Lighter Than Air (Part 1)

by John Delach

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)