MIGHTY HISTORY

The hilarious story behind the first-ever in-flight radio transmission

The first time the radio was used in an aircraft, the message wasn't one about science, technology, or even the wild blue yonder. It was much more mundane – but still unexpectedly hilarious. When the crew of the Airship America decided to attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, they opted to take a radio system with them along with a cat that had been living in the airship's hangar, one named Kiddo. The first message transmitted by the airmen was about Kiddo.

"Roy, come and get this goddam cat!"


It was 1910, and America's airman Walter Wellman loaded five companions onto the airship America in an effort to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air. Though the mission would end in a kind of disaster (and not cross the Atlantic), it would still be historic, setting a number of firsts and records for traveling by air. The ship traveled more than a thousand miles and stayed in the air for a whopping 72 hours. Wellman also decided he would take a radio system and an engineer with him so he could communicate with ships below.

He also brought a stray cat, one they named Kiddo. But Kiddo wasn't as daring as his human companions – at least not at first. And he made his wariness known to the rest of the crew.

"We can never have luck without a cat on board," said navigator Murray Simon, a superstitious former sailor.

Kiddo was especially vocal with the radio engineer, Melvin Vaniman. Vaniman didn't seem to like cats that much in the first place but when Kiddo began meowing loudly, crying, and running around "like a squirrel in a cage," Vaniman decided enough was enough, and he made the first-ever ship-to-shore radio transmission to a secretary back on terra firma:

"Roy, come and get this goddam cat!"

The crew weren't heartless. They tried to lower Kiddo into a trailing motorboat down below using a canvas bag, but the seas were much too rough to successfully do it, so they had to take him back up. Kiddo eventually got his air-legs and began to grow more accustomed to the floating dirigible. He even became a valuable member of the crew, warning them when the barometer dropped and a storm was on the horizon.

Wellman's airship from the deck of the SS Trent.

It was the weather that would force the crew of the America to abandon ship and that particular plan to cross the Atlantic. Just a few hours into the journey, two of their engines failed. They proceeded with the remaining engine to drive them, but they soon realized it was throwing a lot of sparks into the area of a very hydrogen-filled balloon. Averting the likely fire, they ditched the airship and headed for the attached lifeboat. Kiddo came along too.

The America also sent the first radio distress signal from an aircraft when the airmen decided to abandon the ship. When the lifeboat detached from the airship, the balloon lifted off like never before – and was never seen again. The crew were rescued by a British steamer, the SS Trent. Kiddo and the crew returned to New York. Kiddo received a hero's welcome and spent the rest of his days as an attraction at Gimbel's department store.