Death of a Dirigible

Over Lakehurst, New Jersey, the sky was unsettled on the afternoon of September 2, 1925. At times it was almost clear; then ominous clouds would scud across the field of the Naval Air Station and disappear as quickly as they had come. The airship Shenandoah , nose to her high mooring mast, was floating gracefully with the variable breezes. Her twenty gas bags were about 91 per cent full, her tanks loaded with 9,075 pounds of water and 16,620 pounds of gasoline. Sailors were riding up the elevator to the top of the mast. The 682-foot ship—her Indian name meant “Daughter of the Stars”—was almost ready for her fifty-eighth flight, a tour of Midwest state fairs. Everybody wanted to see the flying battleship.

Commander Zachary Lansdowne, the Shenandoah ’s skipper, had not liked the original orders for this trip. A native of Greenville, Ohio, he was familiar with the line squalls that swept over that part of the country during the summer, and he had officially requested that the tour be postponed. The Navy had put it off until early September, but rejected any further delay. It would disappoint too many thousands. And besides, the Shenandoah had already flown 25,000 miles in all kinds of weather.

Now almost the entire crew of 41 officers and men, together with two observers, had gone aboard. Not far from the base of the mast, Lansdowne was talking quietly with his wife. An Annapolis graduate with considerable lighter-than-air experience before taking command of the Shenandoah , Lansdowne was a tall, rangy, rawboned man who had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian aloft, but also as an understanding and affable officer who lent a sympathetic ear to the personal problems of his crew. Now he said good-by to his wile and walked toward the mast.

At 2:52 P.M. the nose cone of the ship slid gently from the socket of the mast. The dirigible lifted slowly. Water ballast streamed first from amidships, then from the tail—2,225 pounds of it in all. The Shenandoah swung around the mast and a few minutes later headed west into the uncertain sky.

Margaret Lansdowne turned her back as the dirigible sailed out over the pine woods. So did the other wives who had come to the field. It was considered bad luck to watch your husband’s ship fade out of sight.

The graceful Shenandoah was the first rigid dirigible made in America. Started in 1920 at the naval aircraft factory in Philadelphia, its construction had been held up many months by the failure of Congress to pass appropriations. The design of the Shenandoah was almost identical with that of the captured wartime German Zeppelin, the L-49 , but American navy engineers had made one great step forward. From a natural gas found in exploitable form and quantity only in the United States they had succeeded in isolating helium, so inert that it could not be set afire with a match. The airshipman’s greatest fear, fire, would now be a thing of the past. But since helium had only 92.6 percent of the lifting power of the inflammable hydrogen used in German airships, a section ten meters long had been added to the middle of the Shenandoah . In addition, the bow had been strengthened to withstand the strain of mast landings, the fins and rudders had been redesigned, and a walkway for in-flight inspection had been fitted outside the envelope along the very top of the ship.

The rigid dirigible, invented by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, had been greatly improved upon during World War I by his German countrymen. Already it had accomplished great feats: two dirigibles, the British R-34 (with Lansdowne aboard as an American observer) and the German LZ-126 , had crossed the Atlantic, and another German ship, the L-72 , had been flown by French airshipmen on a nonstop, 4,500 mile trip in 118 hours and 41 minutes. Now, with the slender Shenandoah , the United States was attempting to take the lead in the international airship field.

In her first flights the Shenandoah had captured the imagination of the world. Her triumphs had been many: she had been moored to the mast of a navy tanker, the Patoka , at sea; she had successfully weathered a winter gale after being torn from her mast at Lakehurst; and she had made a triumphant round trip to the Pacific Coast.

Now, an hour and 26 minutes after leaving Lakehurst, she hovered over Philadelphia. Before long the Alleghenies were reached. The men oft watch eased themselves into their bunks along the keel amidships.