Tuesday, November 17, 2009
THE ERA OF GREAT AIRSHIPS Part II
Perhaps the high point of that “Age of Giant Airships” was attained by the Graf Zeppelin, here seen in its hangar at Friedrichshafen, Germany
One of the lessons of history tells us that every great conflict produces in its wake a period of extraordinary scientific, industrial-commercial, and experimental activity. The years following World War I (The Great War), are no exception. Suddenly, any open country farm field could become a destination for one of the hundreds of second-hand “Jennys” powered by America’s “Liberty” aircraft engines now in the hands veterans and neophytes alike. Aviation had come of age, and the world was fascinated by the possibilities and drama of powered flight.
In the moment of time between 1924 and 1937, much of that fascination was focused on the giant, gas-filled rigid airships born in the creative mind and drafting boards of Count graf von Zeppelin (who had himself died of old age in 1917). They seemed like an answer to the challenge of trans-oceanic travel, offering passengers luxury passage without having to deal with days at sea. In 1929, the Graf Zeppelin flew around the world after establishing regular flights from its home field at Friedrichshafen, Germany to Lakehurst New Jersey, offering those who could afford the fare, 20 sleeping berths, a dining room and other amenities.
With the world’s first flight over the South Pole thrown in for good publicity, the “Graf” introduced regular transatlantic flights from Germany to Rio de Janero, Brazil, carrying up to 91 people on each 6800 mile-long trip, and cementing a close relationship between the two nations. In fact, over its nine-year operational diary, the giant, hydrogen-filled airship completed 590 flights, carrying 34,000 passengers millions of miles without injury to anyone. After its June 18, 1937 flight, it was allowed to quietly retire from service, and was finally broken up in 1940. Not bad, when compared against the very different history of rigid airship operations elsewhere.
The popular belief widely-held even today, is that the airship was doomed from the start because of the flammability of the gas which gave it flight – especially when that gas was in the form of hydrogen; the Hindenburg disaster often used as a reminder. What is now known is that it was the experimental surface paint which was the flashpoint that May day at Lakehurst. In truth, fire was not the greatest menace to LTA operations, nor was it America’s unwillingness to sell non-flammable helium the reason that the Germans didn’t have it. Airship design and operations was by its nature a very expensive undertaking even before filling the internal gas bags. Helium was heavier than hydrogen, and was a thousand times more expensive per cubic foot.
Actually a look at America’s experience with rigid airships brings us to the greater weakness waiting in the promising skies over planet earth.
ZR-1 Shenandoah: Broke apart in a storm front over Ohio, Sept. 1925 -14 died
ZR-2 Built for the U.S. in England. Broke up and crashed over Hull, U.K.
ZRS-4 Akron: Wrecked in storm off New Jersey coast, Apr.1933 – 73 died
ZRS-5 Macon: Damaged by storm, sank in Pacific off Pt. Sur, Cal. Feb. 1935 – 2 died
And then there was the world-wide attention brought to the famous British introduction of a new, cutting-edge design launched as the R-101, at the time the largest man-made object ever to be sent aloft. On its first, and heavily-publicized trip from London to India, it somehow managed to fly into the ground near Allons, France in a nighttime storm, October 4, 1930, where it burned. 48 died. There were 8 survivors.
It is worth noting that the U.S.S. Macon successfully served as a “mother ship”, launching and retrieving five pursuit airplanes from hangers slung along its underside. Another Navy dirigible, the U.S.S. Los Angeles avoided mishap, and was decommissioned in June, 1932 in good condition.
A “side bar” story to all of the above, involves the conflict which was going on at the time between the Army and the Navy over the question of which arm of the service should be home to a full-fledged air force. General Billy Mitchell, the most vocal officer in this debate took the occasion of the repeated Navy airship disasters to criticize Admiral Moffett and naval aviation itself for the mismanagement of the program. It was a public comment of his that led eventually to his famous court marshal.
It is doubtful we will ever again see those kinds of giants in the sky, but it is heartening to see one of those Goodyear blimps filming sporting events every now and then, and to wish I hadn’t lost –over the moves of a lifetime – a tube of ping pong balls which had crossed the Atlantic on the Graf Zeppelin.