aerial' Columbus.
The return flight that followed was uneventful, even anti-climactic, by comparison, taking almost a day and a half less to complete with the help of favourable winds.
Diverted, at the last, from East Fortune to Pulham, in a move that secured for the Norfolk air station a prominent place in aeronautical history, R34 made its historic homecoming in the early morning of Sunday, July 13, with the help of a hurriedly recruited army of farm labourers and locally-based soldiers who for a shilling-a-man volunteered as makeshift ground crew.
To the sound of a band playing 'The Call of Duty' and 'See the Conquering Hero Comes', the airship completed the first-ever round trip across the Atlantic.
It would prove the high-water mark for Jack Pritchard and Edward Maitland - and a moment rich in promise for the British airship service as a whole. "As well as being an audacious and intrepid feat," says Swinfield, "R34's voyage had far-reaching consequences, encouraging not just military but commercial operators to take the airship seriously as a safe mode of long-distance transport."
However, as was so often was the case in the history of airships, triumph was followed by tragedy. Two years later, Jack and Maitland were aboard the R38, undergoing final tests before being officially handed over to an American government won over by R34's magnificent achievement, when it broke up and crashed into the Humber.
The disaster spelled the end of British military airship development.
Maitland's remains were recovered from the control car. Jack's body was never found. It was heartbreaking for his family and an irreparable blow for a service that could ill-afford the loss of two such towering figures whose finest hour had culminated in an historic landing in Norfolk a century ago.
A weekend of commemorative events is taking place at the Pennoyer Centre, Pulham St Mary, next Saturday and Sunday (July 13 -14,10am-5pm both days), including a talk by Wendy Pritchard (Sunday July 14, 2pm). For full timetable visit www.pennoyers.org.uk
Airship: Design, Development and Disaster, by John Swinfield, is published by Conway, priced £25.