I listened to a story on NPR this week, about the finding of the wreck of the Macon, one of the great navigatable dirigibles that for a time – or so the great minds of the early 20th century assumed – would give a run for their money to aircraft. For quite a long time, beginning with the Montgolfier brothers, it was assumed that various forms of lighter-than-air constructions were the wave of the future – not those fragile little mosquitoes that were the prototypical airplanes. From just before WWI, and for some time after, it looked like dirigibles would be the kings of commercial aviation, the seas patrolled, and the continents spanned commercially by luxuriously outfitted air-liners. Images of great silver airships are ubiquitous in commercial art, and futuristic visions throughout the 20ies and 30ies; the Empire State building, after all, was topped with a mast from which it was fondly hoped to moor dirigibles. (The thought of disembarking from a passenger liner moored there, and tripping merrily along some kind of walkway down to the observation deck is enough to give any acrophobic a case of the screaming willies, though, which may be why it never came to pass.)

The Germans had developed such rigid-framed airships late in the 19th century, and used them extensively during WWI, first as bombers, notably targeting London and Paris. They were huge lumbering craft, capable of traveling great distances and staying aloft for many hours. Alas, they were also slow and un- agile, which made them splendid targets in offensive operations – and they also burned spectacularly when struck, since they were usually filled with hydrogen gas. Although such aircraft with a variety of types of frames, or no frames at all went on being used throughout the war, they were more utilized for observation, or on ocean-going patrols. But when the war was over, it looked like the day for long-distance rigid-framed aircraft had dawned.

The British built a series of them, one of which was the first to make a trans-Atlantic round trip, in slightly less than 200 hours, in 1919. That craft, and its successor both crashed and burned spectacularly, as did an Italian-manufactured dirigible purchased at around that time by the US Navy. In 1923, the Navy built an entirely rigid-framed aircraft designed to be lifted by helium, the Shenandoah, the first such entirely built in the United States. Two years later, while on a publicity tour in the Midwest, the Shenandoah was caught in a violent thunderstorm and ripped into three pieces. The command cabin dropped like a rock, killing all in it, including the Shenandoah’s commander, but the stern and bow sections floated down more gently. Crewmen in the bow section called out to a farmer on the ground below to grab ropes trailing from the nose and tie them to a tree, and when everyone had slid to safety, brought shotguns for the survivors to use to puncture the helium cells.

Another dirigible manufactured in Germany and delivered to the US as part of war reparations was renamed the Los Angeles; fitted out as a passenger liner, with Pullman staterooms and bunks, it made over 200 uneventful trips, mostly to Puerto Rico and South America. An Italian semi-rigid airship called the Norge, fitted out by a scientific expedition flew from Spitsbergen, Norway to Teller Alaska by way of the North Pole in 1926: it would have been the very first aircraft to fly over the North Pole, but for Richard Byrd in an airplane, three days earlier. the Norge, and part of it’s crew was subsequently lost on another flight over the Pole, two years later.

But enthusiasm ran high during the mid-Twenties, regardless. Progress would always be a little bumpy, seemed to be the prevailing mood, and all these problems would be worked out, eventually. The American company Goodyear was granted certain patent rights related to dirigible construction, and began work on two more dirigibles for the US Navy, the Akron and Macon. They would be essentially flying aircraft carriers, capable of launching and retrieving four or five single-engine patrol airplanes from a hanger-bay equipped with a trapeze-like winch.

In the meantime, the British government launched a great project to build two enormous dirigibles, the R100 and the R101, which would be the largest in the world with accommodations for 100 passengers. The Germany Zeppelin firm had begun to recover enough to launch an enormous airship named after its founder. The Graf Zeppelin would be the first airship to circumnavigate the globe, and with it’s successors, partake in regular scheduled transatlantic passenger service. It was hoped that the British R 100 and R 101 would similarly expand passenger service: the R 100 flew to Canada and back, with no other event that being caught in a storm. On return, it was put into a hanger, pending return of the R 101 from it’s maiden voyage to India. But the R 101, plagued by technical problems and forced to fly too low in compensation, clipped a church steeple and crashed in flames near Beauvais, France early in 1930, with the loss of nearly all on board. The British government quietly pulled the plug on subsequent airship construction; so later did the US Congress. The Akron, launched with great hopes in 1931 was caught in a violent storm off New Jersey two years later, with the loss of all but a handful of its crew. The Macon, put into service at the same time was also caught in a storm, this one off the California coast near Monterey in 1935. Most of the Macon’s crew survived, and the wreckage of it and the patrol aircraft it carried, has just recently been located on the sea-bed.

The spectacular loss of the Hindenburg, two years after the crash of the Macon, only added to public misgivings, although the argument has been made that the great airships were doomed, by increasing competition from commercial airplane services and the coming of a new war, where conventional air craft would be of far more use. But the fairly constant series of spectacular airship disasters probably darkened the public and the political view, too. In the long run, airplanes may have been as much at a hazard, the development of air services just as rocky, and the cumulative casualties just as many. But there was enormous prestige placed in those few great dirigible projects, and great expectations by the public made the various disasters all the more public and crushing. It would have been as if over half the Mercury or Gemini flights launched by NASA had failed spectacularly in mid-flight. No matter what the prestige involved with dirigibles, or the lofty goals, a lot of people just quietly decided it just cost too much, even if it wasn’t a technological dead end in the first place. Now there are only a few places where you can stand, and imagine a great silver craft, hovering overhead, or being winched into a huge hanger: this great hanger at Moffit Field, near San Jose is one of them. And now the underwater wreck of the Macon may be the largest piece of interwar aviation history still identifiable on earth.

Reader Kaj added this comment, which was deleted in in my haste to clear out an accumulation of 30o auto-spam-comments this morning 9-29-06

“Admiral Byrds claims of being first to the pole by air are at best a bit
tenuous. The first undoubted crossing was by Norge, incidentally making Roald
Amundsen(and crew) the first, and the first to be on both poles.
I would have liked to refer to Wikipedia, but their page on admiral Byrd has
been used by hollow earth conspirazoids, claiming Byrd found the entrance to the
inner earth(!).
So much for Wikipedia credibility. ” – Sgt Mom

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