They Sailed the Skies

by J. Gordon Vaeth, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2005, $24.95.

J. Gordon Vaeth’s record during World War II as intelligence officer for the commander of Fleet Airships Atlantic, his term as historian and officer in charge of the naval airship museum at Lakehurst, N.J., and his distinguished career as an airship specialist after the war speak volumes about his knowledge of lighter-than-air aviation. Vaeth is also the author of seven previously published books on the subject.

They Sailed the Skies starts with the very beginning of naval lighter-than-air flight, the DN-1, the first airship of the U.S. Navy, and ends with Strato-Lab V, which on May 4, 1961, reached a peak altitude of 113,740 feet, the highest ever attained by a manned balloon.

Do you know why nonrigid airships are called blimps? What about the important function toilet paper had in the management of the balloon when in the air? What were the original gasbags made of? Did you ever hear of “Galloping Kilos” and their important function in rigid airships? Throughout Vaeth’s book, there are dozens of entertaining particulars such as these.

Vaeth covers the technical points of air racing thoroughly, but does not bring into focus the trials and successes that accompanied so many of the pioneer endeavors. I would have liked to read more about the problems faced by balloonists when their airships came down in unexpected and inaccessible regions—surely a frequent occurrence—or the difficulties of piloting a dirigible across the oceans.


Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.