Lighter Than Air
It was the great hope in aviation throughout the nineteenth century, and a military dream in the twentieth. It still has never really taken off.
Benjamin Franklin, in charge of all things wise, was the American ambassador to France when he witnessed the successful ascent of an unmanned hydrogen-filled balloon on August 27, 1783. As the twelve-foot globe shot up in the sky until it seemed no bigger than an orange, a skeptic said the flight was interesting but wondered what use it could have. Franklin, our history primers tell us, growled, “What use is a new born babe?”
Whether Franklin ever actually uttered this famous aphorism is questionable, but we do know that his scientific mind quickly grasped the implications of the flight. Balloons, he noted, “may be sufficient for … elevating an engineer to take view of an enemy’s army, and conveying intelligence into, or out of a besieged town, giving signals to distant places.”
Several months later Franklin wrote to a fellow scientist that “convincing sovereigns of the Folly of wars may perhaps be one effect of it, since it will be impractical for most potent of them to guard his dominions. Where was the Prince who could afford to field an army sufficiently large to defend his nation against a balloon borne invasion force of 10,000 men who might land anywhere?” After reading about the French exploit, George Washington, five years from his Presidency, noted, “Our friends at Paris, in a little time, will come flying thro’ the air, instead of ploughing the ocean to get to America.”
Thomas Jefferson cast the widest net as he laid out the uses to which the startling new device might be put: “The uses of this discovery are suggested to be 1. transportation of commodities under some circumstances. 2. traversing deserts, countries possessed by an enemy, or ravaged by infectious disorders, pathless & inaccessible mountains. 3. conveying intelligence into a besieged place, or perhaps enterprising upon it, reconnoitering an army &c. 4. throwing new lights on the thermometer, barometer, rain, snow, hail, wind & other phenomena of which the atmosphere is the theatre. 5. the discovery of the pole, which is but one days journey in a balloon, from where the ice has hitherto stopped adventurers.…”
Within two years of the first successful balloon ascension in France, the three towering figures of a newly minted America had predicted, with remarkable accuracy, the future of flight. Fulfilling those bright promises would be the work of two centuries.
America’s first efforts at flight were not distinguished. At first it was believed that on December 28, 1783, a carpenter named James Wilcox had taken off in a cage suspended from a clutch of forty-seven balloons assembled by members of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. The account of that flight, however, turned out to be a journalistic hoax.
The first American balloon ascent was not very impressive. Peter Carnes, a lawyer from Bladensburg, Maryland, planned to go up in a tethered balloon on June 24, 1784, but was too heavy to make the attempt. A thirteen-year-old boy named Edward Warren took his place and became the first American to step into the sky. A few weeks later Carnes attempted a free (untethered) balloon ascent from the yard of a Philadelphia prison. The balloon rose only about a dozen feet before it slammed against the prison wall, throwing Carnes to the ground. The untended balloon then rushed upward until its hydrogen erupted in flame. These first tries set a national tone for the American development of lighter-than-air (LTA) flight. There was always a supply of daring aeronauts willing to risk themselves, but their high ambitions were frequently offset by low comedy and a hint of humbug.
It took a Frenchman to show us how to do it. Jean-Pierre Blanchard possessed aeronautical credentials of a high order. In 1785, accompanied by an American doctor, John Jeffries, Blanchard became the first person to cross the English Channel by air. He came to America in 1792 to make some money by giving public demonstrations of balloon ascension. He took off from Philadelphia on January 9, 1793, rising a mile in the air, and coming to ground fortysix minutes later in Gloucester County, New Jersey. Only a passport signed by President Washington spared him an assault by angry farmers leery of a man dropped out of the sky and speaking an outlandish tongue. (See “Postfix: U.S. Flight No. One,” Invention & Technology , Fall 1985.) Blanchard demonstrated the feasibility of flight to Americans, but his enterprise was not a commercial success, for Americans realized they need not spend five dollars to stand in the launching area when they could sit on a nearby housetop and watch for nothing.
Surprisingly for a people who prided themselves on ingenuity and daring, Americans did not much take to ballooning at first. They preferred watching visiting Frenchmen risk their necks. Charles Person Durant, who had studied ballooning in Paris, became America’s first serious aeronaut in 1830, when he sailed from New York to South Amboy, New Jersey, by way of Staten Island, in about two hours.
By then the basic technology of flight was established, if imperfectly understood. An aircraft would rise if it was lighter than the air it displaced. Almost from the beginning, that meant inflating a bag with hydrogen, the lightest gas on earth, which was produced by pouring a strong acid over iron or zinc. (Hot air, which was more commonly used during the first few years of ballooning, declined in popularity as the advantages of hydrogen’s much greater lifting power became evident.) In theory there was no limit to the size of such an aircraft; with a hydrogen bag large enough, you could lift the Louvre. The craft could be brought down by valving off gas until it was heavier than the air it displaced; it could be raised by tossing off ballast, usually bags of sand.
There was danger aplenty in these unwieldy craft. Hydrogen, then known as “inflammable air,” was a fearsome incendiary. Pilâtre de Rozier, a French chemist who in 1783 had become the first man to fly in an untethered balloon (it contained hot air), two years later became the first man to die in one when his combined hydrogen-hot air craft exploded in flame during an attempt to cross the English Channel. (His copilot, Jules Romain, also perished.)
Beyond the danger of fire, it was hard at first to use balloons for purposes other than amusement. The ball-shaped craft, often gaily painted, were pretty to look at, and Parisian children were delighted with the miniatures sold as souvenirs at aerial exhibitions, but there was no way to take them anywhere the wind did not wish them to go. The great missing ingredient in flight technology was a power source that would let aircraft maneuver into the wind.
Men of science thought of everything from training and harnessing eagles to rowing the craft with silk-covered oars. An airborne rudder or sail was discarded as impractical and effectively powerless. In 1785 a French army lieutenant, Jean-Baptiste-Marie Meusnier, designed an extraordinarily advanced machine that called for a 260-foot-long oblong gas bag with an underslung crew cabin driven by three man-powered propellers and steered by a sail. Although never built, Meusnier’s design was the model for the airships that would fly more than a century later. Various kinds of engines—electrical, steam, and internal-combustion—were tried with limited success; generally they were too heavy to be of much use. It was not until 1885 that the German Karl Benz built a practical lightweight gasoline engine, and it was another thirteen years before someone successfully managed to affix one to an aircraft.
Until then, men took their chances in an unpredictable sky. It was not simply wind that affected flight. Aerial “professors,” as they were called, had to learn to maneuver through the different layers of the atmosphere. Cold air caused the hydrogen to contract, which required lightening the ship to maintain buoyancy, while warm air could expand the gas dangerously, requiring it to be valved off.
Despite these problems of safety and maneuverability, people tried to take advantage of the possibilities balloons offered. Many early uses were military. In 1840 Col. John H. Sherbourne, campaigning in Florida during the Second Seminole War in fruitless search of an elusive foe, tried to arrange with Durant to make night ascensions to locate Indian campfires. When Sherbourne’s commanding officer heard of the negotiations, he immediately scotched them.
In 1846, during the Mexican War, John Wise (see article on page 24) hatched a plan to attack San Juan Castle in Veracruz by dropping 18,000 pounds of bombs from a balloon suspended a mile above the city. His idea was rejected out of hand. Pride of place in aerial bombardment, if such there be, fell to the Austrians, who unsuccessfully attacked Venice by air in 1849, dropping thirty-pound bombs equipped with time fuses from unmanned balloons.
A New Hampshire balloonist with the impressive name of Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe served successfully in the Civil War. Assigned to the Army of the Potomac, he made many useful flights, and his observations of Confederate dispositions were later credited with saving the Union Army’s hash at the Battle of Fair Oaks. After the war the Confederate general Edwin Porter Alexander allowed, “Even if the observer never saw anything, his balloons would have been worth all they cost, trying to keep our movements out of sight.”
The Federals did not see things that way at the time, and balloon operations were suspended in 1863. Lack of government support crippled American efforts to sail in the sky. In Europe aeronauts could expect development money and annuities from their governments. A sheep that flew in a French hot-air balloon was rewarded by Louis XVI with a place in the royal menagerie. Not so with the United States Congress, which, forgetting Franklin’s dictum (if he ever said it), could see no practical use in the things. As a result, nineteenth-century American aeronauts made scant contribution to the technology of flight and were reduced to earning money by doing country-fair stunts.
By the turn of the century, ballooning seemed to have exhausted its possibilities in America, and after the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, attention turned to the promise of heavier-than-air flight. At the time of America’s first major international air show, held in 1910 at Dominguez Field near Los Angeles, airships still competed in speed races with airplanes, but Lincoln Beachey, a balloon pilot, was bored being a rubber-cow jockey. He switched to airplanes and became America’s premier pilot until his plane splashed into San Francisco Bay five years later and he drowned.
In Europe, however, LTA craft were proving themselves, thanks to the innovation and drive of Germany’s Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, whose first ascent in a balloon had come in 1863 as a military observer with the Union Army in St. Paul, Minnesota. The count’s big ships offered regular, scheduled air service. In 1910, when American pilots were still perched in the open air on the wings of airplanes, passengers aboard a zeppelin were sitting in wicker chairs being served luncheon with appropriate wines.
Maneuverable LTA craft, which were called dirigibles, developed roughly along two lines. First came non-rigid airships, commonly known as blimps, which were basically cigar-shaped balloons with engines and controls attached. Then came rigid airships, which had a structural framework holding a series of gasbags. Because of this framework, rigid airships could be built much larger than blimps.
At first the rigids were thought to be safer. Since a rigid airship had a number of compartments, barring a disaster in which the entire frame was wrecked, it would not collapse in a single whoosh, as a blimp was liable to do. For more than thirty years after its introduction early in this century, the big rigid airship fought for its place in the sky.
The Germans entered World War I with an enormous advantage in airships. Their big sky wagons were inexpensive long-range reconnaissance vehicles that could fly high and see far. While it took two years to build a seagoing cruiser, Germany could produce an airship in six weeks. Because of bad luck and worse judgment, however, airships were not used effectively. They were too easy to shoot down, and their scouting value became limited on the western front when the lines of troops froze in place. The German army abandoned its airships in 1917.
The German navy continued to use them, but rough weather over the northern seas kept dirigibles in their sheds three days out of four. After the Battle of Jutland, the navy’s decision to keep its floating craft at home and rely on submarines, rather than risk another surface encounter with the British, again robbed the airship of its reconnaissance function. If the ships weren’t sailing anywhere, then there was no reason to scout the way.
The Germans faced the old military problem of having a system and trying to find a mission for it. Airships were converted into bombers, a role for which the large, vulnerable craft were ill suited. The Germans embarked on a massive bombing program, including one airship designed to attack New York City, with muddled results. Zeppelins managed to hit some targets, mostly civilian, and to scare the populace in Britain and (especially in the war’s early years) Belgium and France. But chronic fog and high winds greatly hampered navigation, and as time went by and anti-zeppelin defenses improved, the damage they inflicted could not justify the appalling losses suffered. In one raid on October 19, 1917, only six of eleven attacking zeppelins returned to Germany after severe winds blew them off course. Losses of 45 percent cannot be borne for long.
The Germans made one last try on August 5, 1918. Under the command of Peter Strasser in a behemoth L-70 flying at nearly eighty miles an hour, five zeppelins made for England. Strasser, German’s biggest zeppelin booster throughout the war, believed he was flying too high for any hostile plane to reach him. He was mistaken. A British De Havilland D.H.4 riddled the ponderous gasbag with bullets, and it burst into flames. Strasser was dead before his ship could reach the English coast. As an offensive war weapon, the airship died with him. The zeppelin had many potential benefits as a reconnaissance craft, but as an attack bomber it was simply an enormous, slow, highly inflammable target.
After the Armistice, the U.S. Navy grew keenly interested in airships. Facing increased responsibilities in the Pacific, the Navy had more water to cover than its ships could handle and needed a longrange reconnaissance capability over that expanse. Airships seemed the most economical answer, so the Navy set about establishing an LTA program. It is unlikely that there has been a more unhappily managed military operation in our history. America did not provide much in the way of technological innovation, but it did offer up the lives of 105 officers and men—contribution enough to any endeavor.
Two months before the Armistice the Navy had submitted an aviation budget for 1920 of $225 million. The postwar Navy slashed that to $46 million, the Secretary of the Navy pared another $10 million, and in the end Congress cut $11 million more. Naval aviation was finally secured at a distressed price of 89 percent off, enough to start up an LTA station and build two dirigibles.
Like much in military procurement after World War I, the naval air station at Lakehurst, New Jersey, was established because it was cheap. The Army was writing off a chemical-warfare proving ground there, and the flat ground of the Pine Barrens made for easy construction. Since meteorology was still an infant science, the Navy did not realize at first that Lakehurst stood in the main thoroughfare for storms in the Northeast. A 1927 manual noted that “practically every storm that passes over this country or along the Atlantic Coast exercises for a greater or less time an influence over the winds at Lakehurst.”
The hangar, with external dimensions 943 feet long, 350 feet wide, and 200 feet high, was for many years the largest single room in the world. It had a plant capable of generating 75,000 cubic feet of hydrogen daily. Unfortunately the impressive structure was placed in exactly the wrong direction. Instead of being in line with the prevailing wind, it stood crosswind. As a result, crews were constantly forced to battle contrary winds that in Germany would have kept the ships safely in their sheds.
Eager to get started, the Navy authorized construction of two LTA machines in July 1919. It would build one by copying the design of a German ship shot down over France and order the other one built in Britain. The British came first. With a shortsightedness that would plague the American LTA program, speed of development was prized more highly than certitude of flight.
British officers had called for 150 hours of flight testing before turning the airship over to the Americans, but the British Air Ministry slashed that to 50. According to German standards, which required two years’ experience to become an airship commander, no one in the Anglo-American test crew was qualified to fly. By mid-1920 Washington had begun to harbor doubts about the British design, but the government was reluctant to criticize a wartime ally.
The British R-38 was a leaky ship that used a million cubic feet of hydrogen a month—about 40 percent of its capacity. The hydrogen cells allowed air to seep in, creating a potentially explosive combination of hydrogen and oxygen. The purity levels of the R-38 would have been intolerable in the German fleet. All this was brushed aside in the hurry to make delivery before the end of summer in 1921.
Trial flights were difficult. The control cables were so slack that they slipped their sprockets at forty knots. After the third test flight, on July 17, 1921, London’s naval attach reported, with the concurrence of America’s Comdr. Lewis H. Maxfield, that some of the ship’s girders (which were designed for high-altitude flight) had suffered “minor buckling.” He also said that “press reports re damage are exaggerated.” In fact, the ship’s designers knew that its structure could easily handle all stresses when it was stationary, but they lacked the Germans’ know-how about dynamic stresses. They could only guess how it would hold up when it was in motion and being buffeted by fierce winds, and their guesswork turned out to be tragically wrong.
On August 23 the R-38 left Howden on another test flight. After spending the night over the Channel, it attempted a high-speed rudder drill. During a sharp turn the girders cracked. Within seconds the fuel and hydrogen in the forward section exploded and burned. The crash of the R-38 was the worst aviation disaster in history to that time. Of forty-nine men aboard, five survived. Among the casualties were sixteen Americans.
The Navy announced that it would continue the LTA program, “so these brave men shall not have given their lives in vain,” and now turned to the Germans for design expertise. America’s first great dirigible, the ZR-1 (the ill-fated R-38 had been designated ZR-2), was christened Shenandoah on October 10, 1923. It would not last two years.
Shenandoah had been troubled from the outset. A thousand international headaches marred its construction. The ZR-1 was a German design from French drawings to be built in an American plant. The ship’s workings sometimes mystified engineers who were new to lighter-than-air flight, and after converting dimensions from metric to American equivalents, everything down to the size of the rivets was just a shade off. After the components were fabricated at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, it took sixteen months to assemble them at Lakehurst. When completed, the Americanized zeppelin stood 680 feet long.
The Navy sent out a shower of fascinating statistics about its new airship. The ballonets, used to maintain a constant pressure within the ship’s envelope, were lined with membranes taken from the intestines of 900,000 cattle. More important, and potentially more troublesome, during construction the Navy switched from hydrogen to helium to fill Shenandoah ’s gas cells. Hydrogen had been written off in a series of fiery explosions: a week after the crash of the R-38, three Navy blimps in New York blew up in their shed at Rock-away, Queens, in hydrogen fires, and on February 21, 1922, the semi-rigid Italian-built Army airship Roma burst into hydrogen flame after crashing into an electrical power line, killing thirty-four men.
The switch to helium was a sound safety measure, but it imposed limitations on Shenandoah . In the first place, it was very expensive. While hydrogen was nearly free, helium, which just five years before had been a laboratory curiosity available only in tiny amounts, cost about $120 per 1,000 cubic feet. (The price dropped steadily through the 1920s as new sources were found.) And the Navy was counting its pennies.
In addition, the world’s only major helium extraction plant, located in Fort Worth, Texas, had thus far collected only about 2.5 million cubic feet, just enough to inflate Shenandoah once with little left for reserve. Finally, Shenandoah had been designed for hydrogen, and although helium produced 92 percent of the lifting power of hydrogen, its use reduced Shenandoah ’s range by almost 40 percent, which effectively robbed the ship of its long-range reconnaissance capability. To guard against the kind of high-speed breakup that had brought down the R-38, Shenandoah ’s frame was reinforced, and to reduce its weight after the switch to helium, one engine was removed. These changes reduced its maximum speed at low altitude from 62.5 to 50 knots.
It took four days to inflate Shenandoah , starting on August 13, 1923, for she was enormous, requiring a ground crew of 420 to walk her out of the hangar. For all her size, Shenandoah was not and never would be ready for fleet service. She was experimental, too small and narrow-ranged for extended operations at sea. To keep her as light as possible, her accommodations were Spartan. The crew lived on coffee, soup, beans, and cold sandwiches. While half were working, the other half ate or lay in sleeping bags.
Rear Adm. William A. Moffett, the Navy’s first chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics and an impassioned apostle of air power, was responsible for the LTA program. The admiral faced two vexing problems with Shenandoah . First, he needed someone to skipper the new ship, and no one in the Navy had the necessary credentials for command. Whoever the captain was, he would have to learn as he flew. Moffett first offered the job to an officer named Ernest J. King. As relentlessly ambitious an officer as ever braided his sleeve, King was already setting his course to become chief of naval operations, and he did not think he could get there in a dirigible. He turned down Moffett’s offer. King did indeed become CNO, and during World War II he forged the modern U.S. Navy.
The first skipper was Comdr. Frank R. McCrary, who had had some LTA experience in World War I. McCrary was a good enough pilot, but the requirements of an airship commander were closer to those of a capital-ship commander, and a good ship commander was harder to find than a good pilot. McCrary, who had come to believe in the natural superiority of flying boats over airships, accepted his command reluctantly. But if the LTA program was to succeed, it needed faith, not just grudging acceptance, and so McCrary was soon replaced by Lt. Comdr. Zachary Lansdowne, a solid 1909 graduate of the Naval Academy and a confirmed devotee of the Navy’s LTA program.
Moffett’s second problem was what to do with his new airship. On this he was stuck. Knowing that with her reduced range Shenandoah could not perform as advertised with the fleet, he turned her into a flying publicity vehicle to drum up national interest in dirigibles. He turned down a proposed seven-stage series of trials in varying weather conditions and instead sent Shenandoah on a press junket immediately after she was commissioned. Of Shenandoah ’s fifty-nine flights, only thirteen were operational. The crew derided the rest as “hand wavers.”
Always eager for a headline, Moffett announced grandiose plans for Shenandoah : she would visit the principal cities of America, travel around the world, and traverse both poles. This was in 1923, before the ship had even flown. Moffett got newspaper publicity by the yard, but not always the sort of publicity he wanted. The great ship was a charming sight as it cruised through the sky at forty-one knots, but it seemed short and squat and obsolescent when compared with highpowered airplanes whipping through the prestigious Pulitzer Trophy race at more than two hundred. The New York Herald ridiculed Shenandoah : “For war service the gas bag is to the plane as the circus fat man is to Jack Dempsey.”
Shenandoah made one high-speed ride no one had planned on. While tethered to her mast at Lakehurst on January 16, 1924, the ship was struck by 78-mph winds that wrenched off her nose cap. She went free-driving at treetop level, and the crew couldn’t restore order until they were over Newark, fifty miles away.
Shenandoah seemed ready to fulfill some of the high hopes held for her on October 7, 1924, when she set sail for a successful trip to California and back. When it was done, the voyage was considered a great accomplishment. The Secretary of the Navy congratulated Lansdowne on “the successful completion of the longest journey ever made by an airship. It is believed that this has demonstrated the ability of the rigid airship to remain away from its base for a period much longer than has been thought possible and will undoubtedly have notable influence on the development of this type of airship for both military and civil purposes.” Lansdowne was not so sure. He pointed out there had been times when Shenandoah , sailing into contrary winds, made no progress at all. Airships, he said, needed “greater power and higher speed.”
The flight exposed a major limitation. Designed to operate near sea level, Shenandoah was not suited to transcontinental flights, and going over the Continental Divide required valving off much helium into the thin air to avoid a dangerous buildup of excess pressure inside the ship. Since the Navy was under the gun to conserve helium, Shenandoah squeezed slowly and carefully through the narrow mountain passes, rather than going a few thousand feet higher and speeding over them. Even so, the trip used up 640,000 cubic feet of helium, one-sixth of the Navy’s supply for the year.
And now the Navy had two gaseous mouths to feed; the USS Los Angeles (originally ZR-3), America’s third rigid airship, designed and built in Germany, came into service in November 1924. But the Navy could fly only one of its two ships at a time, because there was not enough helium for both. Like a pair of impecunious actors with one dress suit between them, the airships traded off. Shenandoah was deflated, and its helium was given over to Los Angeles .
Moffett’s thirst for publicity worked against him in the summer of 1925. Congressmen from everywhere, especially the Midwest, clamored for the Navy to bring one of its airships to their districts. Moffett, who understood that legislators from landlocked areas were not notably generous about voting for naval appropriations, was eager to oblige and ordered Los Angeles to Minneapolis. When Los Angeles suffered an engine failure and had to return to home port, Moffett was in a bind. He ordered Shenandoah inflated with Los Angeles ’s helium and sent on to complete the flight by September.
Lansdowne protested against such a flight. The Midwest is a meteorological nightmare in the fall, with tumultuous masses of air exerting stresses of which no European designer could have conceived. Adm. Edward W. Eberle, the chief of naval operations, came down hard on Lansdowne’s objections. “If the limitations and apprehensions … are sound,” he wrote Moffett, “it would appear that our airships are of little military or commercial value, and that the great cost of their upkeep and repair would not be warranted.” Eberle’s letter was well-understood naval code for “Fly it or scrap it.” Moffett elected to fly it.
Shenandoah was flying into southeast Ohio early in the morning of September 3 when it entered an area of atmospheric violence, as a flow of cold air from the north swept over warm air coming from the south. After being knocked about for a couple of hours while cruising at about 1,750 feet, the ship suddenly encountered an upward current of more than 1,000 feet per minute and began to soar. In a moment Shenandoah was gripped by the kind of aerial turbulence that had killed balloonists for more than a century, magnified a hundredfold.
Lansdowne went to full power and tried to hold her down, but it was no go. The ship eventually reached an elevation of 6,000 feet. Then, suddenly, the crew heard wires snap and girders crash as the ship was slammed by the coldair mass, which drove her down at 1,500 feet per minute. Two of her engines had overheated and failed, and Shenandoah became nothing more than a wounded balloon at the mercy of a vehement sky. Helium could not save her now. Shenandoah bobbed back upward, spinning counterclockwise, and then broke apart.
Lt. Cmdr. Charles E. Rosendahl, who had been sent to the forward nose section, watched in horror as the cabin, with Lansdowne and his command crew, ripped away and fell to earth. It landed near Ava, about twenty-five miles southeast of Zanesville. The bow section, with Rosendahl and six others in it, floated for another hour and eventually came to earth near Sharon, twelve miles from the crash site. Rosendahl was spared Shenandoah ’s final indignity. Crowds who had been attending a local fair pushed aside the dazed survivors (twenty-nine of the forty-three-man crew managed to live through the crash) and swarmed over the wreckage in search of souvenirs. They took away girders, gas-cell fabric, and canned goods from the galley. At first it was thought that the vandals had even stripped Lansdowne’s Annapolis graduation ring from his finger, but in 1937 Mrs. Faye Larson, an Ava resident, announced that she had found the longlost memento clinging to a mustard plant as she worked in her garden.
The exact cause of the crash is still being debated today. Poor piloting, poor ship design, and inadequate helium resources all were brought forth. In the end the naval court of inquiry simply declared, “The disaster is part of the price which must inevitably be paid in the development of any new and hazardous art.” Shenandoah ’s wreckage was sold to the Aluminum Company of America for twenty cents a pound.
Los Angeles was a happy ship from the start. She was built in Germany and flown to Lakehurst, arriving on October 15, 1924. The Americans toasted her with bootleg “Jersey lightning,” and the German crew reciprocated with a case of Piper-Heidsieck brought as emergency ballast. In deference to Prohibition, Los Angeles was christened by Mrs. Calvin Coolidge not with champagne but with water drawn from the River Jordan.
Officially Los Angeles was classified as a prototype commercial craft designed to explore the feasibility of regular passenger service, because postwar restrictions still prevented the Germans from building military aircraft. In fact, her primary functions were to serve as a training vessel for LTA personnel and to prove herself to the fleet. As usual, there were publicity opportunities to think about. When the Empire State Building was dedicated on May 1, 1931, it was announced that Los Angeles would hook up to a 205foot mooring mast on top of the building. Passengers would then be whisked down to Fifth Avenue by elevator, though how they were supposed to get from the airship into the building is not clear.
Moffett did many foolish things in promoting the Navy’s LTA program, but tying Los Angeles to the top of the Empire State Building was not one of them. He canceled the plan; a few months later he sent a humbler Navy blimp. It took half an hour to effect a hookup in forty-mileper-hour winds, as the blimp sprayed water ballast on startled pedestrians. It hung on for three minutes and then flew away. That was the only attempted mooring in the building’s history. The mast is still there, if anyone wants to try.
In February 1931 Los Angeles participated in Fleet Problem XII off the west coast of Panama. It was the first time since 1925 that an airship had maneuvered with the fleet. While she succeeded in finding the enemy ships, enemy planes found Los Angeles as well, and the airship was ruled destroyed. It was not the showing LTA personnel had hoped for. Losing planes in combat was an accepted hazard, but an airship would be an almost irreplaceable loss and would mean the collapse of the fleet’s long-range reconnaissance capability.
Los Angeles was finally done in by the economics of the Depression. Her annual maintenance budget of $270,000 was too easy a target for an impoverished Congress. The ship was decommissioned on June 30, 1932, and stored in a hangar. On occasion Los Angeles was wheeled out to serve as a ground-level classroom, but she never flew again.
The Navy’s last hope for an effective LTA program rested with Akron and Macon , originally known as ZR-4 and ZR-5. Akron was first to be built; it began construction on November 7, 1929, when Moffett drove a golden rivet into the first mainframe before a crowd of thirty thousand in the city it would be named for. Its virtual carbon copy, Macon (named for a city in an influential congressman’s district), followed two years later.
The 785-foot Akron was a flying aircraft carrier, capable of servicing, stowing, and flying five planes. Specially rigged Curtiss Sparrowhawks could make an inflight hookup with Akron , be brought aboard by crane (the technique had been tested on Los Angeles ), and then rest in a hangar inside the ship’s airframe. Released the same way, the planes became a permanently airborne reconnaissance squadron.
The Navy now had an airship with the size and range needed to operate with the fleet. But first, as usual, Moffett had to consider the media. Akron ’s first commissioned flight, on November 2, 1931, took off with a complement of newspaper writers and radio reporters on board. For one leg of the trip, Akron and Los Angeles flew in formation over New York City, the only time the Navy was able to get two of its rigid airships flying together at the same time.
The next day Moffett staged another stunt. To demonstrate the ship’s ability to transport a large number of troops swiftly, Akron lifted 207 passengers, some of them sitting on catwalks and hanging on to girders—the most carried in any type of aircraft to that time. Moffett has been harshly judged for his obsession with publicity, but in fairness it should be remembered that all air commanders at this time were showboating to draw attention to their branch of the service. In seeking publicity for airships, Moffett was not playing a new military game. He was playing a very old one, but with extremely poor cards.
The big ship’s only run at fleet maneuvers was not a success. Still without any airplanes in its belly, Akron was sent to find a destroyer squadron off Cape Lookout, North Carolina, in January 1932. The ship’s eight scouts took two days to locate the destroyers. Still, there was a majesty about the giant airships that comforted the men who flew them. Boarding Akron on April 3, 1933, to observe a routine training flight, Moffett gazed contentedly about the cabin. There was nothing like being aboard a dirigible, he said. “These are my happiest hours.”
They were also his last. Near Barnegat Light, New Jersey, Akron flew into a violent lightning storm. Her instruments went sour. The altimeter, which used atmospheric pressure to determine height, read eight hundred feet when the stern section slapped into the ocean and the ship broke apart shortly after midnight. Akron carried no life preservers and just one rubber raft. Only three of the seventy-six-man crew survived.
With Moffett dead in the frigid New Jersey surf, the U.S. airships lost their last great champion. Appropriations were hard to come by in the 1930s, and every dollar used to inflate one of the gasbags was a dollar taken away from the development of flying boats and dive bombers. To regular air officers at headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, Lakehurst increasingly seemed a distant and troublesome outpost where something was always going wrong. To remind airship fliers of their place, those who had not also completed airplane training were awarded a flight insignia of only half a wing.
Macon , which first flew less than three weeks after Akron ’s crash, was the end of the line for America’s LTA hopes. The program could not survive another disaster. Macon ’s first skipper, Comdr. Alger Dresel, was a naturally careful flier, and commanding the last airship in the Navy made him especially so. He once pulled out of a naval exercise in the face of a line squall, to the sneers of airplane officers, who said airships were good only for fair-weather flights. Dresel was soon replaced with the more aggressive Lt. Comdr. Herbert V. Wiley, one of Akron ’s three survivors. Wiley was an airship enthusiast who wrote the introduction to a 1935 edition of Rufus Porter’s pamphlet Aerial Navigation (see article on page 28).
For a time Macon put on a grand show. In a totally unauthorized operation, Wiley determined the course of the heavy cruiser Houston , which was taking President Franklin D. Roosevelt from Panama to Hawaii, and dispatched a flight of Sparrowhawks to intercept it. The planes, an astounding fifteen hundred miles from shore, flew low over Houston and dropped a supply of up-to-date San Francisco newspapers for the President to read. Roosevelt, who loved an extravagant gesture as much as any man who ever lived, was delighted and sent Wiley a “well done.” The Navy high command was less enchanted, and it was only through Roosevelt’s intervention that Wiley was not court-martialed for “misapplied initiative.”
For a single moment, in the 1935 Pacific Fleet maneuvers, Macon performed the functions that had always been expected of the LTA program. With Sparrowhawks flying sixty miles on each beam, Macon provided a reconnaissance screen two hundred miles deep. It was an extraordinary achievement that no fixed-wing aircraft, attached to a land base or a carrier far to the rear, could come close to matching. Macon ’s aircraft were able to find and track the fleet without being detected. Following this impressive performance, Macon was released from the exercises and sent home to California.
However, the ship was already carrying a mortal wound. On a journey from the West Coast to Florida the year before, Macon had flown into an area of violent turbulence over West Texas, and as the ship drove at full speed through the storm, two girders broke and one buckled on the port side. They were repaired upon landing, but ground engineers, after a series of wind-tunnel tests, wanted to reinforce the ship’s frame at the stern near the fins. Navy brass decided the work was not urgent and could be accomplished at leisure without altering Macon ’s operational schedule.
On February 12, during its flight back to California after the naval exercise, though mired in fog and rain, Macon could make out Big Sur on the Monterey coast. Then she was hit by a strong gust of wind that swung her to starboard and tore off her upper fin. Macon might have survived, but the control-cabin crew panicked. They wildly dumped fuel and ballast, causing the ship to rise far above the height at which it was meant to operate. When that happened, automatic valves released so much helium that she lost buoyancy and settled into the sea. This time there was plenty of lifesaving gear aboard, and, mercifully, only two of the eighty-three-man crew died.
That was the end of American rigid airships. The Navy asked for more appropriations, but Congress would not authorize the funds. A month and a half after Macon went down, the Navy flew its first PBY patrol flying boat. The PBY was an ugly thing, and it lacked the airship’s range and sophisticated radar equipment, but it flew. It was cheap too. The Navy could build forty dependable PBYs for the price of one rigid airship.
Two years later, when the German dirigible Hindenburg exploded in a whoosh of hydrogen flame over Lakehurst on May 6, 1937, it was the end of rigid airships for everybody. Germany’s Air Marshal Hermann Goring, who detested airships except as propaganda vehicles, had the last zeppelins melted down and used their Duralumin for warplanes.
LTA supporters could and still do agree with Assistant Secretary of the Navy Charles Edison, who said upon the demise of the Navy program that airships were not given a fair chance. To them, the failure to develop a successful LTA program represents one of the greatest technological failures of our century. Because airships were dogged by mischance and poor application, they say, the enormous potential of LTA was never realized.
The litany goes on. Pilot error and poor design do not mean that the basic concept of LTA is unsound. Airships were sent on inappropriate missions to places where they were not meant to fly. Airships were ahead of their time and needed the modern miracles of titanium and materials such as Kevlar to live up to their potential. Airships should have been treated as experimental prototypes and carefully nurtured, not hustled out to the fleet before they were ready. If Shenandoah had not been wasted on “handwaving” flights, she would have learned her business. The public remembers the fiery death of the Hindenburg but forgets the years of solid, uneventful service turned in by the Graf Zeppelin . Besides, the Hindenburg was a good ship that was sabotaged by America’s refusal to sell Germany helium. “If the Hindenburg had been filled with helium,” says one LTA enthusiast, “the sky would now be filled with airships.”
This is doubtful. Airships could never have competed with the speed and convenience of planes even if there hadn’t been so many tragedies. As it was America built five rigid airships, and only Los Angeles lived long enough to be put to sleep in her hangar. The record was not much better elsewhere. The British attempt to establish airship service ended in 1930, when the R-101, ominously hailed as “the Titanic of the air,” burned over France on its maiden voyage. Of 161 rigid airships built and flown worldwide from 1900 through 1940, 110 died violent deaths.
By contrast, the lowly blimp—smaller, safer, filled with helium, and spared the spotlight directed to rigid airships —went about its business quietly and effectively as an antisubmarine weapon. During World War II no ship sailing under a blimp’s protective covering was lost to German Uboats, and only one blimp was brought down by enemy fire. Nevertheless, the Navy finally closed the books on LTA when it shut down its last service blimp in 1962.
Dreams die hard, and dirigibles are still with us. Their most arresting presence comes in the form of blimps flying over sporting events, sending crisp aerial images of the playing field. This is yet another point used by proponents of LTA to show us its possible uses. If a blimp can show a wide receiver catching a pass, it can detect a cocaine smuggler flying in from Latin America.
Until recently the Navy sponsored the development of the YEZ-2A, a glorious blimp design that looks more like something from Star Wars than a discarded program of half a century ago. The YEZ-2A was promoted as useful for conducting complicated tests of new radar systems as well as such traditional tasks as early aerial warning, submarine detection, minesweeping, and rescue operations. The Navy recently wrote off the YEZ-2A, and the ship’s pulse is now kept barely beating by a few members of Congress interested in the project.
Wendel R. Wendel, an airship entrepreneur, is glad to see the military out of the LTA business. The future of the air and even outer space belongs to civilian enterprise, according to Wendel. “Space will eventually be explored by tourists,” he says. Like the aeronauts of old, Wendel thinks big. He is currently working on a project to design and build an eight-hundred-foot rigid-frame dirigible to go after the entertainment and tourism market. He envisions an upscale operation in which passengers pay a thousand dollars a day for an airborne luxury cruise. “You get to see the world differently,” Wendel says as he describes a trip in which the airship would sail to the Yucatan in Mexico, set down to allow for exploration, and then swing back by way of the Everglades.
Wendel is only one of many Americans currently engaged in LTA development. Airship International Ltd. has been in business since 1982 flying blimps for aerial advertising and promotional purposes. The MetLife blimp is one of theirs. The Blimp Works in Statesville, North Carolina, sees a market for ultralight craft that can whisk a single passenger-pilot into the quiet of the sky. As designed, the small craft is so easy to operate that it does not even require a license to fly. Some LTA developers have the resources to deal in the most cosmic of ideas. Westinghouse Airships is thinking about a nuclear-powered design so vast it could stay aloft indefinitely under remote control and never return to earth at all. Jesse Glenn, a mechanic from Jackson, Georgia, is building a dirigible in his spare hours. He estimates it will take three thousand of them. “I want to restore a part of history,” he says.
Whether all this activity signals a true renaissance of the airship and the final fulfillment of a two-century-old dream or is just another gaudy interlude in aviation history, we do not know for now and will not for some time. As Ron Hochstetler, an LTA consultant, once said, “In the airship business you never know whether you’re a visionary or a crackpot until it’s too late.”