John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: April, 2020

Lighter Than Air (Part 2)

After the loss of the Macon, only the Germans remained in the game. Unable to secure helium from the USA because of our distaste for Hitler and his Third Reich, the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei filled their flagship, the Hindenburg LZ 129, with volatile hydrogen. Their queen of the skies made her first voyage in 1936 and spent a successful summer carrying passengers across the North Atlantic between Berlin and Lakehurst, New Jersey. 

Their good luck ran out early in the next season when Hindenburg was consumed by fire during its spectacular cremation while landing at that Naval Air Station on May 6, 1937. Thirty-five of the 97 passengers and crew on board perished in this disaster whose cause is still a matter of speculation.  

The whimsical concept of developing a fleet of zeppelins for commercial or military use should have died on that rainy afternoon but Hindenburg was the lead zeppelin of a projected fleet of three luxury liners. Hindenburg’s twin, LZ 130, was then under construction at the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin works when that disaster struck. Construction began in 1936 with its first flight on September 14, 1938. The airship’s intended name was: “The Graf Zeppelin II.” 

“The designer and chief engineer, Dr. Hugo Eckener, vowed never to use hydrogen in a passenger airship again.  This led to modifications such that the Graf Zeppelin II could be inflated with helium.” 

Since the United States remained the only source of helium. Dr. Eckener traveled to Washington to meet with President Roosevelt. Speaking from the heart as an aviator, he gained FDR’s trust. The president agreed to authorize the export of helium to Germany solely for peaceful purposes. Unfortunately for the good doctor, when Germany annexed Austria, any trust FDR had for Germany vanished and helium would never be available. Hydrogen became the only gas available for LZ 130.

“The airship was christened and flew for the first time on September 14, 1938. Only Zeppelin Company officials and Hermann Goering were present; no other government representatives came to the christening. Eckener alone, made the inaugural speech welcoming this new airship, the last of her kind. A banner hung in front of the massive hanger announcing the birth of the Graf Zeppelin II, but the absence of that name painted on the airship was significant. Without access to helium, “It became obvious that the ship would never serve its intended purpose as a passenger liner.” 

Nazi Germany’s aggression would have curtailed actual passenger travel in any case. “The Reich Air Ministry permitted the LZ 130 to fly for one year until September 1, 1939 without any transportation of passengers and outside tropical areas.” 

Instead, the air ministry arranged for the passenger accommodations to be fitted with radio surveillance and navigational instruments. LZ 130 was then dispatched as a mail carrier or to participate in several air shows, then called, Flying Days, to acquire vital data for future combat operations. 

One of the last series of flights brought the airship over the Southeastern coast of England between August 2 and 4. The purpose of this espionage trip was to secretly collect information on the British Home Radar System. 

With war imminent, the air ministry ordered LZ 130 removed from its hanger, turned around and re-inserted for easier dismantling. Its gas cells were emptied, and sophisticated electronic equipment was removed. 

The last great airship remained immobile in its hanger until February 29, 1940 when Goering ordered the Graf Zeppelin II and the third sister, LZ 131, still under construction, to be destroyed. 

On May 6, 1940, an enormous explosion leveled the hangers allowing the framing for the inert LZ 130 and the partially built LZ 131 to be collected for the war effort. 

Curiously, Goering’s order was carried out three years to the day after the destruction of the Hindenburg.     

Lighter Than Air (Part 1)

Ferdinand von Zeppelin revolutionized the public’s perception of flight by designing the first practical dirigibles. Their success led to these rigid airships becoming identified with his last name. He caught the public’s imagination two years before the Wright brothers first flew a powered aeroplane from the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

Von Zeppelin experienced more instances of failure than success, but the fragility of his airships was offset by the promise of what was possible.  In hindsight, aviation’s development would have been better off if these early failures had ended the quest to perfect a rigid lighter than air flying machine.   

World War I served to heighten the Zeppelin’s mystique. From 1915 to 1917, zeppelins killed nearly 700 Londoners, but at a cost to Germany of 77 of their 115 airships. These attacks dispelled the notion that England was invulnerable to aerial attack shocking the British citizens who reacted with both panic and awe.

Once the Great War ended, several allied nations, particularly the United Kingdom, France, Italy and the United States decided to develop their own fleets of airships. Most Europeans soon recognized that the fragile craft remained vulnerable to multiple dangers and abandoned their lighter than air (LTA) projects sometimes after catastrophic episodes.

Only the British persevered until 1930 when their luxury dirigible, R101, crashed in rural France on its maiden voyage due to heavy rain and wind. Forty-eight of the 54 souls on board perished. R101 was the prototype for a proposed fleet of passenger airships designed to carry mail and passengers to Britain’s far flung possessions such as India, Australia and Canada. The loss of R101 so early in its maiden flight convinced the crown to drop out.

America took a different approach. World War I exposed Japan’s desire for territorial expansion with the American Navy being their primary obstacle.

This led the US Navy to develop Japanese centric war plans to address several possible combat scenarios with the Imperial fleet. They included “what if” technology based on the use of combat aircraft. One innovation was the introduction of the navy’s first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, that joined the fleet in 1921.

Naval aviators also speculated on a what if idea of developing an aerial mothership to be their aircraft carrier in the sky?

Rear Admiral William Moffett, the first chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics introduced their first dirigible, USS Shenandoah. Designed by German ex-pats and the Goodyear Zeppelin Corporation, the airship was fabricated by the navy at their Lakehurst, NJ base. First flown in 1923, the luckless Shenandoah was torn apart in a thunderstorm near Cadwell, Ohio on September 3rd of the same year. Fourteen of the 26 crew were lost in this catastrophe.   

The navy’s second, airship, the USS Los Angeles, was built by the Germans as a war prize. First flown in 1924, the Los Angeles successfully flew until being de-commissioned 1932. This zeppelin was dismantled in 1940.

The success of the Los Angeles led to the construction of two massive dirigibles, the USS Akron, ZRS-4 and USS Macon, ZRS-5. Both were more than seven times the size of a 747 and were designed to operate as the navy’s first flying aircraft carriers.

 Each ship carried five small fighter planes, the Curtiss F-9C Sparrow- hawk. The planes were carried in a small hanger inside the outer skin and were launched / recovered by means of a complicated trapeze system:

“The trapeze was lowered through the T-shaped door in the bottom of the ship. Each F-9C was attached to the crossbar by the ‘skyhook’ above its top wing. With the engine already running, the pilot tripped the hook allowing the airplane to fly away. On his return, the pilot locked onto the crossbar and was hauled on board.”

It was all for naught. The Akron, completed first in October of 1931 was lost in a thunderstorm on April 4, 1933 after 73 flights. Seventy-one of the 76 crew on board including Admiral Moffett were lost in the crash.

The Macon was commissioned two months later June 23, only to succumb in a storm off California’s Big Sur on February 12, 1935. Eighty-one of the 83 on board were rescued.

America exited the quest to develop practical rigid airships with the Macon’s destruction leaving the Germans as the last remaining zeppelin operator.

(To be continued)   

No Game Today

Jack Solomon, the original co-owner of Gallagher’s Steak House in Manhattan’s theater district, was also an avid fan of the New York Giants baseball club. So avid that he posted the daily score on a bulletin board located in the restaurant’s foyer but only when his team won. If they lost the message read: “No Game Today.”

These are sad days for our national pastime as COVID-19 has wrought havoc on the 2020 season. No Game Today or any day is our sad reality. Highlights of recent past seasons are available, but I believe baseball movies are a better escape. Why? Because baseball is the sport that best lends itself to production for the big screen. It captures everything that movies are all about and the movies make baseball sparkle.

Boxing and horse racing also have a decent compatibility to the film industry but nothing like baseball. Americas game, pro football, on the other hand is a dud on the big screen. There are a few, Rudy, Brian’s Song, Any Given Sunday, Remember the Titans, The Longest Yard and Friday Night Lights are the exceptions.

Hollywood offers over 50 baseball movies for your watching pleasure. The New York Times recently picked 10 to watch. Seems to me to be worth a shot especially while we remain in lock down that one wise man has described: “While Monday remains a Monday, every other day is a Tuesday.” 

I rated the films from one to 10 and I included the year the film debuted, and noted the ratings given to each movie by Rotten Tomatoes and MLB.

Following that, I have listed as many of the other significant baseball movies from varying lists and their ratings, if any. Make your own list and let us know your top ten. Heck, since every day is Tuesday, except Monday, what else do you have to do?

I expect baseball aficionados will object to my placement of Bull Durham in fourth place, but that’s what sports are all about.  

Bang the Drums Slowly is my top pick. I read Mark Harris’ book before the film was released and fell in love with it. Today, it remains in the top five of books I have read. When the movie was released in 1973, Mary Ann and I were living in Middle Village, Queens. Unfortunately, the closest theater playing it was in Franklin Square. Times were hard but I grabbed enough money to hire a babysitter so we could see it.

The opening scene gave me goose bumps. A sunny day, old Yankee Stadium, before the renovation that was a Frankenstein-like defacement. The opening shot focuses on the old visiting bullpen that separated the left field stands from the bleachers.

The co-stars, a young Michael Moriarty and an equally young Robert DeNiro, head out from the bull pen, two players in identical dress; pin stripe baseball pants, navy blue undershirts covered by plain white cotton vests. Both wear NY logo hats and wear hand towels around their necks that they hold onto with both hands.

They turn right when they reach the warning path and jog along it toward home plate. They pass the visiting dugout, round home, pass the Yankees dugout as they jog toward right field.

Instrumental notes from the song, The Streets of Laredo, fill the air as the ace pitcher for the NY Monarchs and his ailing catcher jog along.

To me, that alone was worth the price of admission.

John’s top ten:

1.Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) 8 and none

2.Field of Dreams (1989) 2 and 4

3. The Natural (1984) 18 and 7

4. Bull Durham (1980) 1 and 1

5. Eight Men Out (1988) 12 and none

6. A League of Their Own (!992) 22 and 2

7. The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings (1988) 15 & 13

8. Moneyball (2011) 2 And 6

9. Major League (1989) 19 and 10

10. Bad News Bears (1976) 3 and 11

The others:

Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949) 9 and 15

Everybody Wants Some (2016) 7 and 9

Sugar (2006) 6 and 17

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (2000) 4 and none

Up for Grabs (2005) 10 and none

Ballplayer: Peletero (2012) 13 and none      

42 (2013) 19 and none

Trouble with the Curve (2016) none and none

Cobb (1994) 24 and 27

Fear Strikes Out (1977) 17 and none

For the Love of the Game (1999) none and 25

61* (2001) 33 and 23

The Sandlot (1993) 30 and 8

The Pride of the Yankees (1942) 5 and 3

Off the Black (2006) 28 and none

Million Dollar Arm (2014) 26 and none

Fever Pitch (2005) 25 and 18

Damn Yankees (1958) 16 and 24

The Phenom (2016) 23 and none

It Happens Every Spring (1949) 21 and none

The Rookie (2002) 14 and 14

Quite a list. Admittedly, I never heard of some of these films. Off the Black, I believe is about umpires.  I believe Ballplayer: Peletero is an indictment of baseball recruiting in the Islands, but I know nothing about either.

I look forward to your comments and I promise to respond.

The Big White Ship

On Monday morning, March 30th, the USNS Comfort majestically glided through Gravesend Bay with a harbor pilot on board directing the ship’s captain to safely navigate the Narrows and enter New York Harbor. The arrival of this grand hospital ship was a visible manifestation of the Federal Government’s commitment to combat the COVID-19 emergency in the Metropolitan area.

I was sorely tempted to drive to one of the Belt Parkway’s parking areas overlooking Gravesend Bay to watch the ship arrive. But common sense reminded me that this was a bad idea for several reasons.   

Hospital ships are special with a unique appearance that distinguishes them from every other vessel. Their stark white exterior and the massive red crosses gleam in the sunshine to call out to all those in need that help has arrived. Their names reflect their calling: Mercy, Solace, Hope, Refuge, Haven and Repose. USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) and its sister ship, USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) entered service in the late 1980s and are the latest incarnation of a long line of the navy’s hospital ships.

The USS Relief (AH-1), was the first purposed-based hospital ship and joined the US Navy just after World War I ended. The Relief would serve until the end of World War II. Fourteen additional hospital ships were built or converted from freighters and passenger ships during the war and three, the USS Haven, USS Consolation and USS Repose were reactivated for service during the Korean War. Repose and the USS Sanctuary served during the Vietnam War. The navy was without a hospital ship after 1975 when Sanctuary was stricken from the fleet.

During the build-up and modernization of the navy during the Reagan administration, the navy decided to acquire two vessels each almost 900 feet long and convert them into hospital ships. One would be based on the East Coast the other on the West Coast. The Bureau of Ships decided to purchase two modern super tankers, gut them of the oil carrying cargo tanks and turn those enormous spaces into hospitals with a total capacity of 1,000 beds.

National Steel Shipbuilding Company (NASCO) won the bid to convert the tankers. The tanker, SS Worth morphed into the USNS Mercy and the SS Rose City became the USNS Comfort.

They were designed to be more advanced than a field hospital but less capable than a traditional hospital on land. Those one-thousand beds were divided into the following categories: ICU – 80 beds, recovery-20 beds, intermediate care-280 beds, light care-120 beds and limited care-500 beds.

Each ship has 12 operating rooms and facilities that range from casualty reception to a morgue. When deployed, each  ships’ complement consists of 16 reserve and 61 active mariners, six officers and 62 enlisted navy communications and support personnel and 1,156 medical and dental personnel.

The New York COVID-19 mission is Comforts 12th deployment. Others have included the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), Haiti (1994), the Iraq War (2002-2003), Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Haitian earthquake (2010) and Hurricane Maria (2017). Between, deployments, USNS sleeps at its own berth at the Norfolk Navy Yard under the watchful eyes of the skeleton crew.

The ship is designed and maintained to be activated in two-weeks and is operated by the Military Sealift Command (MSC) a combined military and civilian service. As a result, its designation is USNS and not USS.

“In accordance with the Geneva Conventions, Comfort and her crew carry no offensive weapons. Firing upon Comfort would be considered a war crime as the ship only carries weapons for self-defense. In keeping with her status as a non-combatant vessel, naval personnel from the combat specialties are not assigned as regular crew or staff.”

 Embarkation by warfare specialist such as-… “naval aviation, surface warfare, submarine warfare, special operations (like SEALS) or members of the Marine Corp. are prohibited…” except as patients.

Although firing upon a hospital ship is a war crime, it happens, and in an upcoming blog, I will report on some of the more controversial and deadly sinkings. It should be noted that these losses were caused by both active and passive attacks. Many were caused by mines placed in channels with no knowledge of what ship will become the unlucky target.

The only US Navy hospital ship to suffer loss of life as a result of enemy action was the USS Comfort (AH-6), the navy’s second ship to carry that name. During the invasion of Okinawa… “the hospital ship stood by…from 2 to 9 April receiving wounded for evacuation to Guam. Returning to Okinawa on 23 April, six days later she was struck by a Japanese suicide plane. The plane crashed through three decks exploding in surgery which was filled with medical personnel and patients. Casualties were 28 killed (including six nurses), and 48 wounded, with considerable damage to the ship.”

Our good ship, Comfort, arrived under escort of a fleet of our local McAllister and Moran tugboats and the fanfare of a grateful city. Now on station, Comfort’s mission is not to act as a direct respite to the virus, but rather provide a reserve for other hospitals as they exceed capacity once the peak of the cases descends upon us in the next couple of weeks.       

Once again, naval medical personnel put themselves in harm’s way. So here is a toast to all the personnel on T-AH-20:

Hip, hip Hooray,

Hip, hip, Hooray,

Hip, Hip, Hooray!        

Flying While Intoxicated

The May edition of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Magazine includes a piece about Lyle Prouse, a Captain with Northwest Airlines who with his two fellow crew members, First Officer Robert Kirchner and Flight Engineer Joseph Balzer, flew their 727 from Fargo to Minneapolis-St. Saint Paul while (pick ‘em) – flying While Impaired / flying while intoxicated or flying while hung over. Captain Proust ended up spending 424 days in Federal Prison.

The night before, they enjoyed a nice drinking session at the Speak Easy Restaurant and Lounge in Moorhead, Minnesota. Prouse drank rum and Coke while his cohorts consumed draft beer. The bar tab revealed that the pilot had 17 rum and Cokes while his mates consumed seven pitchers.

This incident occurred in 1990 when controls were still loose and would have gone unnoticed except that an employee working at the bar that night had the good sense to reveal this to the authorities.

At that time Federal Aviation Administration regulations prohibit airplane crews from flying with an alcohol level of greater than 0.04 eight hours before the flight.

The FAA was already aware of their escapade when the crew arrived at the airport. An FAA official spoke with Captain Prouse reminding the crew of the agency’s eight-hour rule but, for unknown reasons, he didn’t subject them to a breathalyzer test allowing to make the flight.

The story in the May 2020 edition of Air & Space Magazine  tells what next happened: “Northwest Flight 650, a Boeing-727… with 58 passengers took off as scheduled…When the crew walked off and saw company officials, airport policemen, and several FAA agents waiting at the end of the Jetway, Prouse thought, ‘It’s over.” (Two hours after the flight his blood alcohol was 0.128, three times the legal limit.)

Long story short, Proust repented, reformed and became a motivational speaker. Eventually with the help and kindness of others led by the judge who sentenced him to prison, he was re-employed by Northwest in 1993 and reinstated as a pilot in 1995.

Proust gives credit for much of his successful rehabilitation on AA, other peer groups and HIMS, Human Intervention Motivation Study, a rehabilitation organization for professional pilots with a success rate of 85.4%. This is a remarkable number when compared to other rehab groups rate of 40% or less at other organizations.

We can only wonder how bad it really was in the 1950s and 1960s when sobriety was treated far more casually and loosely.

Bob Newhart actually did a comedy bit about it in his spoof on airline travel: The Grace L Fergurson Airline and Storm Door Company: (The pilot speaking) “…Have you ever had one that hung on for four or five days? I don’t mind the headaches so much, it’s that damn double vision.”

My Godfather was a flight engineer with Pan American during that time. I can remember being at his house when he was on standby. If a crew scheduled that night had to be withdrawn, he would report to Idlewild to make their flight. The rule was no drinking, full stop. Nevertheless, he took pride in his chilled Daiquiris that he made with crushed ice served before their Sunday afternoon dinner, stand-by or not.

My Father, a US Air Force navigator, Flying B-47 jet bombers, charted his next day’s training mission the previous night on a chart spread across his kitchen table. The chart shared the table with a glass or two of Johnny Walker Red. When finished, he’d take a last look before folding up the chart, finish his drink. He’d smile and say: “Well, that’s good enough for government work.”

A different world, indeed.