Kiddo, the Airborne Cat

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AkronHistory.org

In 1910, American journalist, airman, and adventurer Walter Wellman attempted to be the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air. One October day, he and a crew of five boarded the dirigible America in Atlantic City, New Jersey and took the to air, bound for Europe. 

The America carried two interesting pieces of equipment. One was one of the earliest radio sets ever carried on an aircraft, and the other was Kiddo, a stray cat one of the crewmen had scooped up from the hangar and brought on board for good luck. 

Kiddo didn’t take to air travel very well. Less than 20 minutes into the journey, the navigator, F. Murray Simon, noted in his log, “I am chiefly worried by our cat, which is rushing around the airship like a squirrel in a cage.”

The radio operator, Jack Irwin, sitting at his station—which, because of space constraints, was in the lifeboat hanging from the bottom of the ship’s cabin—yelled up to Simon at one point that the cat was “raising hell” and “driving him mad,” and that they should probably leave it behind before they got too far out. 

Simon disagreed, saying, “We must keep the cat at all costs; we can never have luck without a cat aboard.”

The crew soon convened to talk about the animal and voted to get rid of it. They put it in a canvas bag and began to lower it down to a group of journalists who were covering the ship’s flight from a motorboat, but the water was too rough for the tiny boat to get near the bag and the cat was hauled aboard again. 

After that, Simon noted that Kiddo must have realized that “he could have been in a worse place than an airship, and henceforth began to behave himself fairly well.” The rest of the crew, though, never came around on him. Irwin was so annoyed with the cat that in his first communication with the radio operator in Atlantic City—what might have been the first air-to-ground radio transmission in history*—was “Roy, come and get this goddamn cat!” 

A little more than a day into the flight and well short of their destination, the crew ran into bigger problems than Kiddo. The weather took a turn for the worse, and the engines, clogged with sand from the Atlantic City beach, began to fail. Spotting a mail ship below them, the crew and Kiddo piled into the lifeboat and abandoned the America, which drifted away and was never seen again. 

Despite not crossing the Atlantic, the America broke records for both time aloft and distance traveled by air, and the whole crew gained celebrity status when they returned to shore. This included Kiddo, who was displayed at Gimbel’s in New York City, lounging in a gilded cage filled with pillows. He retired from the public eye not long after that and lived the rest of his life with Wellman’s daughter. 

* There’s some disagreement about this, with a few sources pointing to Canadian pilot J.D.A. McCurdy sending the first transmission just a few months earlier. 

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April 12, 2013 - 5:00pm
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