The U.S. Navy’s Rigid Airships

One of the more unique chapters in the history of naval aviation involved the operation of rigid dirigibles during the 1920s and 1930s. Though the U.S. Navy began procured and flew kite balloons and blimps even before the entry of the United States into World War I, it was not until naval aviators witnessed firsthand the successful operations of German Zeppelins that the Navy began exploring the employment of rigid dirigibles. “Aviators and officers of various corps all believe that the reconnaissance work of the Zeppelins has been of immense value,” wrote one overseas observer. “Their greatest service is yet to come.”

On 11 July 1919 Congress passed the Naval Appropriations Act, which in part provided for the construction of one rigid airship and the purchase of another one. To this end, the following year the U.S. Navy contracted for the purchase of the R-38, a British dirigible, and sent a detachment of personnel overseas for instruction. The R-38 made her maiden flight on 23-23 June 1921, and completed two additional ones before tragedy struck. On 23 August 1921, the dirigible broke in two, which ignited the hydrogen (the lifting gas on used in R-38) and fuel. Of the forty-four people killed in the accident, seventeen were Americans, including senior officer Lieutenant Commander Lewis Maxfield.

Meanwhile, the construction of a second dirigible on American soil continued, and in August 1922 she became airborne for the first time. On 4 September the Navy’s newest rigid airship took to the skies for her first extended flight, logging one hour of flight time covering a distance of some twenty miles. Christened USS Shenandoah on 10 October 1922, the airship participated in many notable flights during her career, conducting experiments with a shipboard mooring mast on board the airship tender Patoka (AO-9) and completing a transcontinental flight. On 3 September 1925, during a flight from Lakehurst, New Jersey, to Columbus, Ohio, Shenandoah encountered a severe storm, which broke her in two over Ava, Ohio. The control car dropped to the earth immediately, followed by the after section of the airship, which broke in two upon hitting the ground. The forward section of Shenandoah remained airborne for nearly an hour before falling to earth. All told, twenty-nine crewmen survived the crash, but among the fourteen killed was the airship’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander Zachary Lansdowne.

The crash of Shenandoah in part prompted a Presidential review of military and civilian aviation, but the U.S. Navy’s operation of rigid dirigibles continued, championed by none other that Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, the first Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics and naval aviation’s senior officer. Constructed by Germany’s Zeppelin Airship Company, USS Los Angeles (ZR-3) was flown to the United States in 1924, and following the loss of Shenandoah operated as the only rigid dirigible in the Navy for a time. Her career, which included 331 flights totaling 5,368 hours, included a long-distance flight between New York and Panama, a carrier landing on board Saratoga (CV-3), and experiments with operating aircraft from a trapeze-like contraption suspended beneath the airship. The latter was perfected on board succeeding airships, USS Akron (ZRS-4) and USS Macon (ZRS-5), commissioned in 1931 and 1933 respectively.

Akron and Macon marked the pinnacle of the airship in the U.S. Navy, yet also symbolized its ultimate downfall. The two rigid dirigibles carried one of the most unique aircraft to ever fly, the F9C Sparrowhawk, a diminutive fighter with a so-called skyhook affixed to its upper wing. Pilots were launched and recovered using a trapeze that could be raised and lowered from a hangar located inside the dirigible. The Sparrowhawks and their airborne homes operated extensively in the interwar fleet exercises, flying scouting missions over the opposing fleet. Though successful in their mission, the airships were deemed too vulnerable to attacking fighters and antiaircraft fire. In reality, their greatest enemy was weather. On the evening of 3-4 April 1933, Akron plunged into the Atlantic off the coast of New Jersey during a storm with the loss of seventy-three men, including Admiral Moffett. On 12 February 1935 Macon crashed in the Pacific Ocean after wind carried her non-reinforced upper fin away. Fortunately, all but two of her eighty-three man crew were rescued.

The loss of Akron and Macon spelled the end of rigid dirigible operations in the U.S. Navy. The tragic fates of four of the five airships, Los Angeles completed her service intact and was scrapped in 1939, cast a pall over their service, but in aviation’s golden age they were true marvels in the air.