Death of a Dirigible


The situation was more serious than the Shenandoah ’s crew, at least for the moment, suspected. Down on the ground, in a little Ohio town called Caldwell, a man awakened when the wind slammed the furniture around on his front porch. He went outside, looked up at the sky, and spotted the giant airship. Directly above it was a dark cloud that seemed to be in a great turmoil. It looked to him, he later told friends, “as though two storms had gone together.” And in Ava a woman, seeing the same cloud, called her husband out into the yard. “Come out and see the boiling cloud!” she cried.

What they saw was a line squall gathering directly above the ship. Formed by a clash of opposing windsone moist and warm, the other dry and cold—such a squall was capable of seizing the Shenandoah , twisting her in different directions, and wringing out her light metal frame. The ship’s rise was carrying her right into the squall.

All over the Shenandoah , men were on the alert. Mechanics babied their motors, which were beginning to cough and overheat; the ship’s sharp tilt was disrupting the flow of gasoline and water through their fuel-supply and cooling systems. Riggers scrambled down the keel ripping the covers off the automatic valves so the already swollen gas bags wouldn’t burst.

In the control car the atmosphere was quiet but tense. Alien called out, “Still rising two meters per second, sir!” They were at 5,500 feet, far above pressure height.


Lansdowne glanced at the altimeter and held a quick conference with his executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Lewis Hancock. Then he turned. “All right,” he said, “open the maneuvering valves.” Thousands of cubic feet of helium were valved off in the hope that this would check the Shenandoah ’s swift ascent.


The sky was now solidly overcast except far to the south and southwest. Lieutenant Anderson peered ahead, trying to determine the safest course. Then, directly north of the ship and above, at an angle of 45 degrees, he saw the huge threatening cloud extending above their course to the west. If their rise didn’t stop soon, they would shoot straight into the eye of the squall.

“Rising one meter per second,” called Alien hopefully. The valving oil of helium was finally taking effect. Even so, they were close to 6,000 feet and still the Shenandoah rose.

“Go up in the keel, Andy,” said Lansdowne to Anderson. He realized that at any moment the rise might stop and, with so much helium valved away, they would begin a fast plunge to earth. “Pass the word to stand by the slip tanks in case of an emergency.” Lansdowne waited until Anderson had dashed up the ladder. Then he ordered the valves closed.

Above the control car, Anderson carried out his orders, then started back down the ladder. Suddenly a blast of bitter-cold air rushed down the keel through the ventilating hatches, hitting him in the face. The ship had just risen into the squall and was now in the grip of two opposing forces, each wrenching it in a different direction.

The fantastic rise stopped sharply at 6,300 feet. The Shenandoah wavered for an instant and began to plunge.

Elevatorman Allen, standing near the altimeter, sounded the alarm. “The ship’s Tailing!” he cried out. “She’s falling fast, very last!”

Soon no one aboard had to be told. Eardrums pounded as the Shenandoah plummeted down 25 feet a second.

“Water ballast!” Lansdowne called out. Tons of water were dumped. The skipper then ordered the ship nosed upward.

“She’s still falling!” Allen called out.

“She’s all right, Alien,” said Lansdowne evenly. “We’ll stop her.” His self-possession once more had its calculated effect. In spite of the ship’s frightening drop, there was no panic.

In the gondolas, mechanics swore at their erratic motors. In the keel the few men still asleep were pitched from their bunks, while those on duty clung to girders for support.

Suddenly, at 2,500 feet, the ship stopped falling and leveled off. But the men were still tense, wondering what would happen now.

Lansdowne gave an order to Rudderman Joffray, so quietly that no one else heard. The ship headed south. Then the captain picked up the telephone.

Rigger Mark Donovan, near Frame 60, was the man farthest aft. When the telephone glass flashed red, he grabbed the receiver and sang out, “Sixty, Donovan.”

“How are all the cells aft?” asked Lansdowne quietly.

“Okay aft of sixty, sir. Fully intact.”