Rigid airships represent the transition from single pilot hot air balloons to massive gas-filled zeppelins. Both were used for military reconnaissance, but the latter also saw service as passenger-carrying, ocean-spanning vehicles. USS Los Angeles: The Navy’s Venerable Airship and Aviation Technology (by William F. Althoff, Potomac Books, Washington, D.C., $29.95) explores this transitional era by focusing on USS Los Angeles, the airship Althoff sets out to prove was “the most successful airship ever flown.”
The U.S. Navy had an interest in nonrigids, or blimps, for coastal patrol or ship escorts beginning in 1917. When World War I was over, the Navy sought to obtain a German built rigid like those that had already shown potential for commercial operations in Europe. The success of British built R-34, which made the first transatlantic flight by air ship in 1919, intensified the U.S. Navy’s interest.
Following months of diplomatic fencing, a partial settlement plan included the manufacture of a large rigid dirigible by Luftschiffbau-Zeppelin for the U.S. Navy. Althoff explains the unusual details of its design, construction and testing and also reveals the internal roles and missions argument between the Navy and War departments about funds to develop airships’ potential for national defense.
Work on what was originally designated LZ-126 (the German builder’s number) began in early 1922, and the keel was laid in November. Althoff accompanies his narrative with rare photos taken during various stages of its manufacture. After trial flights during which problems developed with the Maybach engines, LZ-126 left Friedrichshafen, Germany, on October 12, 1924, under the command of Hugo Eckener, with a crew of 27 and four American naval officers as passengers. Three days later, after being aloft for 811⁄2 hours, the zeppelin arrived at the naval station at Lakehurst, N.J. It was thereafter officially designated the U.S. Navy’s model ZR-3 and named Los Angeles.
Much work lay ahead for the Navy, which had to con struct facilities to house and maintain the airships and also train ground support personnel and aircrews. Not only were there battles in Congress for funds to support a large program, but there was an imperative to develop the airships’ military potential and develop an American industry based-on what had previously been a German monopoly. But for airship proponents, says Althoff, “Though fraught with risks, the commercial future—regular transoceanic air route—seemed ripe with promise.”
In the years following, officials pushing the U.S. Navy’s lighter-than-air program persuaded Congress to authorize other airships. Althoff includes details of trial flights, equipment experiments, failures and tragedies that ensued. Los Angeles survived hundreds of flights and myriad experiments. Its last flight came on May 25, 1932, after which the airship was docked in a shed at Lakehurst. It was, however, used to train ground crews, so that they could become familiar with handling big ships.
The stunning crashes of Shenandoah (see P. 46 in this issue), Akron and finally Macon, the last of its kind to be built in the United States, marked the end of the Navy’s rigid airship days. The horrific explosion of Hindenburg at Lakehurst in 1937 destroyed any hope that the rigids would ever realize the potential they once seemed to hold.
In his preface, Althoff promises that USS Los Angeles “will refresh the public memory as to a briefly viable, banished technology.” He keeps his promise. Lighter-than-air enthusiasts will certainly approve.
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.