History of Blimps and Airships in Akron, OhioChances are if you grew up in Akron, Ohio you have heard and/or seen a Goodyear blimp “up close and personal” or at least closer and more frequently than the rest of the country. We are truly lucky to have these “Giants of the Sky,” as they are often referred to, in our backyard.

Important Part of Akron History

On October 21, 2016, Savannah James, wife of LeBron James christened the newest Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company’s blimp – Wingfoot Two – at Goodyear’s Wingfoot Lake Hangar in Suffield, Ohio. It joined it’s sister ship, Wingfoot One, which had been christened two years earlier as part of a newer technological fleet of airships. But many more airships have been christened over the years in Akron, either at the Wingfoot Lake Hangar or the iconic Airdock in east Akron near the Akron Fulton International Airport. The history of the blimp, airship or lighter-than-air vehicle is an extremely important part of Akron history as well as The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company.

In 1917, Goodyear bought over 700 acres of land in Suffield, which is southeast of Akron, and built the Wingfoot Lake Airship Base. It is the oldest airship facility and one of the oldest active aircraft bases in the world. Today it is a maintenance and construction facility for Goodyear’s fleet of blimps and is the current home of Wingfoot Two.

Wingfoot Lake Blimp Hangar

Photo by Sandy Bee Lynn. Hangar at Wingfoot Lake built in 1917. It is the oldest airship facility in the world. It’s a maintenance and construction facility for the Goodyear’s Blimp fleet. The hangar is in Suffield, Ohio.

Back in 1922 on Monday, February 20 a large dirigible (called a “big gas bag” in an Akron Beacon Journal story the next day), was brought out of the Wingfoot hangar for a performance test. Major P.E. Van Nostrand, who was in charge of the Airship and Balloon section of the Air Division of the Army in Washington said, “She performed excellently, much better than I expected.” On it’s test flight, the dirigible followed Wingfoot Lake toward Akron, going over Portage Path, Exchange Street and then over the Goodyear factory and then back to the Wingfoot field. The ship, which could reach speeds of 65 miles per hour, hit a high speed of 45 miles an hour on the flight that day.

On the very next day, February 21, 34 men were killed when the giant dirigible Roma came down and exploded during a practice flight in Norfolk Virginia. The crash was blamed on a broken rudder cable which sent the airship into a dive. Ballast was thrown overboard which slowed the dissent. Hitting the ground roughly, the impact wasn’t that severe but when it landed, some high-tension wires were hit and the hydrogen aboard exploded. Only eleven men survived and hydrogen was never used again in an American dirigible.

American Zeppelins

America had four zeppelins of its own in the 1920s and 1930s. The Los Angeles was built by Germans and flew successfully for a decade. The other three, the Shenandoah, Akron, and Macon were built by Americans. The Shenandoah, crashed on September 3, 1925 near Ava Ohio in southeastern Ohio. It was taken down by a thunderstorm and torn to pieces. Twenty-nine crew members (out of 43) survived.

In 1929, Goodyear built the Airdock to be used for building “giant rigid airships. The building was constructed from April 20, 1929 to November 25, 1929, at a cost of $2.2 million. At the time it was built, it was the largest building in the world without interior supports, and provided a huge structure where “lighter-than-air” ships could be constructed. The first two airships to be constructed and launched at the Airdock were the USS Akron (ZRS-4) and its sister ship, USS Macon (ZRS-5), built in 1931 and 1933, respectively. These first two airships were approximately 785 feet in length and were among the largest flying objects very built.

USS Akron

The USS Akron was the world’s first purpose-built flying aircraft carrier, carrying F9C Sparrowhawk fighter planes which could be launched and recovered while she was in flight. The airplane compartment housed five planes which could be released and picked up in mid-air and which would be used for scouting or offense and defense of the USS Akron.

Akron Mayor Lloyd G. Weil declared the day of the christening, August 8, 1931, a legal city holiday. Nearly a half a million people gathered at the Airdock to see it’s christening by Lou Hoover, wife of President Hubert Hoover. After saying, “I christen thee Akron!” she pulled a rope which released 48 racing pigeons from the ship’s bow.

In 1932, the Akron began it’s first cross-country flight which was to prove it’s dependability. In April of 1933 the Akron prepared for an evening training flight. The flight started at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey where it encountered severe weather almost immediately. At about 12:30 a.m., the airship caught an updraft followed by a downdraft. The nose of the ship began to rise and the tail was forced down. The control gondola was still in the air but the low fin of the Akron struck the water and was torn off. The airship broke up and quickly sank in the Atlantic Ocean.

Nearby was a German merchant ship named Phoebus which saw the lights of the Akron going down into the water. Four men were pulled from the water, Commander Herbert Wiley, Chief Radioman Robert W. Copeland, Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Richard E. Deal, and Aviation Metalsmith Second Class Moody E. Erwin. Despite artificial respiration, Copeland never regained consciousness, and he died aboard the Phoebus. The German sailors didn’t realize that they had “chanced upon the crash of the Akron” until Wiley regained consciousness. The crew searched the Atlantic for over five hours and found no more survivors. The Navy blimp J-3 — sent out to join the search — also crashed, with the loss of two men. A number of ships also searched for survivors and recovered bodies. Most casualties were caused by drowning and hypothermia because the crew had not been issued life jackets, and there had not been time to deploy the single life raft. The accident left 73 dead, with only three survivors.

Goodyear Airdock

Photo by Sandy Bee Lynn. Goodyear Airdock, located in Akron, Ohio near the Akron Fulton International Airport. The Airdock was completed in 1929 and the first two airships that were built there were the USS Akron in 1931 and the USS Macon in 1933.

US naval aviation historian Richard K. Smith has said, “The Akron never got the chance to show what she was capable of. Initially, the idea had been to use her as a scout for the fleet (just as the German Navy zeppelins had been used during World War I), with her airplanes being simply useful auxiliaries, capable of extending her range of vision or of defending her against attacking enemy aircraft. The mothership herself should stay in the background, out of sight of enemy surface units, merely acting as a mobile advanced base for the airplanes which should do all the actual searching. Any aircraft carrier could do this but only an airship could do it so quickly: her speed was at least twice that of a surface ship, enabling her to get to the scene or be switched from flank to flank quickly. But this was an experimental ship, a prototype, and it took time for this doctrine and suitable tactics to evolve. It also took time to develop the techniques of navigating, controlling and coordinating the scouts.” The loss of the USS Akron was the worst aviation disaster up to that time.

USS Macon

Just days before the last flight of the Akron, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, Chief of the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics had spoken at the unveiling of a new dirigible – the USS Macon.

The Macon was christened in March of 1933, by Jeanette Whitton Moffett, wife of Rear Admiral Moffett. The dirigible was named after the city of Macon, Georgia, which was the largest city in the Congressional district of Carl Vinson, then the chairman of the House of Representative’s Committee on Naval Affairs.The Macon first flew one month later, shortly after the loss of the Akron in which Admiral Moffett and 72 others were killed. Macon was commissioned into the U.S. Navy on 23 June 1933, with Commander Alger H. Dresel in command.

The fate of the Macon was similar to the Akron. The Macon was part of the Pacific Fleet and was based in Sunnyvale California which was later renamed Moffett Field in honor of Rear Admiral William A. Moffett. After a successful training flight in February of 1935, the Macon was flying north of Sunnyvale when it ran into thick clouds, low ceilings and heavy rain. Visibility was less than a mile and when a strong gust of wind hit the Macon, a structural frame piece snapped and helium began escaping at the tail which began sinking. Ballast was dumped which caused the Macon to shoot up where more helium was lost.

Because the USS Akron only had one life raft and no life jackets, the Macon had equipped the dirigible with these safe guards. There were 83 persons on board and only two lost their lives. Most of the others were rescued in pretty good condition.

After the crashes of these two large dirigibles, Admiral William H. Stanley who was a non airship officer in the Navy Department told the press,” This should be a solemn warning to this country with respect to the use of lighter-than-air craft. I have never approved of the use of lighter-than-air craft for other than commercial purposes, and I am more than ever convinced of their unsuitability for military and naval purposes.” In essence this was the end of the “rigid” dirigibles and no more were built in the United States.

Pony Blimps

On March 7, 1920, the New York Times reported on an aviation exposition that included an exhibit by Goodyear of their “Pony Blimp.” The blimp was to be used “for passenger and freight service … between Kansas City, MO and the middle western cities as soon as a similar dirigible has been completed.” The New York Times reported the dirigible would be 95 feet long with a speed of 45 mph, and would carry eight passengers and crew.

Ken Weyand of the Kansas City Star published this bit of history about Goodyear Pony Blimps in a column he wrote in January 2008. “On March 7, 1920, the New York Times reported on an aviation exposition that included an exhibit by Goodyear of their “Pony Blimp.” The blimp was to be used “for passenger and freight service … between Kansas City, MO and the middle western cities as soon as a similar dirigible has been completed.” The New York Times reported the dirigible would be 95 feet long with a speed of 45 mph, and would carry eight passengers and crew. The Goodyear Pony Blimp served as the pilot airship for the Commercial Airship Syndicate. Ltd. (courtesy Rosebud’s WW-I and Early Aviation Archive).

According to Goodyear records, the company made three Pony Blimps in 1919-20. Built with a non-rigid envelope holding 35,350 cubic feet, the Pony Blimps were 95 feet long and 28 feet maximum diameter. All were powered with the Lawrance L-2, a 50-hp, 3-cylinder radial engine. Top speed was 45 mph. Of the three, one was sold to the Commercial Airship Syndicate, and a second to a California company that offered blimp rides from Long Beach to Catalina Island — refitted with a Model T Ford engine. The commercially used blimps were helium-filled. The third Pony Blimp was destroyed in a hangar fire July 19, 1920 at Goodyear’s Wingfoot Lake facility in Akron.

Chief pilot of the Commercial Airship Syndicate Ltd. was Frederick Karl Gampper, Jr., a licensed airship pilot and engineer for Goodyear, who was the holder of license No. 53, issued by the Aero Club of America. Gampper had impressive credentials regarding lighter-than-air technology. He worked for Goodyear from 1913 to 1921, the last four years at Goodyear’s Wingfoot Lake facility, where he supervised their airship operations and was the pilot of the Wingfoot Lake blimp.

Blimps Used for Advertising

The first Goodyear blimp used for advertising was the Pilgrim. Built in 1925, Goodyear’s Pilgrim was the first commercial non-rigid airship flown using helium which was much safer than the flammable hydrogen. A passenger car was held on by internal cables. The Pilgrim was completed on May 25, 1925 and made it’s first flight on June 3. For the first flights the blimp was inflated with hydrogen but on July 18, the Pilgrim was christened by Florence Litchfield, wife of Goodyear president, P. W. Litchfield. The Pilgrim was inflated with helium for this flight.

Photo taken of downtown Akron, Ohio from blimp

Photo by Sandy Bee Lynn taken of downtown Akron, Ohio while riding in a Goodyear Blimp.

The Pilgrim was also the first Blimp to be used for public relations and was decorated each December for the company’s “Santa Claus Express” program. In 1925, toys were delivered by Santa (Goodyear employee Jack Yolton). The pilot was Carl Wollam.

When the Pilgrim was retired on December 30, 1931, it had made 4,765 flights, carried 5,355 passengers, flown a total of 2,880 hours, and covered 153,000 kilometers (95,000 miles).
The gondola, or control car, had a magnesium-coated steel-tube framework covered with thin metal sheeting. It could accommodate the pilot and two passengers in the comfort of blue mohair velour upholstered seats with mahogany finished veneer. The gondola is on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution.

USS Shenandoah

The Shenandoah (mentioned earlier) became the first rigid airship to be filled with non-flammable helium. It was the first of four United States Navy rigid airships and was constructed during 1922–23 at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, and first flew in September 1923. It developed the U.S. Navy’s experience with rigid airships, and made the first crossing of North America by airship. The USS Shenandoah had Zachary Lansdowne, a young naval officer as it’s captain.

Lansdowne, who was born in Greenville Ohio (close to Dayton) was an experienced officer. In October of 1924, the Shenandoah left Lakehurst New Jersey for a cross-country trip. The flight was to be a public relations occasion for the U.S. Navy. The trip of over 9,000 miles would travel over the southern states along the Mexican border and then up the coast to Washington. The trip home went south to Texas and then north passing over the midwest. When the airship reached Greenville Ohio, Lansdowne passed over his boyhood home where his mother waved from below. As the Shenandoah continued east over Ohio, it passed over the small town of Ava, just miles away from where it would crash in less than a year.

In September of 1925, the USS Shenandoah left Lakehurst to embark on a six-day trip, which was it’s 57th flight. The Navy wanted to show off the airship at fairs in the midwest. At the beginning of the flight, the weather looked agreeable but when the Shenandoah came close to Cambridge Ohio, there was lightning in the sky to the northwest. Also at this time, the wind increased. The interior of the airship began to break apart and two crew members were plummeted to their death. Lansdowne and other crew members were in the control car which then fell to the earth and Lansdowne and 11 more crewmen were killed.

Another crash, which included the tail section, caught in a tree and finally landed in a valley and 18 crewmen were lucky to still be alive. The third crash site was where the front section came down with seven more crewmen inside who survived. In all, 14 men died and 29 survived the crashes. There is a monument in Ava, Ohio dedicated to the men who lost their lives. Author Aaron J. Keirns, has written a book titled, Ohio’s Airship Disaster, that tells the story of the ill-fated airship.

To be continued….This is the first article in a series of articles on the History of Blimps in Akron, Ohio by local author and former Slater & Zurz LLP client Sandy Bee Lynn.  

 

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