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What Once Was

Enterprise over Washington: Airship history at the Nation’s Capital

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By Matthew B. Gilmore*

“Out of the dark Northeast, under dark clouds and through fog banks, the German-built dirigible ZR-3 poked her silvery nose into an area of blue and sunlight over the District just at 12:50 o’clock. . . .” Washington wasn’t under attack–ZR-3 had flown to Washington to be re-christened the Los Angeles and join the U.S. Naval air services. The first lady, Mrs. Coolidge, would have the honor of formally christening the airship. The ceremonies were simple by design: Mrs. Coolidge would pull a cord releasing “a fluttering crowd of white pigeons . . . [accompanied] by myriads of vari-colored toy balloons. This would be accompanied by a 21-gun salute and the band striking up the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.'” Temporary stands and other seating was provided for Cabinet members, other government officials and guests at the Bolling Field landing spot. The Evening Star reported the christening events in its November 24th and 25th, 1925 issues.

Christening of the Los Angeles at Bolling Field, Washington, D.C, Nov, 25, 1924. photo--National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress.

Christening of the Los Angeles at Bolling Field, Washington, D.C, Nov, 25, 1924. photo–National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress.

“With the sun glistening against her-silver-colored body the world’s largest dirigible moved in Washington almost silently except for the purr of two of her five motors . . .  a large white star with a red center stood out plainly forward of the cabin. Along her sleek side, plainly visible, were written U.S Navy. Aft was another big star and next to it were the words ‘Los Angeles.'”

The order of the ceremony deteriorated from there as ZR-3 overshot the field twice.  ZR-3 had flown from Germany across the Atlantic in four days (October 12 to 15).  On arriving at Lakehurst, New Jersey and before departing for Washington, it was deflated, hydrogen gas removed and was re-inflated with (much safer, rarer, and vastly more expensive) helium. It was the use of helium which caused ZR-3 to handle much differently than previously.

Bolling Field & Naval Air Station, circa 1922. photo--courtesy Library of Congress.

Bolling Field & Naval Air Station, circa 1922. photo–courtesy Library of Congress.

The ceremony signaled the official turning over of the airship to its American crew.  The German builder and commander of the ZR-3, Hugo Eckener left Lakehurst and arrived in Washington October 16, to deliver his report on the airship.

Hugo Eckener, builder and commander of the ZR-3 giving his official report to Dr. Charles D. Walcott, chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, upon his arrival in Washington, Oct. 16, 1924. (l-r: Dr. Walcott, Capt. Eckener, and Capt. Geo. W. Steele, who was to command the big ship for the U.S.) photo--Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress.

Hugo Eckener, builder and commander of the ZR-3 giving his official report to Dr. Charles D. Walcott, chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, upon his arrival in Washington, Oct. 16, 1924. (l-r: Dr. Walcott, Capt. Eckener, and Capt. Geo. W. Steele, who was to command the big ship for the U.S.) photo–Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress.

For many, advances in aviation, such as the newly-christened airship Los Angles signaled a new era. In December 1928, speaking to the International Civil Aeronautics Conference, President Coolidge declared, “All nations are looking forward to the day of extensive, regular, and reasonably safe intercontinental and interoceanic transportation by airplane and airship. What the future holds out even the imagination may be inadequate to grasp. We may be sure, however, that the perfection and extension of air transport throughout the world will be of the utmost significance to civilization.” [1]

Following the delivery of the ZR-3, Versailles Treaty restrictions were lifted on German zeppelin development and Eckener’s Zeppelin firm constructed commercial German airships, such as the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg.

While today werarely see airships, the sight would have been become familiar to Washingtonians of the day. Dirigibles and blimps had already been floating though the Washington area for nearly 20 years.

In 1908 the United States Army was engaged in the perpetual quest for better technology. In aviation, several new options were under consideration, some fairly tried and true, others innovative and experimental. In August of that year the Army set up avionics trials out at Fort Myer, with innovative heavier-than-air aeroplane technology competing with tried and true lighter-than-air airships. During the previous month a board had been appointed to oversee the trials of three competitors — Orville Wright’s flier, Cpt. Thomas Scott Baldwin’s dirigible, and Augustus M. Herring’s own heavier-than-air craft.

Just five years after the Kitty Hawk flight, Wright’s craft was being considered by the military. Wright began his tests on September 3rd; and as reported at the time in the September 8, 1908 edition of the  Evening Star, it was a flight of one minute, 10 seconds travelling a mile and a quarter.

The Wrights' bid to furnish a flying machine to U.S. War Department for $25,000 is accepted, Feb. 8, 1908. photostat--Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers, Library of Congress.

The Wrights’ bid to furnish a flying machine to U.S. War Department for $25,000 is accepted, Feb. 8, 1908. photostat–Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers, Library of Congress.

Baldwin had been developing his dirigible since 1904, flying the California Arrow at the St. Louis World’s Fair. His entry was the first arrival of the three and successfully passed tests in August.

U.S. Army (Baldwin) airship "Signal Corps No. 1" (SC-1). photo-- William Duane Ennis, "Flying Machines Today," D. Van Nostrand Company, 1911.

U.S. Army (Baldwin) airship “Signal Corps No. 1” (SC-1). photo– William Duane Ennis, “Flying Machines Today,” D. Van Nostrand Company, 1911.

The Wright competition was most noted for the tragic crash on September 17th of Wright’s aircraft. Orville was injured and Lt. Thomas Selfridge, his passenger, was killed. Just a few days before, Wright had been batting aside a reporter’s suggestion that he take President Theodore Roosevelt up in the plane. (Washington Post, September 15, 1908).

Selfridge had been an active competitor of the Wrights, working with Alexander Graham Bell’s Aerial Experiment Association, as well as trained to fly the Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1. Even as the accident was reported, the Army rushed to reassure readers that aeroplane testing would continue. It did, and the next year later, on July 20, 1909, the Wright brothers remained aloft for an hour and 20 minutes.

Lt. Selfridge & Mr. Wright stepping into the Wright aeroplane at Ft. Myer. Sept. 29, 1908. photo--courtesy Library of Congress.

Lt. Selfridge & Mr. Wright stepping into the Wright aeroplane at Ft. Myer. Sept. 29, 1908. photo–courtesy Library of Congress.

The Star, in its July 21st account,reporting that the flight could be seen from its newspaper offices at 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, exclaimed, “Orville Wright’s machine resembles a giant buzzard in the sky.”

Wright and Selfridge in the Wright aeroplane on Sep. 29, 1908: “The propellers just starting, the weight not yet dropped.” photo--courtesy Library of Congress.

Wright and Selfridge in the Wright aeroplane on Sep. 29, 1908: “The propellers just starting, the weight not yet dropped.” photo–courtesy Library of Congress.

Herring’s craft seems never to have made it into the air (at least over Fort Myer). Herring dawdled — at least as portrayed in the newspapers — getting his aeroplane to Washington, ultimately shipping it in pieces. These parts he proudly showed to the newspapers. Then he shipped it back. “No word from Herring” was a frequent newspaper sub-headline throughout 1908 and 1909. His Army contracted was cancelled for non-delivery.

While the United States was dividing its efforts between airships and aeroplanes, Germany took the lead on airship development, ultimately building 67 war zeppelins during World War I. The Navy was developing its C-series airships before World War I. in 1918 plans for C-6 were developed, it flew in February 1920; the C-7 make a visit to snowy Washington in 1921. Both the Evening Star and the Washington Post offered enthusiastic coverage.

Crew of the Navy C-7 on their arrival in Washington on Dec. 5, 1921. (l-r: Commander Lt. Zachary Lansdowne, Lt. R.F. Wood, Chief Machinist Lt. A.T. Sewell, G.C. Ferris. photo--courtesy Library of Congress.

Crew of the Navy C-7 on their arrival in Washington on Dec. 5, 1921. (l-r: Commander Lt. Zachary Lansdowne, Lt. R.F. Wood, Chief Machinist Lt. A.T. Sewell, G.C. Ferris. photo–courtesy Library of Congress.

The Navy C-7 coming in for its landing on Dec. 5th. photo--courtesy Library of Congress.

The Navy C-7 coming in for its landing on Dec. 5th. photo–courtesy Library of Congress.

A few weeks after the C-7 visit, the Roma airship was christened at Bolling Field. The Roma was Italian-built and the ceremony would officially mark US possession. She came up from Hampton Roads fighting a gale. Old-timers (such as Baldwin who had participated in the 1908 trials) who were present for the ceremony felt an optimism for the dawning of an age of practical airship service (Aviation January 2, 1922). Hydrogen-filled Roma had a short life, however, having crashed on February 21, 1922. This put an end to American use of hydrogen for airships. (A few more disasters to happen to end use of hydrogen elsewhere — the French later lost the Dixmude in 1923, the British their R101 in 1930, and most famously the LZ-129 Hindenburg was destroyed on May 6, 1937.)

The C-7 passing over the White House on her way from Hampton Roads to Bolling Field. photo--courtesy Library of Congress.

The C-7 passing over the White House on her way from Hampton Roads to Bolling Field. photo–courtesy Library of Congress.

Throughout the 1920s the United States military invested in airship technology. Airships Shenandoah, Los Angeles, and Akron all took flight.  Shenandoah was originally the ZR-1, U.S.-built, designed for military use and as a commercial prototype, she was lifted by helium gas, rather than hydrogen. She visited Washington in twice in October 1923, once in daylight and on the 27th a night flight, illuminated only by some hotel searchlights.

The National Helium Reserve was established in 1925 as a strategic asset for the U.S. military, helium being difficult and expensive to acquire.  In 1925 the U.S. Army Air Service included seven airship companies across the country. The effort struggled — Los Angeles’s sister ship Shenandoah crashed on September 3rd, brought down by bad weather.

Verdana

Verdana

The German commercial airship Graf Zeppelin flewover Washington in October 1928. It had taken a course from Bermuda to the Carolina coast before turning northward to overfly Washington, Baltimore and Wilmington on route to Lakehurst, New Jersey. It had circled over downtown Washington, catching the attention of President Coolidge while he shook hands with White House visitors.

Leading the Navy’s aerial forces were the Los Angeles and four other military airships which took part in the March 5, 1929 inaugural parade celebrating incoming President Herbert Hoover. On that rainy day,  as reported by the Washington Post, it “poked its nose through the haze and glided slowly over the crowd . . . it was a breath-taking event.”

In 1932, the Los Angeles had been decommissioned, leaving only the Akron and Macon in the U.S. airship fleet. Akron took part in the 1933 presidential inaugural ceremonies; it crashed a mere month later.

The world's largest dirigible, the Akron, shown in this 1931 aerial view on its first visit to Washington. The long north diagonal of New Jersey Avenue bisected by the airship and Massachusetts Avenue can be seen just beneath the ship. To gthe left can be seen the old Pension Building at 4th and F Streets, NW and to the right is North Capitol Street, the General Post Office, and Union Station, with D Street seen along the bottom. Underwood & Underwood Collection, Library of Congress.

The world’s largest dirigible, the Akron, shown in this 1931 aerial view on its first visit to Washington. The long north diagonal of New Jersey Avenue bisected by the airship and Massachusetts Avenue can be seen just beneath the ship. To gthe left can be seen the old Pension Building at 4th and F Streets, NW and to the right is North Capitol Street, the General Post Office, and Union Station, with D Street seen along the bottom. Underwood & Underwood Collection, Library of Congress.

Postcard featuring an image of the Akron superimposed over an aerial view of the United States Capitol. Stem to stern the airship was over 30 feet longer than the Capitol building's north-south axis. image--W.P. Farr privagte collection, http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com.

Postcard featuring an image of the Akron superimposed over an aerial view of the United States Capitol. Stem to stern the airship was over 30 feet longer than the Capitol building’s north-south axis. image–W.P. Farr privagte collection, http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com.

In the Spring of 1930 the Goodyear blimp according to Carl B. Fritsch Vigilant was taking tourists aloft from Hoover Field. According to Carl B. Fritsche at the time, “The ational Capital is destined to play a leading part in airship development which is coming soon. . . .” Fritsche was the developer of the Navy’s revolutionary all-metal clad ZMC-2 airship. By 1934 construction of a dirigible hanger at Hoover Field — since 1925 serving as Washington’s airport — was being urged on Interior Secretary Ickes. As reported in the September 1, 1934 Post, and by the Star on the 27th, the National Capital Planning Commission had endorsed the idea as part of a new airport to be located across the Potomac at Gravelly Point. It took until 1941 for the hangar to be disassembled and reassembled at the new National Airport.

View showing activity at National Airport; in the far distance can be seen the departure of an airship. Theodor Horydczak Collection , Library of Congress.

View showing activity at National Airport; in the far distance can be seen the departure of an airship. Theodor Horydczak Collection , Library of Congress.

Nothing daunted by the loss of the Shenandoah, the Akron, and the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, Congressional action continued support for advancing airship technology. Hearings were held that year between June 8th and the 22nd before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce on H. R. 2252, a bill authorizing -“the Loan of $12,000,000 for Constructing Two Eight-million-cubic-foot American-designed Dirigible Airships, a Large American Airship Plant, and an Atlantic Operating Terminal, and to Establish Twice-a-week American Trans-Atlantic Commercial Airship Service.”

“Congress sees model of new proposed American-designed dirigible. Washington, D.C. June 9 [1937]. Rep. Edward A. Kenney, (right) of New Jersey, Chairman of the House Interstate Commerce Committee, viewing a model of a new American designed dirigible displayed at the Capitol today. Roland B. Respess, President of the Respess Aeronautical Engineering Corp., is pointing out the features of the ship to the House member. The House Interstate Subcommittee is hearing the witness on a bill recently introduced to authorize the loan of $12,000,000 for constructing two eight-million-cubic-foot dirigible airships, a large American airship plane, and Atlantic operating terminal with a view toward establishing twice-a-week American Transatlantic airship service.”  photo & accompanying caption--Harris Ewing Collection, Library of Congress.

“Congress sees model of new proposed American-designed dirigible. Washington, D.C. June 9 [1937]. Rep. Edward A. Kenney, (right) of New Jersey, Chairman of the House Interstate Commerce Committee, viewing a model of a new American designed dirigible displayed at the Capitol today. Roland B. Respess, President of the Respess Aeronautical Engineering Corp., is pointing out the features of the ship to the House member. The House Interstate Subcommittee is hearing the witness on a bill recently introduced to authorize the loan of $12,000,000 for constructing two eight-million-cubic-foot dirigible airships, a large American airship plane, and Atlantic operating terminal with a view toward establishing twice-a-week American Transatlantic airship service.” photo & accompanying caption–Harris Ewing Collection, Library of Congress.

“The new 'flying tube' airship. Washington, D.C., Mar. 14, 1938. Immediate commercial development of a new lighter-than-air airship of novel design, which its engineering sponsors believe will revolutionize air transportation, bringing safety, speed, load capacity, and easy maneuverability to airship performance, was announced today. Air sucked through the tube will create a vacuum in front and give a propulsive kick at the outlet. Universal joints will be located at the entrance and exit of the tube, moving in any direction of the air intake and outlet, thus steering the flying tube. The ship will be entirely metal clad and the lifting power will be helium gas in aluminum partitions. Garret W. Peck, designer and vice pres. in charge of construction, left; and Clifford C. Jones, specialist with the Inter-Ocean Dirigible Corp., right, with the working model of the ship." photo & accompanying caption--Harris Ewing Collection, courtesy Library of Congress.

“The new ‘flying tube’ airship. Washington, D.C., Mar. 14, 1938. Immediate commercial development of a new lighter-than-air airship of novel design, which its engineering sponsors believe will revolutionize air transportation, bringing safety, speed, load capacity, and easy maneuverability to airship performance, was announced today. Air sucked through the tube will create a vacuum in front and give a propulsive kick at the outlet. Universal joints will be located at the entrance and exit of the tube, moving in any direction of the air intake and outlet, thus steering the flying tube. The ship will be entirely metal clad and the lifting power will be helium gas in aluminum partitions. Garret W. Peck, designer and vice pres. in charge of construction, left; and Clifford C. Jones, specialist with the Inter-Ocean Dirigible Corp., right, with the working model of the ship.” photo & accompanying caption–Harris Ewing Collection, courtesy Library of Congress.

 

The airship which most people would find familiar today is not any of these military incarnations but the Goodyear blimp. In 2011 the Goodyear donated the blimp Enterprise‘s gondola (the passenger and crew cabin) to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. It had had a long history. Beginning life in 1934, it was transferred to the Navy in 1942, repurchased, then rebuilt in 1969, and brought back into service to fly again in 1975. The successor Columbia was the Goodyear blimp sports fans would come to recognize, carrying advertising over Super Bowls, World Series and Rose Bowl games, and the 1984 Summer Olympics. It’s clear that Goodyear blimps carried sightseers over the capital in the 1930s but only tangential references came to light while researching this.

Goodyear blimp, circa 1940. photo--Harris Ewing Collection, Library of Congress.

Goodyear blimp, circa 1940. photo–Harris Ewing Collection, Library of Congress.

For Washingtonians, the familiar aerial views of the city in the 1930s and 1940s were all done from the Enterprise. The Hindenburg made an impromptu visit August 8, 1936 while waiting for the appropriate landing clearance at Lakehurst. Douglas Fairbanks and wife Sylvia were notable passengers (with their scottie Bobby Burns being the first animal to make the transatlantic crossing (Star, August 9, 1936). In 1940 the Star rented the Enterprise to flash election results for all to see as they were reported, but strong winds kept the Enterprise grounded.

INSERT IMAGE18

In 1961 the Star was reporting on the obsolescence of the blimp (January 22, 1961)—noting that suggestions for nuclear powered blimps had never been realized.

While civilian airship service expired with the Hindenburg, military interest has persevered. In 2005 Christopher Bolkcom’s CRS Report “Strategic Airlift Modernization: Background, Issues and Options”  offered this assessment of airship capabilities:

“Option 3: Pursue Airships or Hybrid Airships. The Army, Navy, Joint Staff and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are all exploring the development and use of airships, or hybrid airships, to carry very large military payloads long distances. Airships, also called blimps, typically use helium to achieve lift and often resemble the elongated, cigar-shaped Goodyear blimp seen at major sporting events. Hybrid airships also use gas buoyancy for much of their lift, but are shaped like an aircraft wing to generate additional lift from aerodynamic forces. The airships currently being explored could potentially carry payloads on the order of 500 tons to intercontinental distances at speeds up to 100 miles per hour.

“In addition to their very large payloads and long range, airships and hybrids may offer additional advantages applicable to the strategic airlift mission. They do not appear to require as expensive and as specialized infrastructure as aircraft, and may be able to deliver their payloads near the conflict, rather than an port or airfield miles to the rear.

“Airships may potentially be capable of carrying a complete brigade-sized ground unit and its equipment directly from ‘the fort to the fight,’ overcoming logistic choke points and mitigating the effects of limited forward basing. Airships and hybrids may be able to land on water, which could prove valuable in realizing the Department of the Navy’s sea basing concept.”

Since 2015 the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) has been undergoing testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground for defense of the nation’s capital. These are aerostats (statically tethered balloons) stationed to detect airborne threats — heaper than aircraft and with a much greater range than radar. The highly unauthorized gyrocopter landing at the Capitol in 2015 was a noted glitch in the system.

The viability of airships is frequently debated, an example being  Joseph A. Dick’s “Helium Hokum: Why Airships Will Never Be Part of Our Transportation Infrastructure,” Scientific American guest blog May 27, 2011.

But, while The Atlantic scoffed in a May 4, 2012 article, “The Dead Dream of the Dirigible,” for others optimism remains: “An Airship the Size of a Football Field Could Revolutionize Travel” (smithsonian.com, March 7, 2014); “Nearly 80 Years After the Hindenburg Disaster, Airships Are Poised for a Comeback, Companies see hybrid blimps as possible mode for transporting cargo, as well as tourism opportunities” (Wall Street Journal, March 29, 2016).

The Federal Helium Reserve is scheduled to be disposed of by September 30, 2021.

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Footnote

[1] Calvin Coolidge: “Address to the International Civil Aeronautics Conference in Washington, D. C.,” December 12, 1928. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

Recommended for further reading:

The literature on airships is rich and varied, below are some resources which have proved useful.

Pioneer of Flight, Glenn Curtiss and Cecil R. Roseberry (Syracuse University Press, 1972);

“The Aero Club of Washington: Aviation in the Nation’s Capital, 1909-1914, Tom D. Crouch (Washington History, Vol. 22, 2010).

“Aeronautics in the District of Columbia” (with remarks, Nils H. Randers-Pehrson, John Clagett Proctor, and Mrs. Gilbert Grosvenor. (Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vols. 46/47).

Military, Naval and Civil Airships Since 1783: The History and the Development of the Dirigible Airship in Peace and War,  Daniel George Ridley-Kitts (History Press, 2012).

Dirigible Dreams: The Age of the Airship, C. Michael Hiam (University Press of New England, 2014).

“Sky Ships: A History of the Airship in the United States Navy,” William Althoff (Airships.net);

“The Goodyear Blimp, Today and Yesterday” (Airships.net);

“Washington’s Blimp Snowstorm of Dec. 4-5, 1921,” Ambrose, Kevin (Washington Post, December 5, 2012);

Admiral William A. Moffett: Architect of Naval Aviation, William F. Trimble (Naval Institute Press, 2007).

*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com; he is also on the Board of Directors of Humanities DC. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2016 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.

 

 

 

 

 

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