The Scottish county of East Lothian is known for its scenic golf courses, historic castles and one of the biggest gannet colonies in the world at the Bass Rock. What’s less known is its place in aviation history. In the early hours of 2 July 1919 the biggest airship in Britain left its hangar at the airfield at East Fortune. The 643ft-long craft soon took off and headed west. After a journey of four and a half days that encountered poor weather and engine problems the dirigible landed in the USA. The R34 had completed the first east-to-west aerial crossing of the Atlantic. It touched down with approximately one hour's fuel left.
Along the way two stowaways had been discovered, a kitten called Whoopsie and a human called William Ballantyne – a crew member who had been removed to make room for an American observer but didn’t want to miss out. He was found over water, otherwise he would have been given a parachute and sent homewards. A parachute was used by one of the officers who jumped to help the American reception personnel who were unused to dealing with an airship of that size.
The crew were fêted by the people of New York, and met the American President Woodrow Wilson. After several days of being entertained and re-equipping the airship, it was time to return. The journey home encountered no major issues. The R34 was scrapped in 1921 following an accident. In the Museum of Flight that now stands on the East Fortune airfield site, the airship’s nose cone, in the shape of a heraldic crest, can be seen.
By Charles Woodley