“oiled-silk filled with hydrogen gas” — First Flight Commemorative Half Dollar Coin

Today, the First Flight Commemorative Half Dollar Coin remembers the first dirigible flight across the Atlantic and its arrival in New York on July 6, 1919.

From The New Larned History for Ready Reference, Reading and Research, collected by Josephus Nelson Larned, published in 1922:


July. — First dirigible flight across Atlantic.—

The British dirigible R-34, with thirty (plus a stowaway) on board, commanded by Major G. H. Scott, left East Fortune, near Edinburgh, Scotland, at 2 A. M. on July 2, crossed the Atlantic making deviations over Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and landed at Mineola, N. Y. at 9 A. M. on Sunday, July 6.

The voyage took 108 hours, twelve minutes; the distance covered was 3,521 miles.

On July 10 the airship started on the return voyage, and after circling New York city re-crossed the Atlantic and arrived safely at Pulham, Norfolk, in seventy-five hours, having maintained constant wireless communication with land en route, thus rounding out one of the greatest achievements in the history of transatlantic travel.

Among those who made the first voyage was a representative of the United States naval air service and two officers representing the British air ministry. —

“The R-34 and her sister dirigible, the R-33, were constructed by the British Government both for naval scouting and for bombing German cities.

The R-34 is 672 feet long, and 79 feet in diameter at her greatest girth. From the top of the cigar- shaped bag to the lower point of her five gondolas she measures about 90 feet.

But it is well to bear in mind at this point that the R-34 is by no means the largest dirigible in the world; the Germans, at this moment, have larger Zeppelins in the air, and the British still larger rigid dirigibles pretty well under way.

Under the cigar-shaped bag of the R-34 are suspended the four gondolas that carry the crew while on active duty, as well as the five engines.

The forward gondola contains the navigating quarters, wireless station, and an engine. The other engines are disposed in the following manner: One engine in each of the gondolas amidship, and two in the gondola aft, a propeller being provided for each engine with the exception of the rear gondola, which has but one propeller for the two engines.

The engines are of the Sunbeam Maori type, each developing 250-275 horse-power, and with a speed of 1,500 revolutions per minute, enabling the airship to make some 70 miles an hour under favorable conditions.

However, under ordinary circumstances the engines are not operated at full speed, and the airship cruises along at about 50 miles an hour in fairly still air. . . .

The lifting power of the R-34 is obtained from 19 gas bags contained within the dur-alumin skeleton, which is covered with a taut fabric skin.

Each gas bag is placed in a compartment and separated from its neighbors by netting, in order to prevent rubbing; and a valve fastened to each gas bag and controlled by hand wheels or wires from the navigating quarters up forward permits gas to be released from any bag at will, in order to regulate the buoyancy and trim.” — Scientific American, July 19, 1919, >p. 58-66. —

“The story of the actual flight across the Atlantic, as told by the informal log kept by General Maitland and other officers, was not particularly eventful. The most difficult moment after departure was in crossing the hills of Scotland; owing to the large quantity of petrol carried (almost 5,000 gallons, weighing 15.8 tons) the dirigible had to fly low, and at the same time pass over Northern Scotland, where the hills in places rise to a height of 3.000 feet.

“The wind here was broken up into violent currents and air pockets. The most disturbed conditions were met in the mouth of the Clyde, south of Loch Lomond, which, surrounded by high mountains, looked particularly beautiful in the gray dawn light.

“The islands at the mouth of the Firth of Clyde were quickly passed. The north coast of Ireland appeared for a time, and soon faded from view as the R-34 headed out into the Atlantic.

“Most of the day-by-day log following the description of this first stage of the journey was taken up by cloud observations, color effects, accounts of wireless exchanges, and of sleeping and eating arrangements.

“Icebergs were sighted toward Newfoundland. A message of congratulation from the Governor of Newfoundland was received. Anxieties consequent on the serious depletion of the fuel supply marked the last stages of the journey.

“Immediately after the news [of arrival in America) had been officially received, Secretary Daniels sent this message of congratulation: ‘Major G. H. Scott, Commanding the R-34: The American Navy extends its greetings to you and the heroic crew of the R-34, and congratulates you on the success of your great flight across the ocean. The arrival in America of the first lighter-than-air craft to cross the Atlantic marks another decided advance in the navigation of the air. Coming so soon after the flights of Read, Alcock, and Hawker, it completes a remarkable series of achievements in aviation in which British and Americans may take a just pride, and which have served to increase the cordial relations and comradeship of the two navies which have prevailed throughout the war. America joins with the British in honoring you and the service you represent. Josephus Daniels.’ ” — New York Times Current History, Aug. 1919, p. 257. —

“For more than 300 years after the crossing of the Atlantic by Columbus, wind power remained the sole means for propelling ships across the ocean until in 1810 the Savannah, an American steamship of 350 tons, with a length of 100 feet, crossed from Savannah, Georgia, to Liverpool in twenty-five days.

“The Savannah, however, was also provided with sails. The first real steam transit was effected by the Sirius and the Great Western, both in April, 1838, in eighteen and fifteen days respectively.

“Just 100 years after the sailing of the Savannah three successful flights were made across the Atlantic, one by the American hydroplane NC-4, another by the British biplane of Alcock and Brown, the third by the giant British dirigible R-34, — New York Times Current History, Aug., 1919, p. 254. —

In its seventy-fifth anniversary number, October 2, 1920, the Scientific American, p. 338, states:

“The Burton family, encircling the fireside, read with unconcealed wonder the account of a hollow globe of oiled-silk filled with hydrogen gas, thus giving it a sufficient buoyancy to travel through the air.

“And they marveled still more at the spindle-shaped saloon, suspended beneath the balloon, carrying 5,000 pounds of passengers and luggage. Twenty-five passengers in a balloon traveling at 100 miles per hour!

“What of it? Nothing alarming or startling, in view of our present-day achievements. But the foregoing facts were being read in the Scientific American of September 18th, 1845. . . . For (in 1919) the R-34 in 108 hours traveled 6,300 air miles from East Fortune, Scotland to Mineola, Long Island, due to adverse winds. And on the passenger list were thirty officers and men, and a stowaway!”


The First Flight Commemorative Half Dollar Coin shows with an image of the dirigible R-34 after its arrival at Mineola, Long Island, New York in July 1919.

First Flight Commemorative Half Dollar Coin