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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Last Flight of the Airship USS Shenandoah

    On September 3, 1925, the airship USS Shenandoah crashed in the hills of Southeast Ohio. Fourteen crew members were killed, the wreckage was torn apart by local looters, and the whole disaster foreshadowed the beginning of the end for dirigibles.
      The Shenandoah was the first of four Navy rigid airships. It was constructed during 1922–23 at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, and first flew in September 1923. It made the first crossing of North America by airship. On the 57th flight Shenandoah was destroyed in a squall line over Ohio in September of 1925. 
     In the 1920s, dirigibles and airships populated the skies alongside airplanes. European countries had long used airships for military purposes, so in 1923 the US Navy launched the nation’s first rigid dirigible, the USS Shenandoah. The Shenandoah would be the first dirigible in the world to use helium, instead of dangerous and highly volatile hydrogen. When completed, the Shenandoah was housed in Lakehurst, New Jersey. 
     The Shenandoah gained notability in 1924 when it completed a transcontinental flight. Due to this well-publicized adventure, the airship, once conceived as a scouting vessel, quickly became more useful to the Navy as a promotional tool. The Shenandoah was scheduled to spend the late summer of 1925 visiting state fairs in the Midwest. It was a mission that apparently did not sit well with the airship’s commanding officer. 
     Lieutenant Commander Zachary Lansdowne was from Greenville, Ohio and was aware that late summer brought sudden, severe and unpredictable weather to the Great Lakes region, and when he icded his concerns to his superior officers, they were only partially heeded; the Navy delayed the flight to September, but refused to cancel it. 
     On September 3, 1925, as the Shenandoah started on the publicity tour, it ran into a powerful squall line that tore it in half. Due to the violent destruction of the Shenandoah while it was still airborne, the ship’s crash site is actually three crash sites. The stern section crashed near Ava, Ohio, the bow section was blown along the wind until it landed near Sharon, Ohio over 2 miles away. The ship’s control car fell near Ava on what is now Ohio State Route 821. Forty-three officers and men were aboard. Fourteen died. 

     Almost immediately after the crash locals started looting the crash site. Two weeks after the crash, Justice Department agents and prohibition agents conducted a series of raids in West Virginia and Ohio to recover stolen artifacts from the Shenandoah. Among the recovered article were personal luggage of several members of the ship’s crew and a cap said to have been worn by Commander Zachary Lansdowne. 

     The Shenandoah crash would be the first of several crashes that would ultimately push the United States, and the world, away from lighter-than-air flight and toward sole reliance on planes for air travel. In 1933, the USS Akron, another navy airship, crashed in a storm off the coast of New Jersey, killing 73 people. Two years later, another storm crashed Akron’s sister ship USS Macon, killing two crew members. Two years after that, the Hindenburg exploded over New Jersey, killing 36 people and effectively ending the common use of airships.
     At 3:30 am on September 3, 1925, Lieutenant Commander Lansdowne, was worried because it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep the 690-foot airship steady in the mounting turbulence over southeastern Ohio. 
     Charles B. Rosendahl, who had just come on duty as navigator, asked their position, but Lansdowne didn't because he was watching the altimeter and the bubble on the inclination scale bouncing back and forth crazily as the dirigible rose and fell in gigantic columns of air. After checking the chart, Rosendahl was surprised at how little progress they had made during the stormy night. Their position was somewhere near Cambridge, Ohio. Their airspeed was 65 miles per hour, but the estimated ground speed was zero! 
     Aviation Pilot Franklin Masters was on duty and was fighting the control wheel that controlled the giant tail fin. Masters informed Rosendahl that they had encountered the squall line an hour earlier and were still in it. 
     Rosendahl knew Lansdowne was the Navy’s most experienced officer in lighter-than-air craft and how he had done his utmost for more than a year to discourage the secretary of the Navy from foolishly scheduling dirigible flights over the American Midwest, where they were frequently at the mercy of unpredictable local storms just like this one. He also sensed that the Captain was worried about this storm 
     In the radio shack, Chief Radio Engineer George C. Schnitzer had the best radio equipment available; it had a range of 3.000 miles, but trying to pick up weather reports was useless because of the static in the atmosphere. 
     For the next hour Lansdowne and Rosendahl tried to keep the ship on the proper heading at an altitude of approximately 3,000 feet, but it was useless. Even with its six 300-hp engines at full throttle, the Shenandoah barely responded to the controls. It's fabric-covered frame, aluminum girders and equipment came loose and was making a terrible racket. 
     At 4:30 am Pilot Masters was relieved and as he made his way to the bunk room he saw that the interior framework twisting and straining so violently that the dirigible’s silk skin was alternately tight as a drum, then wrinkled . Meanwhile, fuel drums had snapped their cables and were rolling against the delicate skeleton. From his post in the gondola of engine No. 3, Aviation Machinist’s Mate Ralph Jones sensed trouble mostly because of the constant erratic signals coming from the control car. 
     They should have been over mid-Pennsylvania, but instead, they were battling terrific winds over farmland in Noble County, Ohio that belonged to Andy Gamara and his neighbors. 
     At 5 am Gamara’s wife woke him to say she thought she had been hearing airplane engines overhead for the last half hour. Gamara expected the sound top fade away, but when it didn't he and his wife got dressed and went outside to have a look. During lightning flashes they could barely make out the Shenandoah. 
     In the control cabin at 5:25 am the ship was between 2,600 and 2,700 feet when, without warning, it ran into a gigantic current of warm air rising and the altimeter registered an ascent of 2,100 feet. The dirigible was careening heavily to the port side with its nose pointing skyward until it looked as though it might soon stand on its tail. The ship kept climbing out of control, then for about three minutes they were at around 4,600 feet and were almost on an even keel.
     By 4,800 feet they were slowly climbing, but everything looked under control.  Then they started climbing again and they couldn’t check the vertical ascent. When the air inside the control cabin suddenly changed from cold to warm, moist and heavy, Rosendahl realized they were caught in a powerful mass of rising air. 
     By this time they were at 6,200 feet. And, their control valves that bled off hydrogen began getting stuck. Rosendahl shouted that they had to get the nose down or they would break up. 
     The aluminum girders that made up the frame had already started to twist out of shape from the strain. The Cpatain gave orders to jettison all water and fuel possible to lighten their tail. As Rosendahl ventured inside of the dirigible he heard unbelievable noise: a sound like the roar of surf, sharp snapping noises, straining and squeals. It was then he realized they were doomed. 
     At 7,200 feet the airship showed no signs of responding to any control inputs. Lansdowne then ordered that all men turn to and start manually turning valves releasing hydrogen to get the nose down. Once outside the cabin he heard the helmsman shout that the control cable had snapped and then there was a tearing, snapping noise and when he looked back, he saw the control cabin had fallen off the ship and plunging to earth. 
     The aluminum girders started buckling and there was a high-pitched, ripping scream as the fabric started tearing to shreds and the airship was simply torn apart. As Rosendahl and another crewman watched, the entire bow section in which they clinging broke away from the rest of the airship and started to float away. 
     At 5:35 am Aviation Machinist’s Mate Ralph Jones sensed the entire ship was falling. Opening the hatch on the engine gondola where he was stationed, he was greeted with a terrible sight...entire nose of the dirigible had completely disappeared and above the aircraft was in shreds. It was light enough for him to see patches of farmland as the ground rushed up at great speed. 
     At the same time, other crew member also realized the ship had disintegrated and the also could see the ground rushing up; all the could do was hope there was enough gas left in the bags to let them down safely. 
     Thirteen men had been killed in the control cabin, eight were floating in space in the cleanly sheared off bow section and 17 more were in the main part of the ship. 
     That main part of the ship was dropping fast, blown along by the wind at about 20 knots as it began to skim the treetops. On the ground Gamara and his wife had watched the gondola separate and the rest of the ship start falling.
     Trapped in the gondola which was still attached to the main framework Jones had no way to escape. But, the engine was still running and he hoped the forward motion might give some lift to the doomed ship. Then the gondola glided over some bushes, plowed into the ground and somehow Jones miraculously survived. 
     Those aft had a harder time. They hung on tightly and watched trees whizzing past and when the dangling engines struck the ground and wrenched loose, the momentarily lightened main section rose 100 feet into the air and drifted down through a clump of trees. 
     It was 6 am, cold and rainy when the survivors, none of them badly injured limped onto a knoll where farmer Gamara arrived and advised them where the gondola had landed. Lieutenant Richardson then headed for the control car knowing what he would find. 
     While all this was going on, the nose section was still about 1,500 or 2,000 feet up with eight people in it, including Rosendahl who ordered that the gas be bled off by hand and that the crew rig trailing lines that would, hopefully, catch hold of something on the ground. He estimated their forward speed to be around 30 miles per hour. 
     By 6:10 am they were only 200 feet above the ground and what was left of the ship was bucking like crazy. Looking down at the trailing lines, Rosendahl saw saw what he thought to be a piece of equipmen,t but it was a man swinging not more than 50 feet above the ground.  Then the whole nose section flipped upward in an air current, gyrating wildly, and the man at the end of the line began spinning in ever-tightening circles. It was one of the lieutenants who thought maybe he could get low enough to skid to the ground and snag the trailing end of the line around a tree trunk. Then the line broke and the lieutenant was flung to his death. 
     At 6:32 am two walking along the road near the town of Sharon two miners saw what seemed like a dirigible coming in for a landing, but then they noticed that most of the ship was missing. For a minute the ship slowed, hovered directly over them at about 75 feet. A man shouted downward telling them to secure the trailing lines to anything they could. The miners failed, got tangled in the ropes and were drug along the ground for 200 yards before they got loose.
     A farmer finally managed to seize one of the trailing lines after the section smashed into his out buildings and ran around a large tree with it. When they finally landed, one man broke his leg and shoulder; the others were uninjured.
     The date was September 3. Captain Lansdowne was to transfer to sea duty on the 15th. Navy officials were strongly censured for their irresponsibility in risking lives and equipment in dangerous weather conditions. Army Lt. Col. Billy Mitchell — already in trouble because of his criticism of military leaders — made a statement claiming the Navy and War departments were guilty of ‘incompetency, criminal neglect and almost treasonable administration of the National Defense; he would face a court-martial as a result of his comment).

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