Death of a Dirigible


The keel, a triangular tunnel running along inside the Shenandoah ’s bottom and tapering at bow and tail, was the heart of the ship. Bisecting its base was a narrow catwalk, the other two sides of the triangle being bounded by the gas cells. These bags, pressing against restraining networks of wire and twine, were usually filled to about 85 per cent capacity at the start of a long trip. As the ship rose, the gas expanded and the bags became swollen; 4,000 feet was the critical “pressure height”—at that altitude the bags would be 100 per cent full.


Every five meters along the keel was a triangular frame of latticed girders which bound together the circular outer ribs. Each of these frames was marked with phosphorescent numbers so the men would always know where they were in the dark interior. The numbering started at the base of the ship’s rudders, the first girder being called Frame o, the one farthest forward being numbered 194.75—meaning that it was 194.75 meters (about 640 feet) from the rudders. The crew space, a plywood deck twelve feet square that served as the enlisted men’s lounge and dining room, ran from Frames 100 to 105. Farther forward were the officers’ quarters. The control car was suspended on metal struts twenty feet below Frame 160.


At midnight, as the Shenandoah ’s five engines propelled her westward, the sky was partially overcast. But the air was not rough. The night was warm, and the men off duty slept without blankets. Forward in the control car, the midnight weather observations had just been handed to the ship’s aerologist, Lieutenant Joseph B. Anderson.

Anderson, a studious young man, remained in the control car through most of the flight, and he was to remember vividly all that happened there during the eventful hours that lay ahead. Now he began to draw up his usual midnight weather report, and a few minutes later, getting up from his little desk, he handed it to the skipper. Lansdowne studied it for a few minutes, then nodded. Things weren’t as bad as they could be.

He started for the ladder. “Don’t call me,” he said wearily, “unless something unusual comes up.” The first day, with the complications of take-off, was always the hardest. He climbed up the ladder and was soon in his bunk.

But Lansdowne got little sleep. At 3 A.M. a storm began to brew in the northwest, and a few minutes later he was back in the control car. The Shenandoah was making little progress against a strong head wind. Lansdowne ordered the man at the elevator controls to bring the ship down to 2,000 feet, in an effort to find a hole in the wall of wind. It was useless.

For an hour and a half the slender airship struggled westward, drifting first to port, then to starboard. At a few minutes after 5 A.M. , E. P. Alien, the elevatorman, turned to Lansdowne. “Captain,” he said, a slight undertone of nervousness in his voice, “the ship has started to rise.”

“Check her,” said Lansdowne.

Allen turned the big elevator wheel clockwise to drive the ship down. It was obvious that the Shenandoah was not responding to the controls. Sweat covered Alien’s forehead. “She’s rising two meters per second. I can’t check her, sir.”

Lansdowne ordered engines 4 and 5 speeded up. But despite the increased power, the ship continued to rise.

“I can’t hold her down,” said Alien. There was a note of panic in his voice now. He started to pull the wheel even farther over.

Lansdowne stopped him. “Don’t exceed that angle,” he said in a calm, confident voice that reassured everyone in the cabin. “We don’t want to go into a stall.” He ordered Rudderman Ralph Joffray to change his course to the south.

Joffray tugged his wheel counterclockwise. He had to put his whole body into the effort. “Hard over, sir,” he grunted, “and she won’t take it.”

“I’ve got the flippers down and she won’t check,” said Alien, his voice rising again.

“Don’t worry,” said Lansdowne, as if there were nothing to fear.

In spite of rudders, elevators, and motors, the ship continued to shoot up, tail elevated about fifteen degrees, and to head relentlessly westward, directly into the storm. The dirigible was rolling now like a raft in the sea.