Little Bits of History

Early Aviation

Posted in History by patriciahysell on September 4, 2014
USS Shenandoah's final flight

USS Shenandoah‘s final flight

September 4, 1923: USS Shenandoah takes her maiden flight. She was the first of four US Navy rigid airships (blimps). Her original designation was FA-1 which stood for Fleet Airship Number One. It was then changed to ZR-1. She was built at Lakehurst Naval Air Station between 1922-23 in Hangar No.1, the only hangar large enough to accommodate the airship. Lakehurst had been used for Navy blimps for quite some time, but this was the first rigid airship the Navy attempted. She was 680 feet long with a maximum diameter of almost 79 feet. Her height was slightly over 93 feet and she was powered by 300 hp eight-cylinder Packard gasoline engines. Her top speed was 60 knots or 69 mph.

Shenandoah’s design was based on the Zeppelin bomber L-49 (also called LZ-96) which was built in 1917. Many new technologies were used in the construction phase, including many different building materials. To inflate the airbag, Shenandoah was the first airship to use helium rather than hydrogen which gave it a huge safety measure. Helium was scarce and it used much of the world’s reserve to fill the 2.1 million cubic foot volume. Helium sold for $55 per thousand cubic feet and was considered too expensive to simply vent, so the gas powered engines were used with condensers used to capture water vapor to preserve buoyancy.

Today marked her maiden flight. She was christened on October 10 by Mrs. Edwin Denby, the wife of the Secretary of the Navy. She was named for Denby’s home in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She was designed for reconnaissance work modeled on the German use of airships during World War I. Her original flights in September and October were test trials for long range flights and airworthiness in rain, fog, and poor visibility. In July 1924, the Patoka became the first modified ship to handle aircraft when a mooring mast and other modifications were made so the airship could moor and replenish supplies. In October, Shenandoah made a trip from Lakehurst to California and on to Washington to test newly erected mooring masts, the first such trip by a rigid airship.

On September 2, 1925, Shenandoah left Lakehurst on a promotional flight to the Midwest which would include flyovers for forty cities and visiting a variety of state fairs. Then next morning, while passing over Ohio, she encountered a line of thunderstorms and turbulence. This was the 57th and last flight of the ship. She was caught in a severe updraft which carried the airship beyond the pressure limits of the helium gas bags. The ship was torn apart and crashed in several pieces near Caldwell, Ohio. Fourteen members of the crew were killed and there were 29 survivors who managed to ride the pieces down to Earth. Many of those who survived were later killed with the loss of the Akron.

Flight is the only truly new sensation than men have achieved in modern history. – James Dickey

Flying without feathers is not easy; my wings have no feathers. – Titus Maccius Plautus

Pilots are a rare kind of human. They leave the ordinary surface of the word, to purify their soul in the sky, and they come down to earth, only after receiving the communion of the infinite. – Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra

Bicycling is the nearest approximation I know to the flight of birds. The airplane simply carries a man on its back like an obedient Pegasus; it gives him no wings of his own. – Louis J. Helle, Jr.

Also on this day: Ginger or Mary Ann? – In 1967, the last Gilligan’s Island show is aired.
Smile – In 1888, George Eastman patented his camera.
Seven Golds – In 1973, Mark Spitz won his seventh Olympic gold medal.
The South – In 1950, the first Southern 500 was held.

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