Death of a Dirigible


The 350-foot stern section, meanwhile, was gliding toward the rolling hills at high speed, dragged down by the weight of engine gondolas 1, 2, and 3. With eighteen men aboard, it was headed for the ground, tail first, falling like an arrow and almost as fast. It struck glancingly against a wooded hillside, and again the unlikely happened: the three engines were scraped off by treetops, and the tail section bounded free. It drifted into a small valley, snagged its port side against a tree, and tilted precariously. Men tumbled out like spilled oranges. Finally, as it hit the ground, it began to pivot in a huge arc, threatening to crush those who had jumped on the downhill side. One escaped by running uphill. A second ran the other way. A third had gotten a dangling wire twisted around one ankle; after being dragged for fifty yards like a roped steer, he managed to get the wire loose and scrambled up the hill. He ducked just in time to avoid the downward sweep of the great tail fins.

Slowly, dazedly, the men began to collect. All eighteen of them had survived.

Only the bow section remained aloft. Anderson was still sitting on his fragile suspension bridge of two wires. The bow—now a free balloon—was spinning on a horizontal plane. Anderson felt seasick. There was no sound but the high wind and the creaking of wreckage. The shattered bow section was rising higher and higher. Soon the gas cells would burst. Anderson believed he was alone.

But he was wrong. There were six others aboard. One, Navigator Rosendahl, took charge. They found a helium valve, opened it, and stopped the wild ascent. Then Lieutenant Roland G. Mayer lowered a rope to Anderson. Since he couldn’t let go of the wires he was sitting on, the line was looped around Anderson and he was pulled to safety.

With Anderson safe, Rosendahl surveyed the situation. Others aboard the floating bow section shouted their reports: having found the helium valve control wire and one bag containing 1,600 pounds of water ballast, they decided to try for a landing.

Moments later, down on the ground, a telephone began ringing in the farmhouse of Ernest Nichols. Nichols picked up the receiver. It was a neighbor telling him a crazy story about a runaway airship heading straight for his house. Nichols hung up and went out into the yard. A big object, like a low cloud, was coming over his orchard. It was the Shenandoah ’s bow.

From above he heard men shouting, “Grab hold!”

Wires were dangling from the nose. Nichols grabbed one of them and wrapped it around a fence post. The post snapped. The floating wreckage turned slightly from its course, knocked off the top of a shed, bowled over a grape arbor, skimmed over the ground, and settled down gently, open end first. Anderson and another officer jumped out and made the lines fast to posts and trees. Once on the ground Rosendahl called for pistols to puncture the helium cells and prevent the wreckage from rising again into the air.

Rosendahl looked at his watch. It was 6:45 A.M. All of the Shenandoah was now on the ground. All told, fourteen men had died. The fragments of the Shenandoah and its 29 survivors were scattered across twelve miles of landscape.

First came the rescuers. They did everything they could to make it easier for the dazed survivors. But soon, over the rutted back roads, in buggies, buck-boards, and broken-down Model-T Fords, came the curious. Many were full of pity; others treated the disaster like a picnic.

By noon thousands of looters and souvenir hunters had torn almost all the covering off both the larger sections of the ship. Women came away from the wreckage staggering under yards and yards of fabric they had ripped from the frame. The looters were armed with knives, hatchets, pliers, even wrenches. They went away with the ship’s logbooks, with fragments of girders up to eight feet long, with blankets and valuable instruments.

The still-dazed officers and enlisted men tried to keep guard. When Major Frank Kennedy, an army airship expert from nearby McCook Field, arrived to help he found Frank Masters, one of the Shenandoah ’s young riggers, trying desperately to guard the control car. Masters was nervous and confused. As he rushed from one point to protect another, a group of looters would dart in behind his back. He had had nothing to eat for many hours. Sympathetic farmers offered to take him to breakfast, but he refused to leave his post. Soon the two main sections of the ship, miles apart, looked like skeletons picked to the bone.

At nightfall, in spite of armed national guardsmen who threatened to open fire, the looting continued. By morning the control car too had been picked clean. Many instruments had been stolen, all the toggles ripped out, everything movable torn free. Only the naked hull of the gondola was left, and even that had been moved twenty yards from the place where it had struck.

The Annapolis class ring was missing from Zachary Lansdowne’s finger.