The third volume in the Tom Swift series describes the first of several aircraft owned and flown by the young inventor. The Red Cloud was a large and versatile craft and was featured in several of the early adventures until it was destroyed in the caves of ice. The initial plans for the Red Cloud came from John Sharp, the balloonist whom Tom had saved as his burning balloon descended over Lake Carlopa, near Shopton, New York. Mr. Sharp shared these plans with Tom and his father Barton Swift.

When the story begins, construction of the Red Cloud is well underway and Tom and Mr. Sharp are testing the “secret gas, made partly of hydrogen, being very light and powerful,” in a small aluminum container. After a few explosions which rouse the attention of the neighbors, a suggestion by Barton allows them to fill their test tank.

1924-1935 era full-color dust jacket for volume 3, Tom Swift and His Airship (1910).
 Tom Swift and His Airship (1910)

The Red Cloud was described as a “combination aeroplane and dirigible balloon.” It had a large red gas container with a “cigar shape” made from aluminum constructed in several compartments. The secret gas could be generated from chemicals and fed into the container. With enough of this gas, the Red Cloud was buoyant enough to float in mid-air while stationary.

As “Victor Appleton” described: “Two sets of planes, one above the other, were used, bringing the airship into the biplane class.” With these, the airship could be rolled along the ground for a more conventional, heavier-than-air takeoff, if a sufficient runway was available.

Two eight foot diameter propellers, one in the front and one in the rear, were driven by a powerful 20-cylinder gasoline engine which was designed by Barton. Each cylinder was cast separately and spares were taken in case a replacement was required on a long trip as illustrated in the story. The propellers were “built up” from several layers of wood for added strength and they rotated at a rate of 1500 RPM. After the incident at the Rocksmond Seminary (pictured on the frontispiece and dust jacket illustrations), Tom and Mr. Sharp decided to keep a spare propeller onboard as well.

Perhaps more innovative than the combined aeroplane and dirigible aspect of the Red Cloud was its large and comfortable passenger cabin. “It was a complete living room, with the engine and other apparatus, including that for generating the gas, in a separate compartment.” It also had sleeping arrangements for up to five people along with a small kitchen with an electric stove for cooking and heating the cabin. The “living room” part of the cabin had “several easy chairs where the travelers could rest in comfort while skimming along high in the air, as fast as the fastest railroad train.” It also had a window in the floor for observing the ground.

The cockpit was in the bow of the craft, near the front propeller as Tom’s eccentric friend, Mr. Wakefield Damon, learned when it caught his scarf. There were controls to control the steering and elevation planes. To maintain the motor, Tom or Mr. Sharp would have to leave the cockpit and go to the rear of the airship. A hook and winch was also available for bringing up supplies.

Tom, Mr. Sharp, and Mr. Damon took the Red Cloud on a long trip. The plan was to fly from Shopton, New York, to Atlanta, Georgia. However, Appleton is not specific about exactly how far south they flew before they returned home to clear their names in a bank robbery charge.

The Red Cloud appeared in the fourth volume of the series, Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat (1910) to ferry equipment between Shopton and the Atlantic seacoast town where the submarine Advance was built and launched. Although it would have been helpful to save the Shopton Bank in the next volume but Tom used his electric runabout instead.

Although its construction is not described in the stories, Tom’s second aircraft is a monoplane he calls the Butterfly. He uses it to fly to Philadelphia in volume 6 since the Red Cloud was too large for him to easily manage alone and there was no through train from Shopton to that city.

The Red Cloud is used in volumes seven and eight when Tom tries to learn the secret of the diamond makers hidden in the Rocky Mountains and searches for gold among the caves of ice. The collapse of one of these caves destroys the Red Cloud. 

Tom built several other aircraft, including ones similar to the Red Cloud with improvements based on what he learned.

(This is the first in a series of articles which will take a look at Tom Swift and the history of airships.)