- Historic Sites
Death of a Dirigible
“Come and see the boiling cloud,” said a woman on the ground; aloft, the slender Shenandoah headed straight into the eye of the vicious squall
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
There was a slight pause. “Pass word forward,” said the skipper. “All men on their toes.” He hesitated a moment, then added quietly, “We are going through together.”
Donovan hung up and started forward. As he did, there was a weird whistle of wind and the ship surged upward, even faster than the first time.
The engine telegraphs began ringing frequently in the control car. Engines 1 and 2 were out and the mechanic on No. 3 reported it was heating up badly.
Lansdowne ordered Alien to nose the ship down as far as he could without stalling her. They were shooting up incredibly fast. The rise had to be stopped. He turned and said, “Full speed!”
The altimeter was back at 3,500 feet, foffray was pulling at the rudder wheel, straining away, throwing his whole body into the struggle. It was a sight Anderson was never to forget. The ship began turning rapidly in a circle. The tail was suddenly thrown up and wrenched to the right. The ship had been caught by terrific opposing blasts of wind.
Suddenly there was a shrill screech, as girders began to twist and tear.
Without raising his voice Commander Hancock said, “There she goes.”
When Anderson heard the tear of girders he guessed that the Shenandoah was breaking up amidships. Then the control car began to jar and shake.
Every man in the car knew what was happening. The struts that held the big gondola to the ship were being wrenched by wind and torsion. In a matter of moments it would tear away from the ship and drop to earth.
Earlier, when the girders had snapped, the ship had opened at Frame 130 like an egg being cracked from the bottom. Two men were pitched out into space. But the two sections were held together by the many control wires that ran along the bottom of the keel.
Donovan, the man farthest aft, had moved back to Frame 30 when he heard a faraway crash of breaking girders. Then the Shenandoah began to quiver, and Donovan smelled burning cloth. Nauseated, he hurried forward to Frame 40, opened a hatch, and, leaning far out, took deep, gasping breaths. Below him the ground was dim and seemed to be spinning rapidly.
Just then something snapped in the tail. A trail of sparks shot up under the keel. The main cable controls had broken loose from the elevators and rudders and were running wildly up the length of the ship.
Far forward Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Rosendahl, the ship’s navigator, who had been ordered by Lansdowne to supervise the dropping of ballast, was working his way along the keel. He heard a fearful clashing and turned in time to see the bottom panel of the ship’s outer covering and several of the transverse structural members of the keel cut loose along one side. He saw the severed control wires being pulled out like the guts of a fish as the control car fell.
The man who had the last look at the doomed gondola and its occupants was Anderson, who had scrambled up to the catwalk just as the gondola was wrenching itself loose. He looked over his left shoulder and saw it hanging down. Suddenly the ladder he was holding on to was yanked away, and the car began its plunge to earth, carrying Lansdowne and seven others to their deaths.
Stunned, Anderson felt the catwalk and the girders on both sides of it collapsing like a house of matches. He was pulled off the catwalk, but just as he was about to drop through the great hole torn open by the control car, he managed to get hold of something. The next thing he knew he was sitting on a fragment of the catwalk suspended directly over the center of the jagged hole. A few wires were all that held him and the fragment of catwalk to the rest of the ship. He dared not make a move for fear he might topple off.
The four men in the crew space amidships looked forward and saw nothing but empty space; the bow section had broken off and was ballooning high above them. Almost at once there came a new tearing and ripping aft of them, followed by a sickening downward lurch as the ship broke again, this time just forward of engines a and 3, at Frame 100. The Shenandoah was now in three parts.
In the center section, smallest of the three, the gas bags had collapsed, and, weighted by engine gondolas 4 and 5, it dropped “like an elevator with no brakes.” To the four sailors in its tiny crew space it seemed that they must surely follow the control car down to earth. But weakened girders snapped again, the two engine cabs wrenched free, and the little helium remaining slowed their fall. Jagged wreckage dangling at both ends, the center section smashed into the side of a little hill, skidded down a slope, crashed into some trees, and stopped. The four men in the crew space were injured but alive; four mechanics—three of them in the engine cabs—were killed.