The History of Great Airships
The history of the airship was often filled with 2 main technical issues – that
of the combustible nature of its buoyancy agent, hydrogen, and its fragile
structure. At the same time, they were essential in ensure the airship could
float, travel light and maintain reasonable speeds, yet be able to withstand
wind and rain.
Engineers sought to resolve these challenges by first resorting to helium as
a hydrogen alternative. However, the natural supply and prohibitive cost in the
1920s hardly justified its commercial usage, which sometimes resulted in costs
of $300,000 per airship. Despite measures taken by the government to alleviate
this by 1925 where prices per cubic foot dropped to a penny, helium was still a
In comparison, being at the mercy of the elements, the structural nature of
dirigibles created more problems between 1919 and 1937. The horrifying
Hindenburg disaster put it all into perspective, even though the tragedy was
traced to an explosion resulting from highly inflammable paint layered on the
With the close of World War I, six Zeppelins, including the L49, were captured
by the Allied Forces. They also featured the L72 which was constructed
originally to bomb New York City. The Allied nations proceeded to duplicate the
Germans’ dirigible blueprint in creating several record-breaking airships. They
became so brazen that advice from German pilot Ernst Lehmann to establish
landing bases to avoid airship accidents were ignored and ridiculed.
What followed was an incredible number of airships which met with untimely ends.
The English ZR-2 had to be taken apart, resulting in wasted resources on the new
Lakehurst, New Jersey hangar. Hypocrisy was also rampant, with the British
refusing permission for the Germans to cross the Atlantic in their L72, but
doing the same themselves in a copycat airship, the R-34.
In the midst of some high-profile dirigible accidents, the U.S. Navy Chief of
the Bureau of Aeronautics, Admiral William A. Moffet stubbornly supported
airships and attempted to qualify its program and human casualties by learning
through the mistakes of the ZR-2. Yet airship pilots were often taken to task to
cover up for the lack of substantial answers from airship accidents.
Moffet continued to be in denial as high profile deaths such as Richard Byrd
were narrowly avoided during the ZR-2 mishap, as was on the Roma when it was
driven into high voltage lines by a sudden down-draft. More disasters followed
as the C-2, then the largest airship in U.S. Army history, blew up while leaving
its hangar on October 1922. A French maneuvered L-72, the Dixmude, was destroyed
by harsh elements flying to Africa in 1923, and ended up wrecked in the
Finally heeding Lehmann’s advice, the U.S. stopped short of destroying the Lake
Constance and Friedrichshafen Zeppelin factories and hangars. The
Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation was soon formed in 1923, to tap into German
expertise and discovery of the alloy duralumin in the creation of new airships
such as the U.S. ZR-1 and ZR-3 in 1924. These 2 dirigibles turned to helium as
the buoyancy agent, although the still prohibitive cost of the element saw the
airships sharing its use and alternated flights.
The ZR-1 Shenandoah flew across the western states in several test landings on
moorings and airfields. The Los Angeles ZR-3 was to follow up with a promotion
of commercial airship travel, but once again, it encountered technical issues
and the Shenandoah took its place instead, when tragedy struck.
Zachary Lansdowne, then the Shenandoah’s commander, highlighted the ship’s
shortcomings in dealing with the Midwest line squalls and thunderstorms but was
ignored. On September 3, 1925, a storm struck down the dirigible in Ohio, which
resulted in 14 deaths, including Lansdowne.
The survivors had landed safely whilst holding on for their lives on gas
supplies they had earlier been tasked to retrieve. This sad incident forced
Brigadier General Billy Mitchell to criticize the Navy’s airship program, and
support for airships visibly dropped with the release of the disaster’s photos
which garnered widespread public disgust and sympathy for its victims.
This did not deter the Naval Court of Inquiry from pronouncing a verdict which
put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Lansdowne, based partly on statements
under duress by Lieutenant Rosendahl (a survivor of the accident) from Moffett,
and despite testimonials from Lansdowne’s widow that highlighted his misgivings.
Following the incident, Congress proceeded to give the go-ahead for three new
replacements for the Shenandoah. Ironically, only one, the ZMC-2, still remained
in use come World War II, as airships began to fade into history’s pages as a
viable flight tool of choice.