The Dirigible Dock
It looks ungainly from the outside: a burnt loaf of bread two hundred feet high. But then you enter, by way of doors large enough to drive trucks through. Those doors are tiny afterthoughts cut into the bottom corners of the real doors. The real doors, two on each end of the building, are 214 feet wide at the bottom, 202 feet high, and curved like a quarter-hemisphere of orange peel, each coming to a point at the top where it pivots on a single pin. Each of these big sliding doors is pulled open by standard-gauge railroad cars that run alongside its bottom edge.
Inside, you’re in maybe the biggest unobstructed open space in the world. Maybe , because, as Gary J. Dell, in charge of communications for Loral Defense Systems-Akron, tells me, “NASA’s vehicle-assembly building or the Astrodome may be bigger. We don’t know.” But this building, unlike those, has been around since 1929, when it was erected so that the world’s largest airships, the Akron and the Macon , could be built inside it. It’s big enough to hold seven football fields laid side by side.
It is used mainly for storage now and kept ready in case the military airship business starts up again. Starts up again? I ask Cary Dell. “You never know. We bid on a contract for a dirigible in 1986,” he explains, “the year before Loral bought this plant from Goodyear. The Navy had a plan to build an airship to protect the fleet from cruise missiles. Airships have a big advantage over AWACS planes: They can stay aloft for days without refueling. That project didn’t make it, though.”
Inside, the distant walls are lined, floor to peak, with a spidery filigree of steel trusswork—the actual structure of the airdock. Along the base of each wall runs an unobtrusive line of small buildings; tucked into a far corner is a larger one about the size of a Grand Union. From one end of the building to the other is almost a quarter of a mile.
“Let’s take the elevator up to the top,” says Gary. The elevator is an inclined-plane railroad that climbs up the inside wall of the building; it’s operated by Joe Johnson, who has charge of the airdock’s maintenance. We step into a plain, dark, open-topped cab huddled against the wall, and I watch the wall curve into ceiling above me as we rise. When the cab jolts to a stop, we step out onto a woodplank catwalk 180 feet above the concrete floor.
Holding tight to a railing, I look down eighteen stories to forklifts moving down lanes painted on the floor. The space down there has been divided into city blocks, with roads and intersections. “This way to the roof,” Joe says.
Along more catwalks, up a flight of stairs, and through a door, and Joe and Gary and I are on a broad mountaintop of rubber that slopes off to sheer cliff on every side. At either end are the tops of the massive doors. Peregrine falcons nest up here. At the highest point, on top of the doors, I look down and notice set in the grassy ground way below a beautiful perfect circle of stonework perhaps a hundred feet across. It looks prehistoric. “That’s where they had a zeppelin mooring mast,” says Joe Johnson. “You can just make out where another one was over there, under that landing strip.”
Back inside and on the elevator riding back down, I ask the two men if it’s true that the building gets its own weather inside it. “They say it rains in here, but you couldn’t prove it by me,” Gary says. “I’ve never seen it.” Joe nods in agreement. “But it is true that the walls expand and contract. The building is basically a long row of catenary arches, like the St. Louis arch, and the ends of every arch except the middle three are on rollers, so they can move.”
Back on the floor, looking up again, it occurs to me that the long, curving frame of fine trusswork looks like that of one of the old dirigibles. The thought seems almost too silly to mention, but when I do, Gary says, “Yes, you’re right. It’s basically the top half of an airship. Karl Arnstein, who designed the Akron and the Macon , also designed the airdock itself, and the engineering is very similar. Goodyear hired Arnstein from Zeppelin in Germany in 1924 to start the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation. He was only thirty-seven, but he was already the best in the business.”
A young man at the pinnacle of success in a technology that looked like the future. Does this plant do anything today connected in any way with zeppelins? I ask. “Oh, no,” Gary says. “Loral builds the bags for Goodyear blimps —which are a fraction of the size of the Akron and the Macon —but we make those in Georgia. Here we build flight simulators for fighters like the F-15E, among other defense products.”
Think how amazed Arnstein would be, I suggest. “Oh, no,” says Gary. “He got us here. He led the transition. He had us building an advanced high-speed train in the 1930s, and he began our missile-guidance business. Karl Arnstein led us straight into the aerospace age.”