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A feature of airship development in America is the success of the non-rigid type


The American non-rigid airship L-1

COMMISSIONED IN 1938 for naval training, the non-rigid airship L-1 has a gas capacity of 123,000 cubic feet, is 147 feet in length and has a maximum diameter of 37 ft. 8 in. Two 147 horse-power Warner engines give the airship a maximum speed of sixty-three miles an hour; the cruising speed is fifty-three miles an hour.

THE first attempt at the conquest of the air in America was made by a Frenchman. He was Jean Pierre Blanchard, who in 1793 made a free-balloon flight at Philadelphia, then the political centre of the United States. Blanchard had obtained a special permit signed by George Washington. This flight lasted three-quarters of an hour.

Balloons were used for military purposes during the American Civil War of 1861-65, but it was not until 1907 that the first American-owned airship appeared. During that year the journalist and explorer, Dr. Walter Wellman, in his small non-rigid airship America, tried to reach the North Pole. He succeeded in getting as far as Spitsbergen (now Svalbard) before he was compelled to give up his attempt at a flight to the Polar regions.

The first non-stop flight across the Atlantic, by Alcock and Brown in June 1919, created world interest, but it is not generally known that Wellman left Atlantic City in October 1910 on the first attempt to fly the Atlantic. In the little America he and his crew of five had covered 1,000 miles in three days before it became necessary for them to take to the boat which they had slung under the airship. A passing vessel picked them up. Wellman survived until January 1934, when he died at the age of seventy-six.

With the exception of free-balloon construction (see the chapter “Romance of Ballooning”), little further was done in the United States until 1916. During that year the authorities were impressed by the success of the Allied airships in the anti-submarine campaign, and so America decided to build a fleet of non-rigid airships for coastal patrol. No one in the United States appears to have known anything about airships, and the first ship was really designed on theory. This ship was the A-1. When completed she was so much over weight that she could barely lift herself from the ground. The A-1 did eventually fly, but after a few short trips she was broken up.

Inspired by the success attained in Europe, the American officers persevered, and in 1917, when the United States entered the war, the knowledge and experience gained by Great Britain and France were available to them. Excellent use of this information was made by the constructing companies, and in July 1917 Goodyears produced their first non-rigid, the B-1, which was rapidly followed by others.

These ships, of 77,000 cubic feet capacity, 160 feet long and driven by a 100 horse-power engine, were used for instructional purposes and coastal patrol. By November 1918 nearly a hundred airships had been delivered to the United States. American pilots flying Allied ships did splendid patrol work in European waters.

By the beginning of 1919 a larger and improved non-rigid was produced. This ship, the C-1, had a capacity of 182,000 cubic feet, was 192 feet long and carried a crew of six. Her twin engines, with a total of 250 brake horse-power, gave a speed of 60 miles an hour. On May 14, 1919, the C-5 set out from Montauk, N.Y., to fly the Atlantic, and reached Newfoundland, a distance of 1,200 nautical miles, in a nonstop flight of 25 hours 50 minutes. While moored out in a field there, she was caught in a gale and deflated. The Atlantic flight was therefore abandoned.

After the loss of the R-38 in 1921 (see the chapter “British Airships”), the construction of

the ZR-1, closely following the design of the captured Zeppelin L-49, was held up, and it was not until September 4, 1923, that the ZR-1 made her maiden flight at Lakehurst, New Jersey. She was christened Shenandoah, an Indian name meaning “Daughter of the Stars”.

During the following winter it was decided to carry out extensive mooring, riding and casting-off trials at the high mast at Lakehurst. On January 16, 1924, when a winter storm was raging,

the Shenandoah swung at her mooring to the high mast. Gusts having a velocity as high as 63 miles an hour slapped the ship first on one side, then on the other, above and below. The crew were on four-hour watches, every station being manned, and they tried to control with rudders and elevators the ship’s gyrations in the storm.

About 6 p.m. the wind began to increase and, suddenly, at 6.44 p.m., a violent gust of 74 miles an hour velocity struck the airship at an angle, twisting her about her longitudinal axis as she rolled and attempted to adjust herself to the new wind direction. Her crew were quick to act; water ballast spouted from the length of the ship and several fuel tanks were pushed through the cover. The man on watch at the base of the tower jumped aside just in time to avoid being hit by the heavy mooring winches and reels of wire that came falling out of the open bows of the airship.

Torn from her mooring, the Shenandoah drifted astern into the darkness, in grave danger of being caught in the pine trees surrounding the mast and of being battered to pieces by the storm. She began, however, to feel the effects of the dropped ballast and, rising slowly, managed to clear the forest. She was stern up, her torn and gaping bows were down, and two forward gas bags were gone. Her crew struggled to seal this opening before the rush of air destroyed the remaining ballonets.


THE CAR OF THE ENTERPRISE is divided into two sections. The front section is the control compartment and behind it is the saloon for six passengers. Engineers are shown fixing a loudspeaker to the car for making announcements from the air. This loudspeaker can be heard throughout a town when the engines of the airship are throttled down at a height of 900 to 1,000 feet.

The controls remained intact, weights and fuel were moved, and the ship was brought to an even keel. The engines were started and gradually the personnel gained control. The wireless operator established communication with the ship’s base and slowly she began to crawl home. At 3.30 next morning she landed at Lakehurst, a victorious “Daughter of the Stars”.

Investigation showed that the spindle of the bow mooring gear had jammed in its tube so that the ship had been prevented from absorbing the gusts by normal “rolling”. The violent side gust had twisted the bow off.

On May 22, 1924, the Shenandoah, now fully repaired, resumed flying under Capt. Zachary Lansdowne, U.S.N., a gallant officer who had received his early airship training in England. After a number of flights, during which she successfully carried out scouting exercises at sea with the Fleet, the airship left Lakehurst on October 7 on her transcontinental flight.

The route was to El Paso and thence across southern New Mexico, Arizona and California. To have gone over the mountains would have meant the loss of a large amount of helium with which the ship was inflated, and at that time America had only a limited quantity of this gas. It was therefore decided to avoid the highest point by going through the mountain passes. El Paso was reached just before midnight and course was set via Deming (New Mexico) to Tucson (Arizona). The sky became overcast and it was a difficult task to fly through the mountain passes in the dark, with a ship over 680 feet long. Sharp gusts of wind in the valleys often drove the Shenandoah perilously near the crags and peaks.

In one place the wind, blowing round the end of a mountain ridge, set up a great whirlpool of air. As the ship reached this point the captain gave the order to turn to port. The helmsman put the rudder over in the right direction, but, instead of responding, the ship turned to starboard and was carried directly towards the mountainside. When almost touching, she got out of the whirlpool and answered her helm quickly. She escaped disaster by a few feet. “Dos Cabezas!” — the name of that pass — became a favourite exclamation among the crew of the Shenandoah.

Having gone as far north as San Francisco, the airship turned for home on October 22. She arrived at Lakehurst on the evening of October 26. Her flight, based entirely on mooring masts, in many kinds of weather, was a record for her type at that time. Over a period of twenty days she had covered 9,000 miles.

On October 15, during the Shenandoah’s absence, there arrived at Lakehurst the graceful ZR-3, later named Los Angeles. She had flown from her birthplace at Friedrichshafen in Germany, across half Europe and across the Atlantic, a distance of 5,060 miles, in eighty-one hours. At the time of writing, this ship is still being used for experimental purposes. She has weathered many a storm, and in one gale stood right on her nose; she is the only airship to have done so. The damage sustained was merely the breaking of a few bits of crockery in the galley. Hundreds of officers and men have been trained in the Los Angeles.

With the return of the Shenandoah, because of the shortage of helium, it was decided to inflate the new Los Angeles with the other ship’s gas. This was done, and on November 25, 1924, this German-built airship took the air for the first time as a unit of the American Airship Service. From then until June 1925 the Los Angeles did many flights, operating with the fleet as far south as Porto Rico.

Another transfusion now took place, and on July 4 the Shenandoah was again flying. By August 22 she had flown 15,000 miles and had made fifty-six flights.

During the afternoon of September 2, 1925, the Shenandoah cast off from the Lakehurst mast on a cruise to the Middle West which was to last five to six days. At 4 a.m. the following morning the airship was over Byesville (Ohio) at an altitude of 2,100 feet; but, with all five engines running, she was making little headway.

To the north and east lightning and heavy clouds were seen, and on the starboard bow a dark, streaky cloud appeared. Almost immediately the elevator man reported the ship to be rising. He was told to check her, but could not do so. The engines were speeded up and the inclination of the ship driving down against the air current was 18 degrees. It was then realized that the airship had run into a forming line squall, where winds of different temperatures and from different directions clash sharply, causing a rush of vertical air currents both upwards and downwards.

A MOTOR COACH IS USED to tow the airship Enterprise in and out of her shed

A MOTOR COACH IS USED to tow the airship Enterprise in and out of her shed. Special gear is fitted to the top of the coach for the attachment of the airship The airship can also be left moored to the coach out in the open. An expert landing crew travels in this coach to various parts of the United States where the airship is to land.

With the elevators right down and rudder hard over, the ship did not respond to. her controls. She rose steadily to 4,000 feet before she was checked. This check was only temporary and soon she was again shooting upwards. By now the airship had reached “pressure height” and helium was being discharged through the automatic gas valves. To assist this discharge and stop the rapid ascent, more gas was allowed to escape by the operation of the hand-controlled valves. At 6,200 feet the upward rush of air stopped and the crew now prepared to meet the inevitable down current.

The loss of gas had made the Shenandoah quite “heavy” and so, to check the fall and keep the ship under control, the water ballast was dropped. Tons of water gushed from the keel. Then the ship fell for over two minutes at the rate of 1,400 feet a minute. Suddenly the descent was stopped as the Shenandoah was again caught in an upward current that was even stronger than the first one. During the first rapid ascent two engines had broken down and now, with the remaining three, the ship and her gallant crew battled for life against the elements. Another downward rush had to be anticipated and, with all the water ballast gone, other weights such as spare parts and fuel tanks had to be prepared for instant release.

Lieut.-Com. Rosendahl, the ship’s executive officer, left the control car to see that these operations were being carried out. This control car was suspended below the ship by wooden struts and wires. As the officer climbed into the keel, the bow of the ship made a sudden upward movement: the control car appeared to lag behind — and he heard the struts snap. The suspension wires could, however, have been expected to hold the car. Colonel Hall followed Rosendahl into the keel, and behind him came Lieut. Anderson.

Free-Balloon Landings

As Anderson grasped the keel structure the control car tore away from the ship. Hanging from the still attached control wires, it swung aft like a plummet, and tore out one side of the keel and several transverse frames. Then, with a final wrench, the wires were pulled completely out. Anderson found himself soaked with petrol and hanging from the ship. Those above him lowered a line. Having passed the line carefully under his arms, he managed, with the assistance of the others, to haul himself up to safety.

Rosendahl had gone a short distance along the keel and had seen the control car torn away. He heard a terrific clashing, as though thousands of pieces of metal were being thrown on to a heap. He then suddenly found that he could not advance farther, for he was gazing into space beneath, while directly in front two-thirds of the ship rapidly floated away from him. Soon he heard an awful thud. It was the control car, with his captain and some of his shipmates, crashing into the earth, thousands of feet below.

THE HANDLING RAIL round the side of the car of the Enterprise

THE HANDLING RAIL round the side of the car of the Enterprise is seen in this photograph, which shows also the loudspeaker for making announcements. Beneath the car is a swivelling wheel which enables the airship to run along the ground for a short distance when taking off. This permits a heavier load to be carried than would be possible if the airship had to rise immediately after release by the ground crew.

The bow section, 200 feet long, with seven men inside, was now a plaything of the storm and rose to a height of 10,000 feet. By that time Rosendahl had organized his companions into a free-balloon crew and, by valving gas and dropping the remaining weights in this section as ballast, he finally brought this part of the ship safely to earth without injury to himself or to the others. The other portion, with twenty-two men on board, also made a free-balloon landing not far away. As, however, this part neared the ground two of the engine cars broke away, hurtled to the ground and killed three engineers who were still at their posts. Eight men died in the control car and three others were unfortunate enough to be just at the spot where the ship broke. In this

storm trees were uprooted, bridges and buildings demolished. The ship had collapsed on top and opened up on the bottom; she soon tore apart. It was as though she had been held up at either end and then been struck on the top with a giant hammer, while at the same time being twisted by the nose. That the majority of those on board should have landed safely and without injury says much for the safety equipment of airships. The Court of Inquiry established “that the ship was lost by being broken in two by the aerodynamical stresses imposed upon her by the vertical currents of the storm in which she had been entrapped without warning”. The category, then, in which the Shenandoah’s loss must fall is that of “inevitable accident”.

America had now lost two rigid airships, the R-38, with an American personnel of fifteen, and the Shenandoah, with fourteen, a total of twenty-nine lives in nine years, including war service.

Two months after the wreck of the Shenandoah, the United States Navy Bureau of Aeronautics recommended the building of two large airships and a new west coast airship base. These two ships, the Akron and the Macon, were 785 feet long and had a gas capacity of 6,500,000 cubic feet; each was equipped with eight engines developing a horsepower of 4,480 and could cruise 10,580 miles at 50 knots (57½ miles an hour).

At 7.30 p.m. on April 3, 1933, the Akron, which had been launched in September 1931, left Lakehurst on a regularly scheduled flight. She was commanded by Commander F.C. McCord, U.S.N.; Lieut.-Com. Wiley was Executive Officer. Course was set west and, after Philadelphia had been passed, lightning was visible to the south. Course was then set for the coastline and the altitude was 1,600 feet.

Loss of the “Akron”

From the coast the ship flew east for an hour. The captain then reversed the course and, when the coast was once more sighted at midnight, she was again headed east. At 12.30 a.m. she entered a turbulent atmosphere and began to fall rapidly until a height of 700 feet had been reached, when the airship began to rise almost as quickly as she had fallen. When the altimeter was showing 1,600 feet, the ship was steadied off. Two minutes later the atmosphere became exceedingly turbulent and it was realized that the ship was near the centre of the storm. She again began to fall rapidly, this time at a steep angle, nose up. With the altimeters registering 300 feet, her tail hit the water and the ship crashed into the sea. In addition to the loss of eleven officers and fifty-five men, Rear-Admiral Wm. A. Moffet, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, and six other officers on board for special purposes lost their lives.

The Macon was launched on April 21, 1933, and was based at Sunnyvale, a station that had been recently built in California. From Sunnyvale she worked with the Pacific Fleet, making long flights. On one occasion she located the President’s ship 3,000 miles out to sea, without wireless bearings or other means of finding the cruiser. The Macon’s constructors decided that her structure required strengthening in certain parts, but before this could be carried out she crashed on the night of February 12-13, 1935.

A SWIVEL ANCHORAGE is provided between the Enterprise and the mooring gear

A SWIVEL ANCHORAGE is provided between the Enterprise and the mooring gear on its attendant coach. The airship is manhandled to the mooring gear, which is of such a height that it permits the wheel on the car to rest on the ground. A telescopic mooring mast, which is quickly erected in any field, may also be carried by the coach.

The ship was returning from manoeuvres on this night when, flying near the coast, she entered a storm cloud.

A survivor has written: “Briefly what happened was that the top stabilizing fin structure carried away, took some of the hull structure along, punctured the three tail cells so badly that they deflated. So there we were, a free balloon with eight engines. By carried away, I mean that the fin structure failed, outer cover did go over the side, but it was not definitely shown that the metal of the fin went with it. She did not ‘plunge into the sea’ — the skipper made a beautiful free balloon landing on the water.

“The weather and terrain were such that it would have been impossible to bring her in with the engines; moreover the tail structure began to crumple without the support of the three adjacent cells.

“She did not ‘crash’ on the waters and sink from sight in twenty minutes.’ The eight who left the nose ten to fifteen minutes before it went under were there and throughout the hull for about an hour. We did not ‘swim and row through seas of flames’. The last of us to leave were, and had been, swimming alongside one of the rubber lifeboats, when the flares we had to leave behind set fire to the petrol, which had come to the surface from the tanks crushed some hundred fathoms below. It happened just before the nose slipped under — rather like a memorial fire — it burned for some hours as more fuel came to the surface. And that was that! So you will see it wasn’t very spectacular or thrilling or blood-curdling. Unfortunately we lost two men.” The Germans state that their experience has taught them that the same adverse weather, when encountered near a high coastline, gives a more turbulent atmosphere than when met with between fifty and sixty miles to sea.

Against this picture of wreckage and loss of life, America can point to the success and safety of her non-rigids, naval, military, and commercial. Unlike Great Britain, she retained her Airship Service, and today that Service is being expanded in ships and personnel.

Zeppelin Patents Acquired

As the American Army was responsible for coastal defence, it developed its own non-rigid airships, but a change of policy confined the Army’s lighter-than-air activities to balloons only. In this section the American Army has produced the motor kite balloon C-6. This craft has a capacity of 52,000 cubic feet, is 107 feet long and has a diameter of 30 feet. A ballonet is filled through an air-scoop and the control surfaces are airship-type planes. It is driven by a 90 horse-power Lamber engine, and its speed is 40 miles an hour.

In 1929 the U.S. Naval Airship Service acquired the metal airship ZMC-2 (see the chapter “Types of Airship”). Recent additions to the fleet include the Goodyear commercial non-rigid Defender, now the G-1, which is used for training purposes. Two other non-rigids of 400,000 cubic feet and 125,000 cubic feet respectively, which are under construction at the time of writing, will join the Service for coastal patrol duties. The 1938 Navy vote included the sum of approximately £600,000 for the building of a rigid airship for work with the United States Fleet.

The Goodyear Tyre and Rubber Co., pioneers of lighter-than-air activities in America, acquired in 1924 the German Zeppelin patents. A subsidiary company, the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation, was formed, into which were put all the Goodyear lighter-than-air business, personnel and patents, as well as the German experience. The company set to work at once and soon had its commercial fleet in operation (see the chapter “Types of Airship”). The fleet continues to give striking demonstrations of the usefulness of this type of aircraft. Twelve fixed mooring masts and sixteen airship sheds have been erected throughout the United States. The shed at Akron has a cubical content of 55,000,000 cubic feet.

The American Zeppelin Corporation has been formed to operate airship travel over the Atlantic, and the Pacific Transport Corporation for the Pacific.

The American airship T.C.14 shown at Lakehurst, New Jersey

USED FOR NAVAL PATROL WORK, the airship T.C. 14 is similar in design to the T.C.13. The T.C.14 is shown at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The United States Navy is now responsible for all airship development. At one time the United States Army was similarly involved, but now the lighter-than-air activities of the Army are confined to kite and motor kite balloons

Click here to see the photogravure supplement to this article.

You can read more on “Ferdinand Count von Zeppelin”, “The Mooring of Airships” and “Types of Airship” on this website.

American Airships