Port engines, up flank speed!’ It was 3:30 a.m. on September 3, 1925, and in the control cabin of the huge cigar-shaped dirigible Shenandoah its skipper, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Zachary Lansdowne, was worried. It was proving increasingly difficult to keep the 690-foot airship steady in the mounting turbulence over southeastern Ohio. ‘Starboard engines, hold standard,’ called Lansdowne. ‘Valve cells four and five.’

The main section of the U.S. Navy’s airship Shenandoah lies crumpled amid the rolling hills near Ava, Ohio, on the morning of September 3, 1925, surrounded by onlookers. Out of a crew of 43, 29 men would manage to survive Shenandoah’s last flight, in part because the airship’s gas cells had been filled with helium rather than explosive hydrogen. (National Archives)
The main section of the U.S. Navy’s airship Shenandoah lies crumpled amid the rolling hills near Ava, Ohio, on the morning of September 3, 1925, surrounded by onlookers. Out of a crew of 43, 29 men would manage to survive Shenandoah’s last flight, in part because the airship’s gas cells had been filled with helium rather than explosive hydrogen. (National Archives)

The airship had set out from Lakehurst, N.J., on a goodwill mission to the Midwestern states the previous day. The plan was to attend an airshow in St. Louis, Mo., and then make stops in Minneapolis, Minn., and Dearborn, Mich., before heading back to the East Coast. Forty-three officers and men were aboard.’This looks like a nasty one, Sir,’ commented Lt. Cmdr. Charles B. Rosendahl, who had just come on duty as navigator. ‘What’s our position now?’ Lansdowne did not answer. His eyes were on the altimeter needle and the bubble on the inclination scale. Both were shuttling back and forth crazily as the dirigible rose and fell in gigantic columns of air. Glancing at the chart, Rosendahl was surprised to see how little progress they had made during the stormy night. Their position was somewhere near Cambridge, Ohio. Although the dirigible’s airspeed was 65 miles per hour, its estimated ground speed had plunged to zero.

Rosendahl stumbled toward the wheel position, steadying himself with grab rails along the way. Aviation Pilot Franklin Masters was on duty, the muscles in his arms bulging as he threw his weight against the tiny wheel that controlled endless yards of silk fabric in the giant tail fin. Masters glanced at the officer, and then said curtly: ‘Line squall, sir. We picked her up like a hot penny an hour ago. She won’t shake.’

Despite the chaos outside the airship’s windows, there was no confusion in the cabin — a thin, streamlined shell of aluminum about the size of a Pullman car that dangled underneath the dirigible’s tremendous helium-filled bag. Every man was at his post, deftly working controls and other equipment as ordered by the skipper’s crisp commands. Rosendahl, however, was experienced enough to detect the strain underlying those orders. He knew Lansdowne as the Navy’s most experienced officer in lighter-than-air craft, a veteran who had seen service on many long-range trips aboard Shenandoah since it was launched in September 1923, and who had also crossed the Atlantic in the ill-fated British airship R-34. But he was also aware of the skipper’s healthy respect for the violent storms that often churn the air over the area in Ohio where Lansdowne had been born 37 years before. He remembered too that Lansdowne 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. This was just such a squall.

In the radio shack, Chief Radio Engineer George C. Schnitzer was rapidly getting tin ears. Shenandoah was equipped with the latest wireless equipment, described as ‘the most powerful in the Navy,’ with a range of 3,000 miles. But for all the good it did him it might as well have been an amateur’s crystal set just then, as Schnitzer tried desperately to pick up weather reports through the static in the atmosphere and the cabin’s creaks and groans. ‘All this for a lousy 50-cent piece,’ he muttered to himself. ‘This is one hop I wish Manley had won.’ Rosendahl, who had stepped inside the radio shack to check bearings and weather reports, smiled grimly at him. He knew that Schnitzer and his alternate, Radioman H.N. Manley, who had equal air credits just before the airship left Lakehurst on Wednesday, had flipped a coin to see who would make the trip. To the winner it meant 50 cents an hour extra pay for coveted airtime.

For the next hour Lansdowne and Rosendahl tried vainly to keep the ship on a proper heading at an altitude of approximately 3,000 feet. It was useless. Even with its six 300-hp Packard engines at full throttle, Shenandoah had negative maneuverability; it responded sluggishly to the controls and bucked and bounced like a Ford Model T on a rough road. Inside, Shenandoah‘s taut fabric-covered frame, aluminum girders and equipment wrenched loose, clanked and moaned, echoing as if trapped inside a gigantic drum.

At 4:30 a.m. Masters was relieved of duty at the wheel and made his way topside and back along the keel toward the bunkroom. It was a perilous trip; he saw that the interior framework was twisting and straining so violently that the dirigible’s silk skin was alternately tight as a drum, then looked wrinkled as a twisted sausage. Crewmembers were wrestling with fuel drums that had snapped their cables and were rolling against the delicate skeletal structure.

In the pear-shaped, aluminum-skinned gondola of engine No. 3, Aviation Machinist’s Mate Ralph Jones sensed trouble. It was partly because of the severe jolting of the gondola and Jones’ ever-present fear that a fuel line might rupture and start a fire. The helium in the big bag above was not flammable, fortunately, but the tiny engine room could still quickly become a flaming coffin if something exploded. Most of Jones’ pessimism was based on the erratic signals coming from the control car. ‘Standard speed’ one minute would be changed to ‘flank speed’ the next, with occasional orders in between to let No. 3 idle. And no matter what orders he carried out, it seemed to make no difference to the giant bucking bronco he was riding. As far as Jones could determine, Shenandoah had been averaging 55 to 65 knots. They should have been over mid-Pennsylvania by that time.

Launched as ZR-1 from Lakehurst, N.J., the rigid airship made its first flight on September 4, 1923. The 682-foot-long dirigible -- later given the Algonquin Indian name Shenandoah -- made a 1924 cross-country demonstration flight lasting 235 hours. (National Archives)
Launched as ZR-1 from Lakehurst, N.J., the rigid airship made its first flight on September 4, 1923. The 682-foot-long dirigible -- later given the Algonquin Indian name Shenandoah -- made a 1924 cross-country demonstration flight lasting 235 hours. (National Archives)

 

Actually the great ship was fighting terrific winds some 3,000 feet over farmland in Noble County, Ohio, belonging to Andy Gamara and his neighbors. At 5 a.m. Gamara’s wife woke him to say, ‘Maybe I’ve been dreaming, but I’ve been hearing airplane engines overhead for the last half hour.’

Her husband responded, ‘In this kind of weather?’ Then he too heard the sound above the rise and fall of the wind whistling around the roof and the rain splattering against windows. ‘It must be a plane — a large one. We won’t hear it much longer.’

But the sound persisted. Gamara and his wife got dressed, wondering how it was possible for a plane to stay in one place so long, as though anchored to the ground. They went outside peering skyward, where the rain had let up considerably and a faint lightness in the sky indicated dawn would soon be breaking.

‘Look, Andy! Look!’ cried Mrs. Gamara. Silhouetted against a dark cloud, lit fitfully by flashes of lightning, the dirigible was briefly visible — an unbelievably big airship, frightening to see, yet a thing of beauty as its silver skin flashed metallically in the eerie light. Then it was swallowed again by darkness. But the sound of its engines remained overhead.

At 5:20 absolute discipline was still being maintained, outwardly at least, inside the control cabin. Of all those present, Lieutenant Joseph B. Anderson was certain he would be the first one to break. He had the impossible assignment of trying to control the gas valves — letting out just enough of the precious helium in the right places so that the ship would right itself, yet not so much that gas would be wasted. Of the 18 original gas escape valves, eight had been removed by the Navy as a precaution against unnecessary loss of valuable helium. That modification made Anderson’s task even more difficult.

The critical moment came at 5:25. Shenandoah was battling the storm between 2,600 and 2,700 feet — though it was difficult to tell exactly how high they were, with the altimeter needle wobbling erratically. Suddenly, without warning, the airship plunged into a gigantic current of warm air rising skyward. ‘Good God!’ shouted Rosendahl, ‘look at our rate of climb!’

Within seconds the altimeter registered an ascent of 2,100 feet. The men in the control cabin staggered at their posts as the airship rose like an express elevator, and their legs almost buckled beneath them. ‘Trim ship!’ shouted Lansdowne. ‘Anderson, valve six and eight cells fast! Rosendahl, release ballast aft! Get her nose down.’ The dirigible was careening heavily to the port side, its blunt nose rising skyward until it looked as though it might soon stand on its tail.

Lansdowne gripped the speaking tube. He could hardly hold himself in one position long enough to shout into it: ‘Engines 3 and 5, more power. Flank power!’ Near him Anderson was frantically working the gas escape valves for six and eight cells. He received crisp orders to open seven and nine as well, then two and three as the huge ship kept climbing, out of control. The altimeter needle wavered for perhaps three minutes around 4,600 feet. Anderson had released enough helium to check their ascent. Rosendahl had relayed ballast orders, and the ship was almost on an even keel.

The skipper kept his eye on the inclination meter as he tried to nurse the nose down. ‘All engines maintain full speed. Anderson, valve the bow cells again.’ The needle showed a downward inclination of the nose of 8 degrees. As gas hissed out of the valves in the great gasbag above them, the needle registered 12 degrees, and then finally went down to 18. Altitude 4,800 and slowly climbing. Everyone aboard Shenandoah looked relieved. Outside they could see gigantic banks of clouds surrounding the ship, solid-looking gray masses that dwarfed the huge dirigible. The gray light of early dawn made them look even more somber, while occasional lightning flashes bounced back and forth off the cloudbanks. The air was cold.

‘Here we go again!’ Rosendahl tried to inject a note of levity into his voice as he watched the altimeter needle start climbing rapidly again. Even with the nose down 18 degrees, the officers couldn’t check the direct vertical ascent of the ship as another current of air rose from below, lifting Shenandoah‘s 37 tons as though it was a drifting feather. The cold air inside the control car suddenly became warm again, moist and heavy, and Rosendahl realized that this was no small updraft but a powerful mass rising all the way from some Ohio hillside far below. He caught glimpses of the countryside from time to time, but not often enough to be able to dodge rising or plunging air currents.

At 5:34 Lieutenant Anderson had been valving continuously for nine minutes. As the ship started upward again, he anticipated Lansdowne’s orders and yanked the valves wider. It did no good. The altimeter read 5,900 feet, then 6,200. Suddenly Anderson realized what had happened, and said: ‘Valves six and eight are stuck, Sir. I can’t seem to free them.’

The control cabin began careening wildly once again. Orders could scarcely be heard above the groaning and creaking of the cables that supported it beneath the dirigible. Once more the nose started tilting skyward.

‘All hands, emergency posts! All hands, emergency posts!’ the skipper screamed into the speaking tube. Then he turned to his second in command, Rosendahl: ‘We’ve got to get her nose down fast. If we don’t, we’ll break up sure.’ Overhead the aluminum girders inside the airship’s frame had already started to twist out of shape from the strain. ‘Go aft. Jettison all water and fuel possible to lighten our tail.’

Rosendahl half saluted then scrambled up the bucking companionway to the inside of the dirigible framework and dashed aft along the keel of the ship. It came as a shock when he moved suddenly from the concentrated noises of the compact control cabin to the unbelievable booming, echoing and reverberating sounds inside the dirigible itself. There was a sound like the roar of surf, mingled with sharp snapping noises and straining, protesting squeals that sounded like a full-rigged windjammer riding a full gale. In that instant Rosendahl realized Shenandoah was doomed and asked himself, ‘How many of us will go to our deaths with it?’

Commander Lansdowne barked curtly at Anderson to stop fumbling with the jammed valves and get them open again. The altimeter wavered around 7,200 feet, and the airship showed no signs of responding to the efforts of those who were trying to wrestle it back on trim. The skipper stumbled to the radio shack and ordered Schnitzer to report that the ship was in real trouble.

‘I have base,’ said Schnitzer, ‘but the contact is weak. I don’t think they read us.’

‘Keep trying,’ snapped Lansdowne. ‘Tell them we can’t ride this one out.’

Lansdowne then turned his attention to Anderson and saw that his struggles were to no avail. ‘You’ll have to hand-valve, Anderson,’ he said. ‘Spring topside and commandeer all the men you need. Blow all cells, but start with the forward ones first.’

‘Aye, aye, sir,’ said Anderson. His quick compliance saved his life. He was the last man out of the swaying, galloping control cabin.

Behind him, as he swung from the ladder to the catwalk inside the airship, he heard a shout from the helmsman: ‘She doesn’t answer the wheel. The control cable’s snapped.’ There was a sudden tearing, snapping noise, like fabric ripping. The voices in the control cabin suddenly trailed away. Anderson looked back in horror. Now there was nothing but a great open void, but far beneath he could see the streamlined shape of the cabin plunging downward.

At that moment, Commander Rosendahl was not far from Anderson, rounding up a gang to go aft on the double and jettison heavy fuel drums to lighten the tail. At the sound of the snapping cables, he turned toward Anderson with a puzzled look. ‘The control cabin!’ gasped Anderson. ‘It just tore loose. Lansdowne, the others — they’re all gone with it.’

Rosendahl started to say something, but just then both men were shaken by a tremendous crash. All around them they could see aluminum girders buckling. Then there was a high-pitched, ripping scream as the fabric started tearing to shreds. Horrified yet hypnotized, they watched aghast as the gigantic airship was torn apart.

As the two officers watched, clinging desperately to struts, they observed an unbelievable sight. Almost as though it were being worked by some well-planned machinery, the entire bow section in which they clung broke cleanly away from the rest of the airship and started to float away from it like a ferry leaving a dock.

At 5:35 Jones, still in the gondola of engine No. 3, was greatly worried about the airship’s rapid climb. Over the intercom he heard the order for all crewmembers to man emergency stations, followed by a rapid succession of engine orders. Then the set went dead. He jiggled the toggle switch with no result. Now it seemed as though the entire ship was falling, faster and faster. He could hear nothing above the roar of the Packard, nothing except the uneven whir of the propeller blades — an indication to his trained ear that the ship was encountering unpredictable blasts of wind from many directions at the same time.

As the freefall continued, Jones crawled shakily to the hatch, slid the cover back and looked out, his face whipped by the wind. What he saw was terrifying. Above him the airship’s silken skin was slashed and punctured. Twisted aluminum girders jutted through the fabric-like pins projecting out of a cushion. And the entire nose of the dirigible had completely disappeared. Down below, it was light enough to see patches of farmland as the ground swished upwared at great speed. And still engine No. 3 continued its labored whirring.

Inside what was left of the airship directly above Jones, cook John J. Hahn was trying to get up off the galley floor. A few minutes before, he had been congratulating himself on his ability to brew a tank of coffee without spilling any on the deck. Now he found himself in a jumble of cooking equipment. On all sides, fuel drums and food supplies were flying through space, crashing into struts and ripping through the galley’s thin partitions.

‘Did you see that? We’re breaking apart!’ cried Chief Gunner Cole, hanging onto a girder near the galley and pointing toward the gaping void where the nose had once been. ‘Frame No. 70 just broke completely in half,’ came the panicky voice of Aviation Pilot Masters from somewhere behind them. Masters had just come from his bunk, where he had gone after being relieved at 4:30. He was not yet aware of what had happened to the control cabin and nose. ‘The whole goddamned ship will break up any minute,’ he cried out.

‘It already has,’ said the cook. ‘Now all we gotta do is pray we got enough gas left in the bags to set us down gently.’ Below them, through rips in the fabric, he could make out rolling hills and groves of trees and wide farmlands dotted with a few houses. ‘How high up are we, Chief?’ he asked a few minutes later. ‘I guess maybe a thousand feet,’ replied Cole, tightening his grip around a girder as the battered main section of the Shenandoah yawed widely, whipped in dizzying arcs as it continued its fatal fall.

Of the officers and men aboard Shenandoah, 13 had been killed in the control cabin, eight were floating in space in the cleanly sheared off bow section and 17 more were fighting for their lives in the main part of the ship. Among the latter was Lieutenant Walter T. Richardson. He had gone to his bunk early the night before with an upset stomach, but had been tossed on the deck about 5 a.m. by the airship’s violent motions. When he realized what had happened, he started shouted orders as fast as he could recall emergency procedures: ‘Yank all ballast toggles! Pass the word to all hands.’ Then he noticed the loose drums of fuel and crates of supplies tumbling around. ‘Jettison all equipment over the deck.’

Richardson watched drums and boxes ripping through the silken skin and disappearing below. If only the jagged girders didn’t puncture the gas cells and allow precious helium to escape. Below him now he could clearly see the trees. 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. Richardson could make out a road, some buildings and even two people, frozen like statues, staring skyward.

The statues were farmer Gamara and his wife, who had been transfixed with horror ever since they spotted the great silver shape in the sky stand almost on end. They had watched the cigar-shaped gondola suddenly yank itself away from the mother ship and start plunging to earth like a bomb. They saw the cabin drop earthward and heard the shattering crash as it rammed a hillside near Ava, Ohio. Now they watched the main section descending, oblivious to the fact that it might come down right on top of them.

Trapped in the gondola of engine No. 3, which was still attached to the main framework by struts and braces, Jones had no way to escape. He made one attempt to climb the ladder to the ship’s keel above him, but was nearly whipped into space by the wind. He considered for a moment whether he should shut down the engine, then decided that forward motion might give some lift to the doomed ship. He pushed the throttle as high as it would go, and the engine responded. Then he scrambled atop the gondola and hung onto the struts. The gondola itself might help break his fall when the ship hit — if only the girders in the bag above him did not fall on him and crush him to death. It seemed to him that he had hardly moved into a more secure position when the gondola glided over some bushes, plowed into the ground and tumbled him off into a patch of soft earth. A breathtaking jolt, and then he was suddenly walking along the ground. No girders or tangled silk shrouds came crushing down upon him, no flaming fuel, no smothering clouds of helium. Jones had been miraculously delivered from the stormy sky.

Lieutenant Richardson had a harder time of it, as did cook Hahn, Chief Gunner Cole and the others in the main section. After he saw to it that everything possible had been jettisoned, the lieutenant went to the nearest girder and clutched it tightly, watching trees whizzing past just below him. He later recalled there was an air of unreality about it, as though he were inside a low-flying plane whose pilot was hedgehopping. The dangling engines struck the ground and were wrenched loose. Momentarily lightened, Shenandoah‘s main section rose 100 feet into the air and drifted toward a clump of trees. It cut through them, splitting timbers and leaving a swath of branches and chunks of aluminum girders. All the men inside managed to hang on as the great crumpled section of Shenandoah settled onto the earth in a mass of twisted wreckage, and gas whooshed from punctured cells. The men began climbing down girders, sliding from ropes and jumping to free themselves as the choking gas burst from the crumpling bag.

Lieutenant Richardson was the last to leave that section of the ship. Gasping for breath, he started down a collapsible ladder one of the men lowered just after the ship touched the trees. Halfway down, the rungs folded and he became trapped. And at that moment a gust of wind caught the torn silk envelope, billowing up underneath it and shifting the wreckage onto its side.

‘The lieutenant is stuck!’ shouted one of the men and started back to rescue the helpless officer. But there was no time; the main section was heeling over. At the last minute Richardson wrenched his hands loose and fell. As he did so, his foot caught on a loose cable and he was dragged 20 feet before helping hands freed him and he stood clear.

It was 6 a.m. In the cold, rainy dawn, men limped away from the wreckage, coming together atop a steep knoll just beyond it. None of them seemed to have been badly injured, and so far no bodies had been found in the twisted mass of the main section. But the control car — that was another matter.

Farmer Gamara arrived at the knoll where the men were gathered, running as fast as he could. He pointed beyond the hill and said: ‘Part of the wreckage is over there. It looked like a large bomb. It fell very fast. But I do not know what happened to the other part. It just floated off like a big balloon.’ Gamara was referring to Shenandoah‘s nose, which had separated from the rest of the airship.

Lieutenant Richardson studied the wind and said matter-of-factly: ‘It must have blown south. Poor devils, I hope they got off as well as we did.’ There was nothing he could do other than start walking toward where Gamara indicated that the control car had crashed. Richardson knew what he would find.

At that moment, the dirigible’s nose section was still high in the air, perhaps 1,500 or 2,000 feet up. Commander Rosendahl, the second officer, found himself in charge of a wild, uncontrollable balloon, rising and falling in the air currents. With him were seven other officers and men: Lieutenants W.H. Meyers, E.W. Sheppard and J.B. Anderson, Chief Machinist’s Mates Halliburton and Shevlowitz, Chief Rigger J.F. McCarthy, and U.S. Army Colonel J.C. Hall, who had been aboard as an official observer.

Hall was still recovering from a hair-raising rescue. When the bow section broke away, he found himself stranded at the end of an aluminum girder, hanging 30 feet away from the nose section. He inched his way along the girder and was eventually helped to safety by the two machinist’s mates. But his new place of refuge was a doubtful, for the bow section was still high in the air.

Rosendahl immediately took charge, with the assistance of Lieutenant Anderson. ‘Start valving by hand!’ the commander ordered. ‘We’ve got to lose altitude.’ It was a dangerous maneuver, for the nose section had no ballast to drop if they started descending too quickly. ‘Lieutenant Anderson, rig trailing lines with anything you can find that will catch hold when we reach the ground. Our forward speed in this wind must be about 25 knots.’

Anderson and the chief rigger started securing all the ropes they could find to the framework, attaching twisted chunks of metal and anything else they could wrench loose to the trailing ends. Rosendahl studied the bulging balloonets, or gas cells, above him. Each one was attached independently to the framework and controlled separately. By 6:10, he had watched the hand-valving start to take effect, as the skin of the cells became wrinkled, showing gas had been let out. By that time the airship’s nose section was only 200 feet above the ground.

The critical moment was approaching when the lives of the men would depend half on the whims of fate and half on their ability to ease the wreckage gently to earth. Two of the lines had already started trailing, but they didn’t catch on anything that would slow down the runaway nose section. The wind was too strong, whipping the structure along before it at 20 knots, as it bucked like an angry steer trying to dislodge an unwanted rider.

‘Our jury-rigged anchors won’t catch hold, Sir,’ shouted Chief Rigger John McCarthy. ‘We’ve secured every piece of line we can lay hands on, trying to check her speed before we ram a building or plow into a hillside.’

As Rosendahl studied the landscape whizzing by, trying desperately to think of some way to slow their uncontrolled flight, he froze. At the end of one line an object he had taken to be a chunk of framework turned out to be a man. For a few moments the dangling figure swung gently back and forth not more than 50 feet above the ground, and 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.

‘Good God, who’s that?’ demanded the horrified Rosendahl. ‘Lieutenant Sheppard, Sir,’ said McCarthy. ‘He thought maybe he could get low enough to skid to the ground and snub the trailing end of the line around a tree trunk. I told him it was suicide.’

Whatever chance Sheppard might have had, it was gone. The line whipped him back and forth. Then, with a sudden, vengeful snap, the wind flipped him from the girder. The rest of the men still on board saw him flung to his death in the trees below. A few minutes later the nose descended to about 100 feet, where he might have fallen and suffered nothing more than a few broken bones.

At 6:32 miners Ode Gordon and Herbert Poling were walking along a road near Sharon in the rainy dawn when a strange and terrifying sight greeted them. Dead ahead, out of the mist, loomed what at first seemed like a dirigible, apparently coming in for a landing. Then they noticed that most of the ship was missing. The wreckage gyrated back and forth, revealing twisted girders and naked insides.

‘There are people on it!’ shouted Gordon. ‘They’re in trouble.’

For a minute the strange craft slowed its flight, hovering directly over the astonished miners. From about 75 feet above them, a man shouted down: ‘Snub the lines! Snub them on a tree, rocks, anything you can.’ Gordon and Poling raced to reach the dangling ropes. They yanked futilely on them, trying to check the nose section’s flight with their own tiny strength.

‘Wrap them around something! You can’t hold us,’ came the orders from above. The two miners rushed toward a group of small trees, but before they could make it, the nose started moving off on its wild course again, entangling the two men on the ground and dragging them along with it. They were carried along some 200 yards before they could get loose, beaten and bruised.

Gordon lay still for a few minutes, stunned. Poling sat up, watching the wreckage of the nose careening onward. ‘It’s going to crash into the Nichols farm!’ he shouted. ‘Come on! Maybe we can save a couple of those poor devils from the wreck.’ He got shakily to his feet and stumbled toward the spot.

At 6:30 Ernest Nichols was in his yard doing chores when he heard shouting. Strangely, the voices seemed to come from overhead, and at this instant he saw the battered nose section bearing down upon him. It struck an outbuilding with a splintering crash, momentarily stopping dead in its frantic flight. Then it slowly rose, and the wind gathered behind it to push it forward once again. Above Nichols a wild-eyed man called instructions down to him, his voice breaking in desperation.

Nichols quickly seized one of the trailing lines and ran around a large tree with it, securing the end more and more firmly with each turn. In the branches above him there was a crashing sound, and the chief rigger, McCarthy, half slid down the rope, then fell to the ground, fracturing his leg and shoulder.

The nose section, suddenly checked in its flight, careened forward and smashed into the ground with a force that whipped Commander Rosendahl loose from the girder he had been clutching. Pitched through the silk fabric, Rosendahl landed on the soft, rain-soaked ground. The remaining five men were jolted loose in the same manner and spewed forth onto the ground. Miraculously, all were unhurt save McCarthy.

‘Secure all lines!’ Though shaken, Rosendahl swung into action with the instinctive efficiency bred by his years in lighter-than-air craft. ‘Anderson,’ he said, ‘release all valves you can reach.’

Rosendahl’s first duty was to save what he could for inspection during the Navy investigation he knew would soon follow the disaster. Then he went over to Nichols, who was trying to help the injured chief rigger.

By 8 a.m., Rosendahl had reached the spot 12 miles away where the main section crashed and counted the survivors. There were 29 in all, with only two badly injured.

‘No one survived in the control cabin after it hit, did they?’ Rosendahl asked Lieutenant Richardson as they walked toward the crumpled wreckage. ‘No sir,’ replied Richardson. ‘One man — I think it was Mazzuca — lived for a few minutes. But he didn’t have a prayer.’

‘And Lansdowne…,’ Rosendahl choked for a moment, then went on, ‘could you identify his body? I’ll have to phone his wife.’

‘Yes, but only by his uniform. The forward part of the cabin was smashed like a falling eggshell.’

Rosendahl felt shaky in the legs as the full scope of the tragedy began to hit home. If he had been two minutes later in leaving the control cabin, he would have been too late. His broken body would have been lying in the wreckage near Lansdowne’s.

‘What is the date?’ Rosendahl asked. ‘September 3,’ replied Richardson wonderingly. ‘Lansdowne’s transfer orders came 12 days too late,’ said Rosendahl. ‘He was to go on sea duty on the 15th.’

In the aftermath of the tragedy, U.S. Navy officials were strongly censured for their irresponsibility in risking lives and expensive equipment in dangerous weather conditions. Among others, Lt. Col. Billy Mitchell — already in trouble because of his outspoken criticism of military leaders — made a statement claiming that, in promulgating such disasters, 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 comments).

Following the Navy’s official investigation, its future airships were strengthened, in hopes that dirigibles and their crews would be able to negotiate violent weather. But within a decade — a time span that saw the untimely ends of both USS Macon and USS Akron — the Navy’s experiments with rigid airships were over. Public confidence in rigid airships had been shaken. Funding became very difficult both politically and commercially, as development shifted to airplanes throughout the 1930s in what many consider the most innovative period in aircraft history.


This article was written by Wilbur Cross and originally published in the November 2006 issue of Aviation History magazine. For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!