As I’ve said before, I have moved provinces, and am now working CRM archaeology. It’s busy work, but great. My things are starting to arrive from Newfoundland, but I am still missing a lot of my books and documents. Along with that, the Digital Archives are currently having issues, which does cut down on some of my research access. But, no more excuses, I plan to really start to try to get a few posts up, especially seeing as there is so much aviation history hitting the 100 year anniversary of the Trans-Atlantic Air Race. On that note, for any Canadian writers out there, I will be the guest editor on a collection of short stories inspired by early aviation published by Engen Books. For more information, check out all the details on their website.
Prior to the 200th rowing of the Royal St. John’s Regatta, I was asked for information about aviation history on Quidi VIdi Lake. I did a brief write-up, but because of work, could not participate in an interview. I am sharing some of that history now.
The C-5 was an unexpected entry for the Great Trans-Atlantic Air Race. The American non-rigid airship built by the Goodyear and Goodrich companies for the US Navy did anti-submarine and coastal patrols during the First World War. In 1919, it was to be another attempt by the United States at crossing the Atlantic. The US Navy was also trying to be the first to fly the Atlantic with the NC flying boats leaving from Trepassey. The airship flew from Montauk, on Long Island, where 15 km/hr winds made the 192 ft airship hard to handle. It took 300 people to walk it out of the hangar. The captain was Lieutenant-Commander Emory Coil, and the crew were co-pilots Lieutenant John Lawrence and Ensign David Campbell, Lieutenant Marcus Easterley, and chief machinist mates T.L. Moorman and H.S. Blackburn. Officially, the flight was to a testing of the practical radius of this type of airship, but the press didn’t believe that. Coil told newsmen, just before takeoff, “We’ll beat the seaplanes yet”.
The C-5 passed over Saint Pierre on the morning of May 15, but arrived 3 or 4 hours later than expected. The blimp was reported over Placentia Junction, Whitbourne, Brigus Junction, Avondale, Holyrood, Petty Harbour and Kelligrews before crossing the Narrows and arriving in St. John’s, passing Quidi Vidi Lake and landing at a cricket field in Pleasantville, on the north side of the Lake. They experienced some Newfoundland fog as they arrived on the island, lost their bearings, and had to drift low at Placentia Junction to ask surprised locals directions.
The airship landed at Woodley field, and thousands of people were there to see her land. The crew were greeted with cheers and handshakes by the crowd, and were brought to the American cruiser Chicago, docked in the harbour. Young officers from the Chicago got to work preparing the C-5 for her crossing. When the blimp landed, she had been tied down with earth anchors sufficient for 20 mile/hr winds but within a half hour, the winds were at 30 miles/hr. One hundred men from the Chicago were having trouble controlling the airship. As winds continued to increase, they had to decide if they would take the airship up and ride out the storm, or pull the ripping panels, which would deflate the craft and take them out of the running for the trans-Atlantic race. The carburettors had been removed for servicing, so the only option was the pull the ripping panels.
When they attempted to pull the cord to release the ripping panels, the cord broke, and at the same time, two steel mooring cables snapped. Many of the Newfoundlanders present tried to help save the airship. There were casualties when the steel cables broke. Two boys were hit. A fifteen year old, son of James Cleary, had a broken collar bone, and the son of Garrett Kavanagh suffered a severe concussion. Early reports said he had been killed. Lieutenant Charles Little, Lieutenant Preston, and a machinist from the Chicago were in the control car of the C-5 as it started to lift away. They jumped down about 7m to avoid being blown away with the ship. Little sprained his ankle in the jump. As hundreds of people tried to hold on to the C-5, the hemp lines continued to break. The aircraft raised 200ft, bounced back to the ground and the control car broke away from the bag. Then “with mooring lines trailing like streamers” (Rowe1977) the blimp flew over Signal Hill and out to sea. It was last seen travelling east by the Cape Spear lighthousekeeper. She was reported by the British steamer War Nipigon, but that might have also been an iceberg. The destroyer Edwards searched for the C-5, but it was never seen again. The last sighting was a piece of spruce wood with C-5 on it recovered from a beach in New Jersey.
2012 Airships over Newfoundland. Canadian Aviation Historical Society Journal, 50(1): 14-25.
1979 Aviation in Newfoundland. The Book of Newfoundland, vol. 1: 141-152.
1977 The Great Atlantic Air Race. McClelland and Stewart Limited: Toronto.