1925 Seventy-five Years Ago

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On September 3, the airship Shenandoah , the showpiece of American naval aviation, broke apart in a storm and fell to earth near Ava, Ohio. Crowds assembled at the crash site almost immediately and began looting everything of value, including the ship’s structural girders, pieces of its outer fabric, canned goods from the galley, logbooks and instruments, and personal effects of the crew members. The owner of the farm where the main section had landed charged 25 cents per person to view the wreck, or a dollar for automobiles, with water available at 10 cents a glass. Within a day a souvenir stand had been set up.

The Shenandoah was a rigid airship, one of a class of behemoths that sailed majestically and, all too often, tragically through the skies from the dawn of aviation into the late 1930s. Unlike nonrigid airships, or blimps, which are essentially cigar-shaped balloons a few hundred feet long, rigid airships had aluminum skeletons that held multiple, independent gasbags. This allowed them to reach enormous proportions. At 680 feet long and with two million cubic feet of helium, the Shenandoah was actually on the small side.

After World War I, using captured German designs, the U.S. Navy experimented with rigid airships as attack and reconnaissance vehicles. Their ability to hover and to stay aloft for days were pluses, but their low speed and unwieldiness greatly limited their possible uses. Even while the Shenandoah was being built, many in the Navy came to see rigid airships as a solution in search of a problem. As often happens in such situations, the Shenandoah ’s main activity turned out to be justifying its own existence.

One thing large airships were definitely good for was drawing crowds, especially in inland states whose congressmen needed convincing to support naval appropriations. So after its launch in September 1923, the Shenandoah spent most of its time crisscrossing the country to arouse public enthusiasm for the airship program. The ship’s crew dismissed these publicity missions as “hand wavers.”

The day before the crash, the Shenandoah took off from the naval air station at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on her fifty-ninth mission. After midnight, over southeastern Ohio, she encountered severe atmospheric turbulence. While an airplane might have been able to dash through the bad weather or steer around it, the bulky Shenandoah was hard to maneuver and could make little or no progress against strong headwinds. When turbulence hit, there was not much she could do except try to ride it out.

Around 5:00 A.M. , a sudden updraft shot the airship skyward at more than 1,000 feet per minute. Capt. Zachary Lansdowne and his crew did everything they could to hold her down, but nothing worked. Then, at 6,000 feet, a cold-air mass hit, sending her hurtling back downward at 1,500 feet per minute. Girders tore apart, wires snapped, and engines failed. The Shenandoah went into a spin and then broke into pieces.

The control cabin, which had been suspended from the ship’s underside, broke off and dropped like a rock. All 8 of its occupants, including Lansdowne, were killed. The bow section, buoyant but powerless, continued to float for an hour before coming to rest at Sharon, 12 miles away. Its 7 occupants all survived. The remaining portion of the ship broke in two again and fell to earth. Thanks to the helium that remained in the unruptured cells, the impact was gentle enough that only 6 of its 28 crewmen died, all of them in the smaller amidships section.

Despite the loss of the Shenandoah —which followed by four years the more deadly crash of the experimental ZR-2 —the Navy continued its misadventure with rigid airships for another decade. After losing the Akron in 1933 and the Macon in 1935, it finally abandoned the program, though it did not give up on airships entirely. During World War II a fleet of more than 150 blimps, much smaller and cheaper than rigid airships, rendered valuable service in patrol, rescue, and antisubmarine warfare over the Atlantic. America’s last military airships, used as part of the early-warning system against airborne enemy attack, were retired in 1962.