The stowaway who became a superstar

EXACTLY 90 years ago, William Ballantyne was basking in the limelight as the world’s first aerial stowaway.

EXACTLY 90 years ago, William Ballantyne was basking in the limelight as the world’s first aerial stowaway.

William, 22, from Newcastle, had hidden away in rigging of the giant R34 airship, which arrived in the United States from Britain on July 6, 1919 after the first east-west Atlantic crossing.

It was also the first return crossing – but the July 7 edition of the New York Times went big on the way that William had made his own little piece of history.

His claim to fame has emerged from research by Alastair Dodds, principal curator of the National Museum of Flight based at what was East Fortune airfield in East Lothian in Scotland, from where R34 set off on her 108-hour journey.

Alistair’s research was for a presentation he made yesterday to the Royal Aeronautical Society in London to mark the 90th anniversary.

Now Alistair is hoping that William Ballantyne’s family can be tracked down in the North East so more can be learned about him to add to the R34 display at the museum which is just 75 miles from Newcastle.

William was known to have been alive, in his 80s, in 1979.

When he stowed away, he also took the airship’s mascot Wopsie the cat.

William had been a prize fighter before enlisting in the air force as an airship rigger.

The riggers’ hazardous tasks included the continuous maintenance of the airship’s gasbags with patches of rubber solution. Singing and whistling were encouraged because a change in tone indicated escaping gas.

William had worked on preparing R34 but had been left out of the 30-strong crew for the transatlantic flight to make room for an American observer.

So he sneaked on board while final launch preparations were being made, climbing up to lie on top of a girder between the airship’s gas bags.

Twelve hours after the voyage began, he was discovered, having become overcome by leaking hydrogen from the gas bags. He spent 20 hours recovering and was then put to work as a cook.

The R34 arrived at Mineola, Long Island, to be greeted by thousands of spectators and it was William who shared the headlines.

Alastair said: "The flight of the R34 was a major milestone in aviation history and had the added accolade of featuring the world’s first aerial stowaway in William, who just hadn’t wanted to miss out on the historic trip.

"The R34’s journey is a fascinating tale and with William Ballantyne’s claim to fame, provides wonderful additional human interest for the story.

"He could have fallen from his perch on the airship girders, straight through the fabric and into the sea. He seems to have been quite a character and when the airship arrived he was feted in New York."

The commander of the airship was not best pleased and it was said that if William had been discovered over land he would have been parachuted out of R34. He was sent home from America by boat.

"Our museum is just a short drive from the North East and we hope visitors from Ballantyne’s home town and its surrounds will enjoy finding out about this epic journey if they come to experience the museum this summer," said Alistair.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
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