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   Chapter 25 THE MODERN AIRSHIP—IN SEARCH OF THE LEONIDS.

The Dominion of the Air: The Story of Aerial Navigation By John M. Bacon Characters: 19055

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


In the autumn of 1898 the aeronautical world was interested to hear that a young Brazilian, M. Santos Dumont, had completed a somewhat novel dirigible balloon, cylindrical in shape, with conical ends, 83 feet long by 12 feet in diameter, holding 6,500 cubic feet of gas, and having a small compensating balloon of 880 cubic feet capacity. For a net was substituted a simple contrivance, consisting of two side pockets, running the length of the balloon, and containing battens of wood, to which were affixed the suspension cords, bands being also sewn over the upper part of the balloon connecting the two pockets. The most important novelty, however, was the introduction of a small petroleum motor similar to those used for motor tricycles.

The inventor ascended in this balloon, inflated with pure hydrogen, from the Jardin d'Acclimatation, Paris, and circled several times round the large captive balloon in the Gardens, after which, moving towards the Bois de Boulogne, he made several sweeps of 100 yards radius. Then the pump of the compensator caused the engine to stop, and the machine, partially collapsing, fell to the ground. Santos Dumont was somewhat shaken, but announced his intention of making other trials. In this bold and successful attempt there was clear indication of a fresh phase in the construction of the airship, consisting in the happy adoption of the modern type of petroleum motor. Two other hying machines were heard of about this date, one by Professor Giampietre, of Pavia, cigar-shaped, driven by screws, and rigged with masts and sails. The other, which had been constructed and tested in strict privacy, was the invention of a French engineer, M. Ader, and was imagined to imitate the essential structure of a bird. Two steam motors of 20-horse power supplied the power. It was started by being run on the ground on small wheels attached to it, and it was claimed that before a breakdown occurred the machine had actually raised itself into the air.

Of Santos Dumont the world was presently to know more, and the same must be said of another inventor, Dr. Barton, of Beckenham, who shortly completed an airship model carrying aeroplanes and operated by clockwork. In an early experiment this model travelled four miles in twenty-three minutes.

But another airship, a true leviathan, had been growing into stately and graceful proportions on the shores of the Bodenzee in Wurtemberg, and was already on the eve of completion. Count Zeppelin, a lieut.-general in the German Army, who had seen service in the Franco-German War, had for some years devoted his fortune and energy to the practical study of aerial navigation, and had prosecuted experiments on a large scale. Eventually, having formed a company with a large capital, he was enabled to construct an airship which in size has been compared to a British man-of-war. Cigar-shaped, its length was no less than 420 feet, and diameter 40 feet, while its weight amounted to no more than 7,250 lbs. The framework, which for lightness had been made of aluminium, was, with the object of preventing all the gas collecting at one end of its elongated form, subdivided into seventeen compartments, each of these compartments containing a completely fitted gas balloon, made of oiled cotton and marvellously gas tight. A steering apparatus was placed both fore and aft, and at a safe distance below the main structure were fixed, also forward and aft, on aluminium platforms, two Daimler motor engines of 16-horse power, working aluminium propellers of four blades at the rate of 1,000 revolutions a minute. Finally, firmly attached to the inner framework by rods of aluminium, were two cars of the same metal, furnished with buffer springs to break the force of a fall. The trial trip was not made till the summer following-June, 1900-and, in the meanwhile, experiments had gone forward with another mode of flight, terminating, unhappily, in the death of one of the most expert and ingenious of mechanical aeronauts.

Mr. Percy S. Pilcher, now thirty-three years of age, having received his early training in the Navy, retired from the Service to become a civil engineer, and had been for some time a partner in the firm of Wilson and Pilcher. For four or five years he had been experimenting in soaring flight, using a Lilienthal machine, which he improved to suit his own methods. Among these was the device of rising off the ground by being rapidly towed by a line against the wind.

At the end of September he gave an exhibition at Stamford Park before Lord Bray and a select party of friends-this in spite of an unsuitable afternoon of unsteady wind and occasional showers. A long towing line was provided, which, being passed round pulley blocks and dragged by a couple of horses, was capable of being hauled in at high speed. The first trial, though ending in an accident, was eminently satisfactory. The apparatus, running against the wind, had risen some distance, when the line broke, yet the inventor descended slowly and safely with outstretched wings. The next trial also commenced well, with an easy rise to a height of some thirty feet. At that point, however, the tail broke with a snap, and the machine, pitching over, fell a complete wreck. Mr. Pilcher was found insensible, with his thigh broken, and though no other serious injury was apparent, he succumbed two days afterwards without recovering consciousness. It was surmised that shrinkage of the canvas of the tail, through getting wet, had strained and broken its bamboo stretcher.

This autumn died Gaston Tissandier, at the age of fifty-six; and in the month of December, at a ripe old age, while still in full possession of intellectual vigour, Mr. Coxwell somewhat suddenly passed away. Always keenly interested in the progress of aeronautics; he had but recently, in a letter to the Standard, proposed a well-considered and practical method of employing Montgolfier reconnoitring balloons, portable, readily inflated, and especially suited to the war in South Africa. Perhaps the last letters of a private nature penned by Mr. Coxwell were to the writer and his daughter, full of friendly and valuable suggestion, and more particularly commenting on a recent scientific aerial voyage, which proved to be not only sensational, but established a record in English ballooning.

The great train of the November meteors, known as the Leonids, which at regular periods of thirty-three years had in the past encountered the earth's atmosphere, was due, and over-due. The cause of this, and of their finally eluding observation, need only be very briefly touched on here. The actual meteoric train is known to travel in an elongated ellipse, the far end of which lies near the confines of the solar system, while at a point near the hither end the earth's orbit runs slantingly athwart it, forming, as it were, a level crossing common to the two orbits, the earth taking some five or six hours in transit. Calculation shows that the meteor train is to be expected at this crossing every thirty-three and a third years, while the train is extended to such an enormous length-taking more than a year to draw clear-that the earth must needs encounter it ere it gets by, possibly even two years running. There could be no absolute certainty about the exact year, nor the exact night when the earth and the meteors would foregather, owing to the uncertain disturbance which the latter must suffer from the pull of the planetary bodies in the long journey out and home again among them. As is now known, this disturbing effect had actually dispersed the train.

The shower, which was well seen in 1866, was pretty confidently expected in 1899, and to guard against the mischance of cloudy weather, it was arranged that the writer should, on behalf of the Times newspaper, make an ascent on the right night to secure observations. Moreover, it was arranged that he should have, as chief assistant, his own daughter, an enthusiastic lady aeronaut, who had also taken part in previous astronomical work.

Unfortunately there were two nights, those of November 14th and 15th, when the expected shower seemed equally probable, and, taking counsel with the best authorities in the astronomical world, it seemed that the only course to avoid disappointment would be to have a balloon filled and moored in readiness for an immediate start, either on the first night or on the second.

This settled the matter from the astronomical side, but there was the aeronautical side also to be considered. A balloon of 56,000 cubic feet capacity was the largest available for the occasion, and a night ascent with three passengers and instruments would need plenty of lifting power to meet chance emergencies. Thus it seemed that a possible delay of forty-eight hours might entail a greater leakage of gas than could be afforded.

The leakage might be expected chiefly to occur at the valve in the head of the balloon, it being extremely difficult to render any form of mechanical valve gas tight, however carefully its joints be stopped with luting. On this account, therefore, it was determined that the balloon should be fitted with what is known as a solid or rending valve, consisting simply of balloon fabric tied hard and fast over the entire upper outlet, after the fashion of a jam pot cover. The outlet itself was a gaping hole of over 2 feet across; but by the time its covering had been carefully varnished over all leakage was sufficiently prevented, the on

e drawback to this method being the fact that the liberation of gas now admitted of no regulation. Pulling the valve line would simply mean opening the entire wide aperture, which could in no way be closed again.

The management of such a valve consists in allowing the balloon to sink spontaneously earthwards, and when it has settled near the ground, having chosen a desirable landing place, to tear open the so-called valve once and for all.

This expedient, dictated by necessity, seeming sufficient for the purpose at hand, preparations were proceeded with, and, under the management of Mr. Stanley Spencer, who agreed to act as aeronaut, a large balloon, with solid valve, was brought down to Newbury gas works on November 14th, and, being inflated during the afternoon, was full and made snug by sundown. But as the meteor radiant would not be well above the horizon till after midnight, the aeronautical party retired for refreshment, and subsequently for rest, when, as the night wore on, it became evident that, though the sky remained clear, there would be no meteor display that night. The next day was overcast, and by nightfall hopelessly so, the clouds ever thickening, with absence of wind or any indication which might give promise of a change. Thus by midnight it became impossible to tell whether any display were in progress or not. Under these circumstances, it might have been difficult to decide when to make the start with the best show of reason. Clearly too early a start could not subsequently be rectified; the balloon, once off, could not come back again; while, once liberated, it would be highly unwise for it to remain aloft and hidden by clouds for more than some two hours, lest it should be carried out to sea.

Happily the right decision under these circumstances was perfectly clear. Other things being equal, the best time would be about 4 a.m., by which period the moon, then near the full, would be getting low, and the two hours of darkness left would afford the best seeing. Leaving, then, an efficient outlook on the balloon ground, the party enjoyed for some hours the entertainment offered them by the Newbury Guildhall Club, and at 4 a.m. taking their seats in the car, sailed up into the calm chilly air of the November night.

But the chilliness did not last for long. A height of 1,500 feet was read by the Davy lamp, and then we entered fog-warm, wetting fog, through which the balloon would make no progress in spite of a prodigal discharge of sand. The fact was that the balloon, which had become chilled through the night hours, was gathering a great weight of moisture from condensation on its surface, and when, at last, the whole depth of the cloud, 1,500 feet, had been penetrated, the chill of the upper air crippled the balloon and sent her plunging down again into the mist, necessitating yet further expenditure of sand, which by this time had amounted to no less than 3 1/2 cwt. in twenty minutes. And then at last we reached our level, a region on the upper margin of the cloud floor, where evaporation reduced the temperature, that had recently been that of greenhouse warmth, to intense cold.

That evaporation was going on around us on a gigantic scale was made very manifest. The surface of the vast cloud floor below us was in a perfect turmoil, like that of a troubled sea. If the cloud surface could be compared to anything on earth it most resembled sea where waves are running mountains high. At one moment we should be sailing over a trough, wide and deep below us, the next a mighty billow would toss itself aloft and vanish utterly into space. Everywhere wreaths of mist with ragged fringes were withering away into empty air, and, more remarkable yet, was the conflict of wind which sent the cloud wrack flying simply in all directions.

For two hours now there was opportunity for observing at leisure all that could be made of the falling meteors. There were a few, and these, owing to our clear, elevated region, were exceptionally bright. The majority, too, were true Leonids, issuing from the radiant point in the "Sickle," but these were not more numerous than may be counted on that night in any year, and served to emphasise the fact that no real display was in progress. The outlook was maintained, and careful notes made for two hours, at the end of which time the dawn began to break, the stars went in, and we were ready to pack up and come down.

But the point was that we were not coming down. We were at that time, 6 a.m., 4,000 feet high, and it needs no pointing out that at such an altitude it would have been madness to tear open our huge rending valve, thus emptying the balloon of gas. It may also be unnecessary to point out that in an ordinary afternoon ascent such a valve would be perfectly satisfactory, for under these circumstances the sun presently must go down, the air must grow chill, and the balloon must come earthward, allowing of an easy descent until a safe and suitable opportunity for rending the valve occurred; but now we knew that conditions were reversed, and that the sun was just going to rise.

And then it was we realised that we were caught in a trap. From that moment it was painfully evident that we were powerless to act, and were at the mercy of circumstances. By this time the light was strong, and, being well above the tossing billows of mist, we commanded an extended view on every side, which revealed, however, only the upper unbroken surface of the dense cloud canopy that lay over all the British Isles. We could only make a rough guess as to our probable locality. We knew that our course at starting lay towards the west, and if we were maintaining that course a travel of scarcely more than sixty miles would carry us out to the open sea. We had already been aloft for two hours, and as we were at an altitude at which fast upper currents are commonly met with, it was high time that, for safety, we should be coming down; yet it was morally certain that it would be now many hours before our balloon would commence to descend of its own accord by sheer slow leakage of gas, by which time, beyond all reasonable doubt, we must be carried far out over the Atlantic. All we could do was to listen intently for any sounds that might reach us from earth, and assure us that we were still over the land; and for a length of time such sounds were vouchsafed us-the bark of a dog, the lowing of cattle, the ringing trot of a horse on some hard road far down.

And then, as we were expecting, the sun climbed up into an unsullied sky, and, mounting by leaps and bounds, we watched the cloud floor receding beneath us. The effect was extremely beautiful. A description written to the Times the next morning, while the impression was still fresh, and from notes made at this period, ran thus:-"Away to an infinitely distant horizon stretched rolling billows of snowy whiteness, broken up here and there into seeming icefields, with huge fantastic hummocks. Elsewhere domes and spires reared themselves above the general surface, or an isolated Matterhorn towered into space. In some quarters it was impossible to look without the conviction that we actually beheld the outline of lofty cliffs overhanging a none too distant sea." Shortly we began to hear loud reports overhead, resembling small explosions, and we knew what these were-the moist, shrunken netting was giving out under the hot sun and yielding now and again with sudden release to the rapidly expanding gas. It was, therefore, with grave concern, but with no surprise, that when we next turned to the aneroid we found the index pointing to 9,000 feet, and still moving upwards.

Hour after hour passed by, and, sounds having ceased to reach us, it remains uncertain whether or no we were actually carried out to sea and headed back again by contrary currents, an experience with which aeronauts, including the writer, have been familiar; but, at length, there was borne up to us the distant sound of heavy hammers and of frequent trains, from which we gathered that we were probably over Bristol, and it was then that the thought occurred to my daughter that we might possibly communicate with those below with a view to succour. This led to our writing the following message many times over on blank telegraph forms and casting them down:-"Urgent. Large balloon from Newbury travelling overhead above the clouds. Cannot descend. Telegraph to sea coast (coast-guards) to be ready to rescue.-Bacon and Spencer."

While thus occupied we caught the sound of waves, and the shriek of a ship's siren. We were crossing a reach of the Severn, and most of our missives probably fell in the sea. But over the estuary there must have been a cold upper current blowing, which crippled our balloon, for the aneroid presently told of a fall of 2,000 feet. It was now past noon, and to us the turn of the tide was come. Very slowly, and with strange fluctuations, the balloon crept down till it reached and became enveloped in the cloud below, and then the end was near. The actual descent occupied nearly two hours, and affords a curious study in aerostation. The details of the balloon's dying struggles and of our own rough descent, entailing the fracture of my daughter's arm, are told in another volume.{*}

We fell near Neath, Glamorganshire, only one and a half miles short of the sea, completing a voyage which is a record in English ballooning-ten hours from start to finish.

* "By Land and Sky," by the Author.

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