The Ubiquitous Blimp
by John Delach
After the loss of the USS Macon on February 12, 1935, the US Navy’s Lighter- Than-Air operations ground to a halt.
The threat of a war in Europe was emerging with the rise Adolph Hitler and his burgeoning Nazi regime. As Hitler’s power increased, America rejected involvement in the possibility of another European war. The aftermath of World War I hung heavily across the USA still mired in the Great Depression. It seemed that “The war to end all wars,” was nothing more than a slogan used to entice public support to send American boys to their early graves in a conflict that was none of our business.
America turned inward and isolation was our calling card. Any effort to expand our military or to consider aid to Europe was anathema and Congress passed laws to prevent the President from aiding any potential belligerents. FDR knew the risks from these actions, but his own party controlled both houses of Congress and he understood they would cast him aside if he defied them.
It was not until the fall of France in June of 1940 that FDR forced Congress to come to terms with the pathetic state of the Armed Forces and authorize expenditures to modernize and expand the army and navy.
Paramount in these acts was the authorization for “A Two-Ocean Navy,” a fleet capable of defending both our Atlantic and Pacific coasts. This legislation appropriated the funds to build 11 new battleships, 11 new aircraft carriers, 52 cruisers and 155 destroyers as well as multiple numbers of other ships and boats of every size and description.
The navy asked for and obtained authorization to purchase six K-Class Blimps for its Lighter-Than-Air Branch to patrol the coastlines and hunt for mines and submarines. This authorization was soon increased to include new blimp bases near Boston and Norfolk in addition to dormant bases in Lakehurst, NJ and Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The number of new blimps was increased to 48 to be constructed by the Goodyear Corporation.
Ultimately, 134 K-Class Blimps were produced which operated out of ten fields in the United States, one in Jamaica, one in Trinidad, two in Brazil and one in French Morocco.
One airship was lost through enemy action, the K-74. On July 18, 1943, the crew detected and attacked a U-Boat using radar. A gun duel silenced the boat’s guns, but the blimp’s bombs failed to release. The K-74 was brought down by renewed gunfire. Nine of the ten members of the crew were rescued.
The slow-moving blimps were not adept at sinking U-Boats on their own, but, once a U-Boat commander saw one near his submarine, his only choice was to dive as the blimp commander was already transmitting the sub’s location to avenging boats and airplanes.
The blimp played a vital role in picking up downed pilots and dropping life-saving supplies to stranded merchant mariners who had survived the loss of their ships.
After the war ended, the need for lighter than air operations evaporated and by 1956, only two bases remained, Lakehurst, NJ and Weeksville, NC. Twenty-six blimps remained in operation, mostly the now venerable K-Class Blimps designated as belonging to the Airship Patrol Squadron. By 1958, seven new blimps were on order from Goodyear, designated as the Z-Class, they were designed to replace the Ks that were retired in 1959.
The hoped-for Z- Class Blimp renaissance did not materialize. By 1961, the navy brass accepted the fact that both helicopters and land-based, long range patrol planes could easily fulfill their role.
On August 31, 1962, Blimp ZPG-2 ended the 47-year saga of the US Navy’s Lighter-Than-Air operations with its last flight at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station.
Goodyear continues to fly their own advertising fleet. Others come and go and a sizeable “what if crowd,” cries out for new applications from time to time, all without success.
May we enjoy the few blimps that continue to fly and accept: “That’s all folks!”