Lawyer Leo Connors had always thought that his office on the 30th floor of Providence’s art deco Bank of America (“Superman”) Building was at the very top. So when he found an unmarked door opening on a narrow upward stairway, he naturally set out to explore. Passing through two more doors, he entered a dusty, unused rectangular room fitted out like a dirigible cabin, with wicker chairs, dark leather-lined walls, vintage light fixtures, fine brass fittings, and a liquor closet. Windows on three sides were framed like those of the Graf Zeppelin , which had been thrilling the public when the skyscraper was new in the late 1920s. Was this a lobby for departing dirigible passengers? Or a snug hideaway for the board of directors of the building’s original owner, the Industrial National Bank? The abandoned room contains a door to the outside that certainly could have provided boarding access to a private air yacht.
But shortly after this dirigible room had been built, hopes for a world web of lighter-than-air commerce began to dim as a series of airships crashed. England abandoned its hopes for a Britain–Egypt–India–Australia route after the R101 flew into a French hill in 1930. The United States canceled plans for a dirigible fleet after a series of disasters culminating in the loss of the Navy’s great aviation pioneer, Adm. William A. Moffett, when the Akron went down in a storm in 1933. Just about everyone else gave up after seeing the newsreel taken at the Hindenburg ’s mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. Meanwhile, in terms of all-around performance and reliability, airplane builders were far outpacing dirigible developers.
Bosh on all that, say dirigible lovers. From a Web page titled “Zeppelins from Another World,” I count dozens of movies, books, and comics whose plots are borne by characters moving hither and yon on reincarnated dirigibles—even under steam power, as in such “steampunk” tales as The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello . (Note to engineers too busy to follow the twists and turns of current fiction: steampunk, cyberpunk, biopunk, and a rapidly growing list of variations usually feature alienated young protagonists in a dystopian, “alternate history” world, who resort to some variety of cool and dangerous technology that outperforms anything in our own dull experience. In steampunk stories, steam power runs society, and Queen Victoria dictates fashion.)
Airships have a high coolness factor among many fantasy fans, and recently they have been barging onto the romance shelves. Therefore I’d argue that the subject deserves its own literary niche, perhaps to be named “Hindenpunk” for the most notorious airship of all time.
Even without a novel to my name, I can understand why fantasy writers harbor warm feelings for the bulgy airships of yore. Able to cross the Pacific without refueling, cruising just above skyscraper-scraping height, these fantasy dirigibles call “all aboard” for intrigue. Their giant metal frames offer catwalks, long ladders leading to crow’s nests, and floppy gasbags, all of which afford villains plenty of nooks from which to lunge. High adventure arises aplenty when a giant rudder starts going to pieces, requiring a volunteer to tiptoe out on a wire and a prayer, high over the ocean—as actually happened during one voyage of the Graf Zeppelin .
Nor’easters, mountain waves, engine failures, fires, bizarre mishaps in mooring attempts, and structural failures prompted by hairpin turns all laid their traps for the dirigible driver. So a fictional airship captain has to be as commanding and resourceful as the master of any windjammer. And unlike a square-rigger, fictional airships can deliver people door to door, across that ocean of air that Jules Verne called the Icarian Sea.
How close did real airships actually come to shuttling passengers from building to building? In 1903 the Brazilian flier Alberto Santos Dumont commuted aboard his compact, gasoline-powered airship La Baladeuse between Paris and the suburbs, mooring it to belle époque iron balconies while visiting. Airships dropped off passengers atop roofs in Akron and Cleveland. In 1929 an Army blimp rushed the belated Sen. Hiram Bingham from an Army base in Virginia to the Capitol steps. A Navy airship once floated up to the pinnacle of the National Bank of Tulsa skyscraper. But none of these one-off events would muster even a footnote had the Empire State Building come through.
Talk of the Empire State’s mast—what mastermind John J. Raskob called its “hat”—first appeared in the newspapers on December 11, 1929, following
a press conference by ex-governor Alfred E. Smith. Citing the imminence of trans-oceanic airship routes, Smith said the building’s spire and its speedy elevators would enable disembarking passengers to step onto Fifth Avenue just seven minutes after an airship docked. He didn’t need to add that the mast’s main job was to steal attention from the rival Chrysler Building. Better yet, it rode on a wave of international enthusiasm raised by Graf Zeppelin ’s round-the-world voyage three months earlier.
Though the mast’s extra cost (somewhere north of $100,000) was never offset by a dime in passenger fees, it yielded a public relations bonanza in “world’s highest” stories. Luminaries including Ogden Nash, James Thurber, and Lewis Mumford wrote about it. Whenever interest flagged, publicists Amy Vanderbilt and Josef Israels II drummed up another event, each time snarling midtown traffic for hours. That included bringing airships to buzz the mast for newsreel cameras, luring the Good-year blimp Enterprise over for a three-minute visit, and an inexplicable delivery by airship of a bundle of old newspapers from the roof of the New York Journal-American Building.
In the opening scene of the 2004 fantasy film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow , the dirigible Hindenburg III pulls up to the Empire State’s pinnacle on a snowy night. A man on the building’s parapet catches a rope from the craft and holds tight while the airship drops a boarding ramp from the nose to the balcony. Seem reasonable? That’s how motorboats and fishing skiffs pull up at a dock.
But a speedboat isn’t 800 feet long and doesn’t go on a rampage if untethered during gusty winds. Dr. Hugo Eckener, the greatest airship pilot of the age, laughed when a reporter asked about bringing his Graf Zeppelin to the Empire State. Noting the many spiky buildings nearby that upended the winds, he replied with Teutonic politeness that he would not proceed without “many, many experiments” beforehand.
The object of a mooring mast (one early model of which still exists, in Recife, Brazil) is to draw airships nose first into a secure, cone-shaped locking mechanism. The Empire State planners chiefly followed two examples. The first was the land-based 200-foot “high mast” at Saint-Hubert, Canada, erected for the visit of the R-100 in August 1930. The high mast held airships so far off the ground that passengers could only come and go through a nose-mounted gangway that linked to a circular railing below the masthead. The Empire State would have relied on the same vertiginous arrangement to transfer passengers. But bringing mast and airship together was going to be tricky in a downtown setting. Ground crews couldn’t run around the streets of Manhattan to gather lines dropped from a mile up and feed them into winches, in the way that crews could hustle across the grass at conventional dirigible stations. (Note to fantasy writers: don’t forget the port and starboard yaw lines when mooring your dirigibles. Without yaw lines, a big airship would veer and surge when approaching a mast and, quite likely, crash into it.)
An airship arriving at the quarter-mile-high mast of the Empire State would have to drop its three lines almost upon the heads of the mooring crew. This prompted the Navy to suggest that the building planners review a second model, the stern-mounted mast on the airship tender USS Patoka , a converted oil tanker. The Patoka ’s crew came up with a streamlined mooring method in which arriving airships such as the Los Angeles dragged a grappling hook across the ship’s stern. This enabled the Patoka to connect its winches to the airship and avoided the need for sending out motor launches to retrieve lines from the water. A unique feature of the Patoka ’s mast was its two side-mounted “yaw booms,” each 100 feet long, creating an inverted T when deployed. Engineers of the Empire State extended the wall columns at the top of the building for mounting two such heavy booms. Had it carried through, the skyscraper’s top would have taken on a distinctly nautical look.
Considering the architects’ close attention to the workings of real masts and their consultation with experts from the Navy and other airship operators, I’d say that the builders of the Empire State showed efforts well beyond mere one-upmanship of the Chrysler Building. They even altered the steel plans to tolerate the strains of dirigible mooring. The conical structure matched the Saint-Hubert specifications, and they also hauled up a winch or two for installation at the mast’s base. But no experts came up with a way to subdue airships in such a wickedly drafty setting. In 1939, seven years after Manhattan got over its case of airship fever, a writer in the New Yorker commented that nobody from the building’s management staff even wanted to talk about it.
Today ornithologist Joe Zbyrowski uses the now dilapidated dirigible room in Providence as a blind for his raptor studies. I like to think it could have been a boarding lobby for corporate airships, perhaps the “air yachts” that Goodyear once marketed, so long ago. In any case, it would be fine to sit in a wicker chair up there, halfway to the sky, and muse on that possibility one summer evening, boots on the sill, holding a burnished spyglass and looking out to sea.