Death Of A Dirigible

Over Lakehurst, New Jersey, the sky was unsettled on the afternoon of September 2, 1925. At times it was almost clear; then ominous clouds would scud across the field of the Naval Air Station and disappear as quickly as they had come. The airship Shenandoah , nose to her high mooring mast, was floating gracefully with the variable breezes. Her twenty gas bags were about 91 per cent full, her tanks loaded with 9,075 pounds of water and 16,620 pounds of gasoline. Sailors were riding up the elevator to the top of the mast. The 682-foot ship—her Indian name meant “Daughter of the Stars”—was almost ready for her fifty-eighth flight, a tour of Midwest state fairs. Everybody wanted to see the flying battleship.

Commander Zachary Lansdowne, the Shenandoah ’s skipper, had not liked the original orders for this trip. A native of Greenville, Ohio, he was familiar with the line squalls that swept over that part of the country during the summer, and he had officially requested that the tour be postponed. The Navy had put it off until early September, but rejected any further delay. It would disappoint too many thousands. And besides, the Shenandoah had already flown 25,000 miles in all kinds of weather.

Now almost the entire crew of 41 officers and men, together with two observers, had gone aboard. Not far from the base of the mast, Lansdowne was talking quietly with his wife. An Annapolis graduate with considerable lighter-than-air experience before taking command of the Shenandoah , Lansdowne was a tall, rangy, rawboned man who had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian aloft, but also as an understanding and affable officer who lent a sympathetic ear to the personal problems of his crew. Now he said good-by to his wile and walked toward the mast.

At 2:52 P.M. the nose cone of the ship slid gently from the socket of the mast. The dirigible lifted slowly. Water ballast streamed first from amidships, then from the tail—2,225 pounds of it in all. The Shenandoah swung around the mast and a few minutes later headed west into the uncertain sky.

Margaret Lansdowne turned her back as the dirigible sailed out over the pine woods. So did the other wives who had come to the field. It was considered bad luck to watch your husband’s ship fade out of sight.

The graceful Shenandoah was the first rigid dirigible made in America. Started in 1920 at the naval aircraft factory in Philadelphia, its construction had been held up many months by the failure of Congress to pass appropriations. The design of the Shenandoah was almost identical with that of the captured wartime German Zeppelin, the L-49 , but American navy engineers had made one great step forward. From a natural gas found in exploitable form and quantity only in the United States they had succeeded in isolating helium, so inert that it could not be set afire with a match. The airshipman’s greatest fear, fire, would now be a thing of the past. But since helium had only 92.6 percent of the lifting power of the inflammable hydrogen used in German airships, a section ten meters long had been added to the middle of the Shenandoah . In addition, the bow had been strengthened to withstand the strain of mast landings, the fins and rudders had been redesigned, and a walkway for in-flight inspection had been fitted outside the envelope along the very top of the ship.

The rigid dirigible, invented by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, had been greatly improved upon during World War I by his German countrymen. Already it had accomplished great feats: two dirigibles, the British R-34 (with Lansdowne aboard as an American observer) and the German LZ-126 , had crossed the Atlantic, and another German ship, the L-72 , had been flown by French airshipmen on a nonstop, 4,500 mile trip in 118 hours and 41 minutes. Now, with the slender Shenandoah , the United States was attempting to take the lead in the international airship field.

In her first flights the Shenandoah had captured the imagination of the world. Her triumphs had been many: she had been moored to the mast of a navy tanker, the Patoka , at sea; she had successfully weathered a winter gale after being torn from her mast at Lakehurst; and she had made a triumphant round trip to the Pacific Coast.

Now, an hour and 26 minutes after leaving Lakehurst, she hovered over Philadelphia. Before long the Alleghenies were reached. The men oft watch eased themselves into their bunks along the keel amidships.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

It had taken the “Daughter of the Stars” three hours to die piecemeal, and all day to be stripped bare. But her story was far from over.

Even before the survivors’ train reached Lakehurst it became evident that the disaster was to be a cause célèbre. In bold headlines Mrs. Lansdowne was quoted as accusing Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur of forcing her husband to take the flight for political purposes.

 

On September 4, a second sensational charge came from Captain Anton Keinen, a German airship expert who had taught many of the Shenandoah ’s men to fly. “I tell you it was murder to take that ship out,” he said to a reporter from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin . The original eighteen helium safety valves, he explained, had been reduced to eight. The ship had broken in two because the expanding gas, with insufficient outlets for escape, had crushed the frame. The victims, he declared, “gave their lives to save precious helium.”

On September 21 at Lakehurst, a Navy Court of Inquiry opened hearings to investigate the Shenandoah crash. The inquiry almost turned into a brawl when Captain Heinen was called upon to explain his inflammatory remarks. The following week the proceedings were transferred to Washington, and there, on October 9, Mrs. Lansdowne made her first appearance, dressed in deep mourning. Most Navy people thought the attractive 23-year-old widow would repudiate the statements attributed to her by the newspapers. Instead, she bluntly repeated them.

On the evening of November 7 the judge advocate (in a naval court, the prosecutor) paid a surprise visit to Mrs. Lansdowne at the Washington home of her uncle, where she was staying for the duration of the hearings. He said the Navy would like her to appear again.

The next day the wife of the Lakehurst commandant invited Mrs. Lansdowne to lunch at the Mayflower. As they were leaving the hotel, the older woman slipped a piece of paper into her hand, saying it was something which the judge advocate thought she could use in court.

It was a draft of a statement declaring that Mrs. Lansdowne had changed her mind; that her husband had regarded the Shenandoah as a man-of-war and that he had been ready to use it at any time regardless of weather. Furious, she tore it up.

Three days later, on November 11, Mrs. Lansdowne appeared once more at the Navy hearings. She and her counsel, Joseph E. Davies, walked into a hostile courtroom. The usual tensions of such a hearing had been heightened by the fact that at the same time, in another part of the capital, the Army’s court-martial of Colonel William (“Billy”) Mitchell was in progress. (At Mitchell’s request Mrs. Lansdowne appeared at his trial and told the court about what she regarded as the Navy’s attempt to influence her testimony.) The glare of publicity from the two trials had put the services on the defensive, and at the Shenandoah hearing the navy wives who made up the majority of the courtroom audience were on the Navy’s side.

 

Davies (later United States ambassador to Russia just before World War II) insisted that he be allowed to advise his client. The original judge advocate had resigned in order to appear as a witness at the Mitchell trial and answer Mrs. Lansdowne’s charges. A successor, Major Henry Leonard of the Marine Corps, had been appointed, and at this juncture he rose to object. This was not a civilian court, he declared, and Mrs. Lansdowne was merely a witness.

Davies told his client not to testify without his advice. The presiding officer, an elderly admiral, warned Davies to be quiet. Davies insisted on his client’s rights. The admiral, losing his patience, ordered him to be quiet or leave. When Davies did neither, the admiral reluctantly turned to the marine guard and said, “You will remove the gentleman from the court.”

“My client is entitled to counsel!” shouted Davies, but the marine grabbed him by the collar and escorted him, still protesting, from the courtroom.

For three hours Mrs. Lansdowne was questioned. Every time Major Leonard scored a point there would be a burst of applause from the Navy wives. Whenever Mrs. Lansdowne scored, the incensed women would boo and hiss. Leonard pointed out that there had been a “prudential” clause in Commander Lansdowne’s orders that would have allowed him to postpone the flight if he had thought conditions warranted it. But Mrs. Lansdowne, who was managing very well without a lawyer, seized upon the conclusion of the clause, which read, ”… remembering, however, that this route will be published in the press and that many will be disappointed should the Shenandoah fail to follow the approved schedule.”

“That,” she said, “is the pressure that is brought on officers in the Navy Department.”

Mrs. Lansdowne was excused. The court never recalled her.

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.