Death of a Dirigible


The inquiry ended two weeks later. Most experts agreed that the Shenandoah ’s gas cells had not ruptured, but that the ship had been torn apart by an unfortunate series of natural forces.

Commander Lansdowne and the others who had died with their ship had not made a useless sacrifice. Even in death the Shenandoah had helped aviation take a long step forward. It is true that the United States government gave up on the rigid dirigible after the crash of the American-built Akron in the Atlantic off Barnegat Light in April of 1933 and that of the Macon , her sister ship, in the Pacific off Point Sur, California, two years later. And when the Hindenburg , Germany’s great commercial airship, burned horribly at Lakehurst in 1937, the day of the great “rigids” seemed to be over.

But United States experience with the Shenandoah and other dirigibles contributed significantly to our success with the smaller, nonrigid blimp. Ridiculed as the “rubber cow” and the “poopy-bag,” the blimp nevertheless played an important role in World War II—blimps helped drive enemy submarines from the Strait of Gibraltar, patrolled the United States coast line for lurking U-boats, and helped clear mines from the waters south of France in preparation for D-day. Today blimps are an important component of our early-warning defense net and of our antisubmarine forces.

The men who flew the graceful rigids and lived to remember, however, are still loyal to them. Commander Rosendahl, now a retired admiral, still argues strenuously that they deserve another trial. As recently as 1954, he and Paul Litchfield, chairman of the board of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, which built the Akron and the Macon , were fighting for rigid dirigibles both for commercial and naval uses and as flying laboratories for testing an atomic aircraft engine. In Germany, the last commander of the Hindenburg , Captain Max Pruss, and other airship advocates are proposing new passenger and cargo dirigibles, using helium in place of hydrogen, to provide an intermediate service between the slower surface liners and the faster airplane.

Yet memories of such epic disasters as that of the Shenandoah are not easily forgotten. The romantic dirigible, outmoded almost in its infancy by the fantastic onrush of aerial invention, was even in its own time a craft dogged by ill luck.