Thursday, May 11, 2017

Moored to the Mast - The Navy Airships at Lakehurst

Moored To The Mast – The U.S. Navy’s Lighter-Than-Air Program at Lakehurst, New Jersey

Compiled by Thomas M. Williams
(For the Ocean County Historical Society – Toms River, 1996)

“With the eruption of the Civil War in America in 1961, President Abraham Lincoln commissioned the use of hot-air balloons with manned gondolas for observation use. This also brought about our first “air-craft carrier,” the oval, flat-decked ‘Washington’ which was used to launch the balloons.

In passing, it is noteworthy that a young German fought for a short time with the Union Army. His name was Ferdinand Von Zeppelin and while in America he enthusiastically took his first balloon ride at St. Paul, Minnesota. Later, in Germany on the eve of his sixty-second birthday, July 2, 1900, Von Zeppelin took the controls of his airship, Zeppelin #1, and with four others on board sailed over Lake Constance.

The major impetus to airship development occurred with the German use of the zeppelins against Britain in World War I. The dirigibles were used in the bombing of London and the industrial centers of England, effectively interrupting the manufacturing of war materials there. The use of airships for military objectives did not go unobserved by other countries.

With the defeat of Germany the allied nations feasted on the spoils of war: the German secrets of dirigible construction, hydrogen use and in-flight techniques.

Rigid Airships – The Zeppelin Comes to America

Lakehurst, New Jersey

In the United States the military effectiveness of the zeppelins did not go unnoticed. As part of its 1920 budget, our Navy Department received approval from congress to construct two rigid airships, one to be built in this country and one in Britain. A number of non-rigids, or blimps, were also authorized, along with a “station in which to erect and operate a dirigible.” With this latter directive the Navy took over command of Camp Kendrick, a U.S. Army training station at Lakehurst. 

Objective: to build America’s first dirigible, to be designated the ZR-1 (Zeppelin, Rigid, number 1).
This site had been used by the Eddystone Ammunition Corporation between 1915 and 1917, as a proving ground to test munitions destined for the Imperial Russian Army. During World War I it became a military base, Camp Kendrick, where U.S. soldiers were trained in gas warfare, and later, as a discharge base following the war.

In recognition of its proximity to naval operations in Philadelphia, New York and Washington D.C., then acting Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, authorized this 1700 acre site in the pine barrens as the Navy Air Station – Lakehurst.

Contractors and workmen arrived in the bitter cold winter of 1919 to begin the excavation for the world’s largest aircraft hangar, the first to be built in America. It would have a length of nearly three football fields and stand 224 feet high. The Barnegat Lighthouse could stand inside with twenty feet to spare. An associated plant to process hydrogen gas (used to lift airships before the advent of the safer helium) was constructed nearby. Construction took all of the following year and official dedication was made on June 28, 1921.

ZR-1 Shenandoah

The first of the two rigid dirigibles authorized by Congress in 1919 was designated the ZR-1, Zeppelin, Rigid, #1. Under the same authorization Lakehurst was designated the site to assemble the ZR-1, with basic structure parts manufactured at the Navy Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia.

Commander Ralph Weyerbacher was designated the project manager. To assist him he brought from Germany Anton Heinen, an airship expert.

Design studies took all of 1921 and 1922 and included the review of German as well as British construction techniques. The parts and fabric manufacture began in Philadelphia in 1920. The first test flight of the 680 foot airship took place on September 4, 1923 with Weyerbacher, Commander Frank R. McCrary and Anton Heinen in joint command. Heinen served as pilot. A second flight was made on September 6, and a third on the 10th. On September 11, a publicity flight was made over New York City and Philadelphia, where huge crowds watched and cheered from the streets.

On October 10, 1923 the ZR-1 was officially christened the Shenandoah by Marion Denby, wife of the Secretary of the Navy, Edwin Denby, at a ceremony at Lakehurst. The name derived from the American Indian term meaning “Daughter of the Stars.”

That November, Heinen lost considerable prestige by insisting on a mooring mast method that he devised but that proved very troublesome. On January 16, 1924 the Shenandoah sustained nose damage when it broke away from the mooring mast at Lakehurst during a storm. Later, on August 8, the Shenandoah made the first mooring to a Navy vessel, the USS Patoka, a tanker ship fitted with a mooring mast. Let. Charles Rosendahl was in charge of the mooring on the ship. (He later devised improved mooring procedures). On October 7 the airship began a trip across the United States to San Diego, flying over the Rocky Mountains.

When the ZR-3 Los Angeles, was delivered from Germany in October, 1924, as part of the post-war reparations agreement with Germany, it carried the highly volatile hydrogen fuel. Declared unsafe by Navy standards, this was vented off into the pinelands air near Lakehurst and, due to the shortage of helium, the helium of the Shenandoah was transferred to the Los Angeles.

Almost a year past before the Shenandoah returned to the skies. In the summer of 1925 she flew several training missions, including sea maneuvers with the battleship Texas. On September 2, she embarked on a flight to the Midwest. The following day she ran into a severe storm over Ohio and the airship broke apart. The control cabin plunged to the earth killing Commander Zachary Lansdowne. The bow section, now free of the cabin weight, was able to descend safely to earth under the guidance of Lt. Cmdr. Rosendahl. The stern section crashed some distance away. Twenty-nine of the crew of forty-three aboard survived. Charles H. Broome of Toms River and George C. Schnitzer of Tuckerton, both New Jersey, were not so fortunate.

In July 1919 – British airship R-34 crossed the Atlantic to Roosevelt Field, Long Island.
The US Navy commissioned the construction of ZR-2 in 1919 and eight officers and eighteen enlisted men were sent to England for airship training.

In June of 1921 ZR-2 was completed – 695 feet long, 83 feet in diameter and six engines.

The airship was designed by the British, who lacked experience in airship construction and basically followed German design.

The ZR-2 crashed in test flight in October 1921.

ZR-3 Los Angeles

Under a post-war reparations agreement with Germany, a third U.S. airship, the ZR-3, was constructed in Germany by the Geramn Zeppelin Airship Construction Company headed by Hugo Eckner. Eckner personally delivered the 638 foot ZR-3 to Lakehurst on October 15, 1924. The transoceanic flight covered 5000 miles in 81 hours at an average speed of 61 mph.

On November 25th it was flown to Washington where the president’s wife, Grace Coolidge, christened her the Los Angeles. 

A young Navy Lieutenant, Charles E. Rosendahl boarded her for the return flight to Lakehurst. On March 15, 1926 Lt. Commander Rosendahl replaced Commander George W. Steele as skipper of the Los Angeles. 

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