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The U.S. Navy's Rigid Airships

One of the more unique chapters in the history of naval aviation involved the operation of rigid dirigibles during the 1920s and 1930s. Though the U.S. Navy began procured and flew kite balloons and blimps even before the entry of the United States into World War I, it was not until naval aviators witnessed firsthand the successful operations of German Zeppelins that the Navy began exploring the employment of rigid dirigibles. "Aviators and officers of various corps all believe that the reconnaissance work of the Zeppelins has been of immense value," wrote one overseas observer. "Their greatest service is yet to come."

On 11 July 1919 Congress passed the Naval Appropriations Act, which in part provided for the construction of one rigid airship and the purchase of another one. To this end, the following year the U.S. Navy contracted for the purchase of the R-38, a British dirigible, and sent a detachment of personnel overseas for instruction. The R-38 made her maiden flight on 23-23 June 1921, and completed two additional ones before tragedy struck. On 23 August 1921, the dirigible broke in two, which ignited the hydrogen (the lifting gas on used in R-38) and fuel. Of the forty-four people killed in the accident, seventeen were Americans, including senior officer Lieutenant Commander Lewis Maxfield.

Meanwhile, the construction of a second dirigible on American soil continued, and in August 1922 she became airborne for the first time. On 4 September the Navy's newest rigid airship took to the skies for her first extended flight, logging one hour of flight time covering a distance of some twenty miles. Christened USS Shenandoah on 10 October 1922, the airship participated in many notable flights during her career, conducting experiments with a shipboard mooring mast on board the airship tender Patoka (AO-9) and completing a transcontinental flight. On 3 September 1925, during a flight from Lakehurst, New Jersey, to Columbus, Ohio, Shenandoah encountered a severe storm, which broke her in two over Ava, Ohio. The control car dropped to the earth immediately, followed by the after section of the airship, which broke in two upon hitting the ground. The forward section of Shenandoah remained airborne for nearly an hour before falling to earth. All told, twenty-nine crewmen survived the crash, but among the fourteen killed was the airship's skipper, Lieutenant Commander Zachary Lansdowne.

The crash of Shenandoah in part prompted a Presidential review of military and civilian aviation, but the U.S. Navy's operation of rigid dirigibles continued, championed by none other that Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, the first Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics and naval aviation's senior officer. Constructed by Germany's Zeppelin Airship Company, USS Los Angeles (ZR-3) was flown to the United States in 1924, and following the loss of Shenandoah operated as the only rigid dirigible in the Navy for a time. Her career, which included 331 flights totaling 5,368 hours, included a long-distance flight between New York and Panama, a carrier landing on board Saratoga (CV-3), and experiments with operating aircraft from a trapeze-like contraption suspended beneath the airship. The latter was perfected on board succeeding airships, USS Akron (ZRS-4) and USS Macon (ZRS-5), commissioned in 1931 and 1933 respectively.

Akron and Macon marked the pinnacle of the airship in the U.S. Navy, yet also symbolized its ultimate downfall. The two rigid dirigibles carried one of the most unique aircraft to ever fly, the F9C Sparrowhawk, a diminutive fighter with a so-called skyhook affixed to its upper wing. Pilots were launched and recovered using a trapeze that could be raised and lowered from a hangar located inside the dirigible. The Sparrowhawks and their airborne homes operated extensively in the interwar fleet exercises, flying scouting missions over the opposing fleet. Though successful in their mission, the airships were deemed too vulnerable to attacking fighters and antiaircraft fire. In reality, their greatest enemy was weather. On the evening of 3-4 April 1933, Akron plunged into the Atlantic off the coast of New Jersey during a storm with the loss of seventy-three men, including Admiral Moffett. On 12 February 1935 Macon crashed in the Pacific Ocean after wind carried her non-reinforced upper fin away. Fortunately, all but two of her eighty-three- man crew were rescued.

The loss of Akron and Macon spelled the end of rigid dirigible operations in the U.S. Navy. The tragic fates of four of the five airships- Los Angeles completed her service intact and was scrapped in 1939- cast a pall over their service, but in aviation's golden age they were true marvels in the air.

The following items relating to the service of rigid airships in the U.S. Navy are part of the Museum's collection.

Interior views showing some of the twenty gas cells housed in the interior of Shenandoah (ZR-1). Constructed of aluminum, the airship was initially intended to be inflated with hydrogen. However, this was abandoned in favor of helium because of the fire hazard associated with hydrogen.

Shenandoah pictured attached to the mooring mast at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey. The mast pictured is the so-called high mast that made the airship susceptible to wind gusts and required a skeleton crew to fly it even while moored.
Shenandoah pictured in the giant airship hangar at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey. The first rigid airship ever built in the United States, Shenandoah's components were constructed at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and shipped to Lakehurst for final assembly.
This underside view of Shenandoah conveys the immense size of the airship, which measured 680 ft. in length and was 60 ft. in diameter. Note the control car forward and the smaller engine cars located aft.
Close-up view of the forward control car of Shenandoah, its occupants peering down at the ground below. The airship's number six engine was located in the control car initially, but was eventually replaced by a radio car.
Onlookers gather around the wreckage of Shenandoah, which all told made a total of fifty-seven flights before her tragic crash in Ohio on 3 September 1925.
This ornate officer's dress sword belonged to Lieutenant (junior grade) Edgar W. Sheppard, who received his wings as Naval Aviator Number 3173 on 22 November 1924. Less than one year later he died in the crash of Shenandoah.
Los Angeles (ZR-3), her envelope devoid of any U.S. markings, arrives at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey, following her 5,060-mile delivery flight from Friedrichshafen, Germany.
Los Angeles pictured during two unique at sea operations, a landing on the deck of the aircraft carrier Saratoga (CV-3) on 27 January 1928, and at the mooring mast on board Patoka (AO-9). A fleet oiler, Patoka was converted to an airship tender in 1924, and supported Los Angeles during the airship's long-range flights to Panama and Puerto Rico during the period 1925-1931.
Akron, designed from the beginning to use helium gas, did not feature the external engine control cars visible on Shenandoah and Los Angeles. The airship's eight engines were located inside the hull, with only the propellers visible on the outside.
Akron and Macon both featured an internal hangar and trapeze that could be raised and lowered to operate aircraft. Early evaluation of the operation involved N2Y training aircraft like that pictured here "hooking on" to Akron.
Two photographs of a series showing an XF9C-1 Sparrowhawk flown by Lieutenant Howard L. Young approaching and hooking onto the trapeze suspended below Akron on 3 May 1932, the first day Sparrowhawks operated from the airship. In the second image Young reaches out to guide one of the trapeze's stabilizing arms into place.
An F9C-2 Sparrowhawk pictured inside the internal hangar on board Akron. The diminutive size of the fighter made it ideal for the unique airship operations, especially fitting through the small hangar door. Note the system of pulleys used to maneuver the aircraft around the hangar.
The only survivors of the crash of Akron were clockwise from right Boatswain's Mate Second Class Richard E. Deal, Lieutenant Commander Herbert V. Wiley, and Aviation Metalsmith Second Class Moody Erwin.
Macon, the last rigid airship manufactured for the U.S. Navy, being pulled from the giant hangar at Naval Air Station Sunnyvale, California. Note the mobile mooring mast.
Photograph showing the port side of Macon's bridge. The wheel visible at the bottom of the photograph controlled the airship's elevators and the rows of handles above the window operated the water-ballast release and fuel dump tank release systems. The desk contained the elevator angle indicator, airspeed indicator, rate-of-climb meter, and other instruments.
Close-up view of an F9C-2 Sparrowhawk assigned to Macon. Note the details of the hook atop the wing and the "Men of the Flying Trapeze" insignia on the fuselage below the cockpit.
With its pilot's eyes focused on the task ahead, an F9C-2 Sparrowhawk approaches the trapeze suspended from Macon during operations over Northern California in November 1933.
Coming home to roost-F9C Sparrowhawks climbing towards the trapeze during flight operations with Macon.
The crew of Macon assembled for a group photograph beneath the giant airship.
Selected pages from the logbook of Lieutenant H.N. Coulter documenting flights made on board Akron and Macon. The pages include handwritten notes made by Coulter recalling details of specific events.
Paper comparing the design and performance characteristics of the German airship Graf Zeppelin, Los Angeles, and Macon.