History of Blimps in Akron, Ohio Part 2

As noted previously in The History of Blimps in Akron, Ohio (Part 1) article, Goodyear built and operated the first U.S. commercially licensed blimp in 1925. That first Goodyear blimp, which was used for advertising was Pilgrim, which was also the first blimp to fly with safe helium rather than flammable hydrogen. The Pilgrim touched down on the roof of the M. O’Neil Co. building in Akron, Ohio in June 1928 as a promotional stunt. Downtown office workers and shoppers watched the landing. The next blimp, which would become the prototype of the Goodyear fleet was the Puritan, which was built in 1928. Other blimps which were built in 1929 were the Volunteer, the Mayflower and the Vigilant. A larger ship, the Defender, was built in 1929.

Other Notable Blimps

In August of 1929 there were a few more significant moments in the history of buoyant flight. On August 19 the U.S. Navy’s first and as it turned out only successful metal clad airship, the ZMC-2 (Zeppelin Metal-Clad, 200,000 cubic feet in capacity) made it’s first flight. It was built by the Aircraft Development Corporation, a division of Detroit Aircraft Corporation at the Naval Air Station Grosse Ile on the Northwestern side of Lake Erie which is south of Detroit. Many writers called the all-metal dirigible the “flying tin can.” The Aircraft Development Corporation was founded by Carl B. Fritsche, an aviation enthusiast and Ralph Upson who was a record-setting balloonist. Fritsche was able to get financial backing from Henry and Edsel Ford, as well as other local Detroit industrialists.

Up until this ship was built, dirigibles were covered with cloth and rubber fabric, stretched over metal frames. These ships (the first dirigibles) were also larger and longer whereas the ZMC-2 was more of an egg-shape. It was thought by some that the shape could help it withstand buffeting winds better. The Literary Digest of September 7, 1929 said, “She is built of hundreds of strips of paper-thin metal running around the circumference of the ship, and riveted together with a “sewing-machine” which operates with very thin wire.”

US Navy Airship ZMC2

The ZMC-2 at Lakehurst, New Jersey with handling crew / Photo courtesy of Ryan Crierie

In one of it’s first flights, the ZMC-2 flew to Cleveland to participate in the National Air Races which were held on August 30, 1929. Attendance at the first National Air Race held in Cleveland was 75,000. Among dignitaries attending the race were Anne and Charles Lindbergh and aviatrix Amelia Earhart. On that first day of the National Air Races, Earhart christened the airship Defender.

The Defender

Since 1928 Goodyear had named its blimps after the U.S. winners of the America’s Cup yacht race. The names came about because of Goodyear CEO Paul W. Litchfield, who viewed the airships as being like “yachts in the sky.” The Defender was the United States yacht winner of the tenth America’s Cup in 1895.

In 1930, the Goodyear blimp Defender became the first airship in the world to carry a lighted sign. The sign was developed by H. Webster Crum and named Neon-O-Gram. The sign was comprised of ten removable aluminum-framed panels, which were attached to the side of the Defender and allowed static text to be displayed using neon light tubes. Each panel weighed 35 pounds and stood six feet tall and four feet wide. On October 14 1930, the Defender made it’s way towards Goodyear President Paul W. Litchfield’s mansion, The Anchorage, on Merriman Road. (According to the goodyearblimp.com website – Relive History).

In 1935, instead of developing a new design airship, the Navy purchased the Defender for use as a trainer and utility airship assigning it the designator G-1. It collided with another blimp in June of 1942 and both blimps were destroyed in a mid-air collision. The two blimps were conducting experimental visual and photographic observations during night flight. For footage of the maiden flight of ZMC-2, see youtube.com / First All Metal Airship (1929).

Graf Zeppelin

On August 7, 1929, right before midnight, the Graf Zeppelin took off from Lakehurst Naval Air Station New Jersey in the first successful round-the-world airship flight. American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst was the major commercial backer of the project and sent four of his newspaper staff as passengers on the flight. Expenses were offset by large numbers of souvenir mail to and/or from Lakehurst, Germany, Tokyo, and Los Angeles. Hearst correspondent Lady Grace Drummond-Hay was on board making her the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by air. Also representing Hearst among the passenger complement were correspondents Karl von Wiegand and Australian Arctic explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins, and photographer and newsreel cameraman Robert Hartmann. The US Government was represented by Naval airshipmen LCDR Charles Rosendahl and LT Jack C. Richardson who flew as official observers.

Graf Zeppelin Photo

AP Photo


The 2,996 mile, 51-hour-13-minute transcontinental flight across the United States took the Graf over 13 states and such cities as El Paso, Kansas City, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit before arriving back at Lakehurst from the west on the morning of August 29, three weeks after it had departed from the east. Flying time for the four Lakehurst to Lakehurst legs was 12 days, 12 hours and 13 minutes while the entire circumnavigation (including stops) took 21 days, 5 hours and 31 minutes and covered 20,651 miles. It was at the time the fastest circumnavigation of the globe.

In July of 1931, the Graf Zeppelin made a flight to the Arctic Circle. According to airships.net, Graf Zeppelin’s 1931 Arctic Flight was both a scientific expedition and a dramatic display of the airship’s ability under extreme conditions. The ship carried a team of scientists from Germany, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Sweden on an exploration of the Arctic, making meteorological observations, measuring variations in the earth’s magnetic field in the latitudes near the North Pole, and making a photographic survey of unmapped regions using a panoramic camera that automatically took several pictures per minute. The size, payload, and stability of the zeppelin allowed heavy scientific instruments to be carried and used with an accuracy that would not have been possible with the airplanes of the day.

The flight covered over 8,270 miles in 136 flying hours between July 24 and July 31, 1931 and literally changed the map of the Arctic region with the information obtained during the flight. The Graf Zeppelin’s Arctic expedition had three principal scientific goals: mapping and geographic exploration of poorly charted Arctic areas; metereological observations of the upper air of the Arctic and measurement of the earth’s magnetic field in the Arctic region.

HM Airship R100

A lesser know blimp, the HM (His Majesty’s) Airship R100 was built in rural Yorkshire, England in 1925. When the work was finished she made her first flight on December 16, 1929. The R100 flew from the airfield in Howden, East Yorkshire to York, then changed course for an airfield in Bedfordshire. The airship was propelled by six Rolls Royce Condor engines. At a speed trial conducted in January of 1930, exactly one month after her maiden voyage, the R100 reached over 80 miles per hour, breaking records and making her the fastest airship in the world.

Wanting to show off the prowess of the R100, plans were made to fly to Canada. The R100 left for Canada on July 29,1930. The airship arrived at a mooring mast in Saint-Hubert, Quebec in 78 hours, and stayed at Montreal for twelve days. Crowds of up to 100,000 people visited the airfield. Here, it was hoped, was the future of affordable trans-Atlantic flight. The elegant airship contained a double staircase which led down to an interior dining room. Flanked on each side were two large panoramic windows allowing a two tier promenade deck giving the interior a large, open and light feel. The R100 could carry 100 passengers in a selection of accommodations; an arrangement of 14 two-berth and 18 four-berth cabins were available.

After Montreal, the R100 departed for a 24 hour passenger flight to Ottawa, Toronto and Niagara Falls. In August, she spent a few short hours hovering over Toronto. Then, she returned home to England, arriving there after a flight of just under 58 hours. The trans-Atlantic
flight of the R100 to Canada was a success.

The Hindenburg

Due to the success of the Graf Zeppelin, a new airship was built and launched in 1936. Probably the most well-known airship of the past, the Hindenburg, which was named in honor of Paul von Hindenburg, was christened in Germany. The airship was controversial right from the beginning because the new ruler of Germany, Adolf Hitler, had no interest in dirigibles and made it known that he would never ride in one. He didn’t think they could be used for war purposes because airplanes were faster. Before it’s initial flight, the Hindenburg and the Graf Zeppelin made a flight over Germany dropping propaganda leaflets.

The ship was scheduled to make ten round trips to the United States with the first flight scheduled for May, 1936. There were 50 passengers who were charged $400 for a one-way fare and $720 round trip. It was a gentle trip without air or sea sickness. The Hindenburg was very luxurious with a lightweight piano in the lounge, first class dining, and a bar. There were 25 rooms with an upper and lower berth. There were also fold-away celluloid washbasins and a writing table in the rooms. Hot and cold running water was available in each room as well – all the comforts of home. After this first flight, the airship made nine more trips to the United States that year.

Among the passengers on board the maiden flight of the Hindenburg was Harold Gustav Dick, 29, of Akron, Ohio. Harold Dick was sent to Germany in May, 1934 as the Goodyear-Zeppelin company representative in that country. Dick worked closely with all the leading figures in zeppelin aviation, and was an observer on numerous zeppelin flights. Another Akronite on board was Karl Fickes who was 34 years of age. Fickes was head of Goodyear’s blimp operations.

The Hindenburg also demonstrated its propaganda value on August 1, 1936 when the ship flew over the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Spectators in the Olympic stadium and crowds of up to 3 million Germans and visitors in the streets of Berlin watched Hindenburg cruise above the city for more than an hour at an altitude of approximately 750 feet. Under the command of Max Pruss, Hindenburg carried 65 passengers and over 1,700 pounds of mail (which was dropped by parachute over Berlin’s Tempelhof airfield). The flight was a propaganda triumph for the Nazi government. (airships.net).

In October of 1936, the Hindenburg returned to Frankfort Germany with 49 passengers from Lakehurst. This was the last flight of the tourist season. Before the new season started in 1937, additional berths were installed which meant they could carry more passengers.


AP Photo

The first week of May 1937 was the start of the new season for the airship, which was nicknamed the “luxury queen of the skies.” The Hindenburg left Germany with 97 people which included passengers and crew. The crossing of the Atlantic Ocean was again uneventful and soon the airship was gliding over the Empire State Building in New York City. The ship, with black swastikas painted on the tail fins, was an impressive sight. After flying over Manhattan, the airship approached the Lakehurst airfield where it was to land. The crew had waited two hours for inclement weather to get better so that they could land when they finally got the go-ahead. There was still a light rain falling as the Hindenburg approached the field. As the ship hovered about 75 feet over the field, a spark of light suddenly appeared near the tail of the dirigible and burst into flames. The flames spread quickly and engulfed the entire airship in less than a minute. Hydrogen cells were exploding which sent the flames towards the front of the airship.

Some passengers jumped from the burning airship as it fell. Sixty two people survived the explosions and fire of the Hindenburg. Thirteen passengers and twenty two crewmen and a member of the ground crew were killed that evening in Lakehurst. There were many witnesses to the carnage and later the entire world was to see a newsreel and hear a radio description of that disastrous event. The enthusiasm that people had for traveling in a dirigible was dashed after the Hindenburg disaster.

After The Hindenburg

In 1938 the Graf Zeppelin II made its maiden flight. This airship was the last of the great German rigid airships built by the Zeppelin Luftschiffbau Company in Germany. During the early 20th century they were leaders in the design and manufacture of rigid airships, specifically of the Zeppelin type. The company was founded by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Graf Zeppelin II made 30 flights over 11 months in 1938–39 before being scrapped in 1940. Because of the disaster of the Hindenburg and the refusal of the United States to sell helium to Germany, the Graf Zeppelin II was scrapped in 1940. The Nazis of Germany ordered the Graf Zeppelin and other dirigibles dismantled and used for scrap metal during the war. It seemed as though the days of the giant German zeppelins were over.

The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company

In 1917, the main Goodyear Company created a subsidiary known as the Goodyear Zeppelin Company to manufacture zeppelins. This company was the precursor to the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation which was incorporated in December of 1939. During World War II the company manufactured 104 airships for the military at its Akron facility. The firm also built F4U Corsair planes for the United States Navy. When Goodyear created the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation in 1939, this branch of the company employed just thirty workers. With World War II’s outbreak, by 1942 the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation consisted of thirty five thousand employees.

To be continued….This is the second 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. To read her first article, please visit this link: The History of Blimps in Akron, Ohio (Part 1). Her next article will focus on Goodyear’s blimps throughout the early years and into World War II and after.