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USS Shenandoah (ZR-1)
Uss shenandoah airship.jpg
USS Shenandoah
Career (United States)
Name: USS Shenandoah
Laid down: 24 June 1922
Launched: 20 August 1923
Christened: 10 October 1923
Maiden voyage: 4 September 1923
Fate: Torn apart and crashed in a storm on 3 September 1925.
General characteristics
Type: Airship
Tonnage: 77,500 lb (35,200 kg)
Length: 680 ft (207.26 m)
Beam: 78 ft 9 in (24.00 m) (maximum diameter)
Height: 93 ft 2 in (28.4 m)
Propulsion: 300 hp (220 kW) eight-cylinder Packard gasoline engines
Speed: 60 kn (69 mph; 110 km/h)
Range: 5,000 mi (4,300 nmi; 8,000 km)
Capacity: Useful lift 53,600 lb (24,300 kg)
Nominal gas volume: 2,100,000 ft (59,465 m³) (at 95% inflation)
Complement: 25
Armament: 6 × 0.30 in (7.62 mm) Lewis machine guns
8 × 500 lb (230 kg) bombs (total bomb load; 3,000 lb (1,400 kg))
U.S. Historic district
Official name Shenandoah Crash Sites
Designated 25 July 1989
Reference no. 89000942[1]
Coordinates Site #1: 39°50′21″N 81°32′22″W / 39.83917°N 81.53944°W / 39.83917; -81.53944Coordinates: 39°50′21″N 81°32′22″W / 39.83917°N 81.53944°W / 39.83917; -81.53944
Site #2: 39°50′7″N 81°32′46″W / 39.83528°N 81.54611°W / 39.83528; -81.54611
Site #3: 39°44′29″N 81°35′36″W / 39.74139°N 81.59333°W / 39.74139; -81.59333

USS Shenandoah was the first of four United States Navy rigid airships. It was built in 1922–1923 at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, and first flew in September 1923. It developed the Navy's experience with rigid airships, and made the first crossing of North America by airship. On the 57th flight,[2] Shenandoah was torn apart in a squall line over Ohio in 1925.[3]

Design and construction[edit | edit source]

Shenandoah was originally designated FA-1, for 'Fleet Airship Number One' but this was changed to ZR-1. The airship was 680 ft (207.26 m) long[4] and weighed 36 short tons (33 t). It had a range of 5,000 mi (4,300 nmi; 8,000 km), and could reach speeds of 70 mph (61 kn; 110 km/h). Shenandoah was assembled at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1922–1923, in Hangar No. 1, the only hangar large enough to accommodate the ship; her parts were fabricated at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia. NAS Lakehurst had served as a base for Navy blimps for some time, but Shenandoah was the first rigid airship to join the fleet.

Construction of USS Shenandoah in 1923, showing the framework of a rigid airship.

The design was based on Zeppelin bomber L-49 (LZ-96), built in 1917.[5] L-49 was a lightened "height climber", designed for altitude at the expense of other qualities. The design was found insufficient and a number of the features of newer Zeppelins were used, as well as some structural improvements.[5] The structure was built from a new alloy of aluminum and copper known as duralumin. Girders were fabricated at the Naval Aircraft Factory.[4] Whether the changes introduced into the original design of L-49 played a part in Shenandoah later breaking up is a matter of debate. An outer cover of high-quality cotton cloth was sewn, laced or taped to the duralumin frame and painted with aluminum dope.[4]

The gas cells were made of goldbeater's skins, one of the most gas-impervious materials known at the time.[5] Named for their use in beating and separating gold leaf,[5] goldbeater's skins were made from the outer membrane of the large intestines of cattle.[5] The membranes were washed and scraped to remove fat and dirt, and then kept in a solution of water and glycerine in preparation for application to the rubberized cotton fabric providing the strength of the gas cells.[5] The membranes were wrung out by hand to remove the water-glycerine storage solution and then rubber-cemented to the cotton fabric and finally given a light coat of varnish.[5] The 20 gas cells within the airframe were filled to about 85% of capacity at normal barometric pressure.[6] Each gas cell had a spring-loaded relief valve and manual valves operated from the control car.[4]

As the first rigid airship to use helium rather than hydrogen, Shenandoah had a significant edge in safety over previous airships. Helium was relatively scarce at the time, and the Shenandoah used much of the world's reserves just to fill its 2.1 million-cubic-foot volume.[4] Los Angeles—the next rigid airship to enter Navy service—was at first filled with the helium from Shenandoah until more could be procured.

Shenandoah was powered by 300 hp (220 kW), eight-cylinder Packard gasoline engines. The first frame of Shenandoah was erected by 24 June 1922; on 20 August 1923, the completed airship was floated free of the ground. Helium cost $55 per thousand cubic feet at the time, and was considered too expensive to simply vent to the atmosphere to compensate for the weight of fuel consumed by the gasoline engines.[2] Neutral buoyancy was preserved by installing condensers to capture the water vapor in the engine exhaust.[2]

Flight test run, steep angle docking at St. Louis on 2 October 1923.

After docking at St. Louis, Cmdr McCrary stepped out to meet Adm Moffet and Mayor Kiel; shown still inside the Control Car are Anton Heinen (German test pilot and consultant in the construction of the ZR1) and Cmdr Ralph D. Weyerbacher (design/build).

It was christened on 10 October 1923 by Mrs. Edwin Denby, wife of the Secretary of the Navy, and commissioned on the same day with Commander Frank R. McCrary in command. Mrs Denby named the airship after her home in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and the word shenandoah was then believed to be a native American word meaning "daughter of stars".[7]

Early Naval service[edit | edit source]

USS Shenandoah took to the sky for the first time on 4 September 1923.

Shenandoah was designed for fleet reconnaissance work of the type carried out by German naval airships in World War I. Her precommissioning trials included long range flights during September and early October 1923, to test her airworthiness in rain, fog and poor visibility. On 27 October, Shenandoah celebrated Navy Day with a flight down the Shenandoah Valley and returned to Lakehurst that night by way of Washington and Baltimore, where crowds gathered to see the new airship in the beams of searchlights.

ZR-1's bow following the January storm.

At this time, Rear Admiral William Moffett—Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics and staunch advocate of the airship—was discussing the possibility of using Shenandoah to explore the Arctic. He felt such a program would produce valuable weather data as well as experience in cold-weather operations. With her endurance and ability to fly at low speeds, the airship was thought to be well-suited to such work. President Calvin Coolidge approved Moffett's proposal; but Shenandoahs upper tail fin covering ripped during a gale on 16 January 1924, and the sudden roll tore out her mooring tube from the Lakehurst mast. Damage to the nose deflated the first gas bag and holed the second.[3] Zeppelin test pilot Anton Heinen rode out the storm and landed safely while the airship was being blown backwards.[8] A period of repair was needed, and the Arctic expedition was scrapped.

Shenandoah's repairs were completed in May, and the summer of 1924 was devoted to work with her powerplant and radio equipment to prepare for her duty with the fleet. On August, it reported for duty with the Scouting Fleet and took part in tactical exercises. Shenandoah succeeded in discovering the "enemy" force as planned but lost contact with it in foul weather. Technical difficulties and lack of support facilities in the fleet forced her to depart the operating area ahead of time to return to Lakehurst. Although this marred the exercises as far as airship reconnaissance went, it emphasized the need for advanced bases and maintenance ships if lighter-than-air craft were to take any part in operations of this kind.

Flight across North America[edit | edit source]

Shenandoah moored to the oiler Patoka.

In July 1924, the oiler Patoka put in at Norfolk Navy Yard for extensive modifications to become the Navy's first airship tender. An experimental mooring mast some 125 ft (38 m) above the water was constructed; additional accommodations both for the crew of Shenandoah and for the men who would handle and supply the airship were added; facilities for the helium, gasoline, and other supplies necessary for Shenandoah were built; as well as handling and stowage facilities for three seaplanes. Shenandoah engaged in a short series of mooring experiments with Patoka to determine the practicality of mobile fleet support of scouting airships. The first successful mooring was made on 8 August .[2] During October 1924, Shenandoah flew from Lakehurst to California and on to Washington to test newly erected mooring masts. This was the first flight of a rigid airship across North America.

Later Naval career[edit | edit source]

The year 1925 began with nearly six months of maintenance and ground test work. Shenandoah did not take to the air until 26 June, when it began preparations for summer operations with the fleet. In July and August, it again operated with the Scouting Fleet, successfully performing scouting problems and being towed by Patoka while moored to that ship's mast.

Crash of the Shenandoah[edit | edit source]

USS Shenandoah Wrack.jpg

The front section of the wreck.

Overview of Crash Site #1

On 2 September 1925, Shenandoah departed Lakehurst on a promotional flight to the Midwest which would include flyovers of 40 cities and visits to state fairs. Testing of a new mooring mast at Dearborn, Michigan was included in the schedule. While passing through an area of thunderstorms and turbulence over Ohio early in the morning of 3 September, during its 57th flight,[2] the airship was caught in a violent updraft that carried it beyond the pressure limits of its helium gas bags. It was torn apart in the turbulence and crashed in several pieces near Caldwell, Ohio. Fourteen of Shenandoah's crew—including her commanding officer, Commander Zachary Lansdowne—were killed. This included every member of the crew of the control cabin, with the exception of Lieutenant Anderson, who barely escaped before it detached from the ship; two men who went through holes in the hull; and several mechanics who fell with the engines. There were twenty-nine survivors, who succeeded in riding three sections of the airship to earth. The largest group was eighteen men who made it out of the stern after it rolled into a valley. Four others survived a crash landing of the central section. The remaining seven were in the bow section which Commander (later Vice Admiral) Charles E. Rosendahl navigated as a free balloon. In this group was Anderson who—until he was roped in by the others—straddled the catwalk over a hole. A number of those crew who survived would later be killed in the loss of the Akron.

ZR-1 at the mooring mast.

The Shenandoah Crash Sites are located in the hillsides of Noble County. Site No. 1, in Buffalo Township, surrounded the Gamary farmhouse, which lay beneath the initial break-up. An early fieldstone and a second, recent granite marker identify where Zachary Lansdowne's body was found. Site No. 2 (where the stern came to rest) is a half-mile southwest of Site No. 1 across Interstate 77 in Noble Township. The rough outline of the stern is marked with a series of concrete blocks, and a sign marking the site is visible from the freeway. Site No. 3 is approximately six miles southwest in Sharon Township at the northern edge of State Route 78 on the part of the old Nichols farm where the nose of the Shenandoah's bow was secured to trees. Although the trees have been cut down, a semi-circular gravel drive surrounds their stumps and a small granite marker commemorates the crash. The Nichols house was later destroyed by fire.[9]

Two schools of thought developed about the cause of the crash. One theory is that the gas cells over-expanded as the ship rose, due to Lansdowne’s decision to remove the 10 automatic release valves, and that the expanding cells damaged the framework of the airship and led to its structural failure.

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

Thousands of people flocked to the wreckage which was then heavily looted, with the logbooks and most of the ship's fabric stolen. Official inquiry brought to public attention the fact that the fatal flight had been made under protest by Commander Lansdowne (a native of Greenville, Ohio), who warned of the violent weather conditions which were prevalent in the area and common to Ohio in late summer. His pleas for a cancellation of the flight only led to a postponement. His superiors were keen to publicize airship technology, and justify the huge cost of the airship to the taxpayers. So, as Lansdowne's widow consistently maintained at the inquiry, publicity rather than prudence won the day.[10] This event was the trigger for Army Colonel Billy Mitchell to heavily criticize the leadership of both the Army and the Navy, leading directly to his court-martial for insubordination and the end of his military career. Heinen, according to the Daily Telegraph put the blame on the removal of safety valves, saying he would not have flown on her "for a million dollars".[11]

Ultimately a positive result of the disaster was that future airships were better built. Hulls were strengthened, control cabins were built into the keels rather than suspended from cables, and engine power was increased. More attention was also paid to weather forecasting.[12] When the U.S. used blimps in World War II and the Cold War, these improvements may have prevented other crashes.

Memorials[edit | edit source]

Several memorials remain near the crash site. There is another memorial at Moffett Field, California, and a small private museum in Ava, Ohio.[13]

The Noble Local School District—which services the area where Shenandoah crashed—has named its elementary, junior high, and high schools after Shenandoah. Their sports teams are named "The Zeps."[14] Additionally, a truck stop located about 15 mi (24 km) away in Old Washington was named Shenandoah Plaza after the airship. The truck stop has since closed and has been torn down.[15]

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "NPS Focus". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. http://nrhp.focus.nps.gov. Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Hayward (1978) p.67
  3. 3.0 3.1 Hayward (1978) p.66
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Hayward (1978) p.64
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 Hayward (1978) p.62
  6. Hayward (1978) p.63
  7. "America's Forgotten Airship Disaster", p.21
  8. Flight 1924 p102
  9. Shenandoah Crash Sites, National Park Service, n.d. Retrieved 2012-08-05.
  10. Death of a Dirigible www.americanheritage.com
  11. Flight 1925 p580
  12. Shenandoah Crash Site www.nps.gov
  13. Shenandoah Airship Disaster www.roadsideamerica.com
  14. "Noble Local School District". Noble Local School District. http://www.gozeps.org/. Retrieved 2009-06-24. 
  15. Picture of the Shenandoah Plaza

Further reading[edit | edit source]

  • This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.
  • MacSwords, J. R. "15 dead in blimp disaster: lightening flash, terrific storm; Shenandoah wages losing battle with elements." The Times Recorder, Zanesville, Ohio 4 Sep 1925
  • Wood, Junius B., "Seeing America from the 'Shenandoah'", National Geographic Magazine, January 1925.
  • Ill Wind: The Naval Airship Shenandoah In Noble County, Ohio. Gray, Lewis. Gateway Press: Baltimore, 1989
  • Robinson, Douglas H., and Charles L. Keller. "Up Ship!": U.S. Navy Rigid Airships 1919–1935. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1982. ISBN 0-87021-738-0
  • Keirns, Aaron J. "America's Airship Disaster": The Crash of the USS Shenandoah Howard, Ohio: Little River Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9647800-5-7
  • Hayward, John T., VADM USN "Comment and Discussion" United States Naval Institute Proceedings August 1978
  • "The Shenandoah Disaster" Flight 10 September 1925 p580
  • "The Shenandoah Adventure" A Brief Official Account of the Accident Flight 21 February 1924 p101-102

External links[edit | edit source]

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