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When Giants Ruled the Sky

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When Giants Ruled the Sky

Exclusive excerpt for AIRSHIP from, When Giants Ruled the Sky: The Brief Reign and Tragic Demise of the American Rigid Airship by John J. Geoghegan.

Copyright John J. Geoghegan

Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, Chief of the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, departed Washington, D.C. accompanied by his naval aide early Monday afternoon, April 3rd, 1933. Normally, Moffett preferred flying to Lakehurst, New Jersey where his newest rigid airship, the USS Akron (ZRS-4) was based. After all, he was head of naval aviation. But the weather was sketchy, so he made the long drive in his staff car instead not wanting to risk being grounded.

When the Admiral arrived at Lakehurst Naval Air Station nearly six hours later the huge slab-like doors of Hangar No. 1 were already open. Inside, the Akron, her airframe poking through her canvas-covered hull like the ribs of a steer, hovered off the concrete floor. That something larger than a battleship could float in the air seemed counterintuitive--as if the airship were thumbing her nose at gravity. And yet there she was illuminated by overhead lights with a shadow beneath her proving it was no magic trick.

Moffett’s car pulled into the Akron’s hangar followed by a shrill whistle alerting the crew to fall in place. While the men came to attention, their breath visible in the chilly night air, the Akron’s captain, Commander Frank C. McCord, greeted Moffett with a smart salute.

NAS-Lakehurst was the heart of Moffett’s rigid airship program. Still, Moffett wasn’t satisfied with having a dirigible base on the east coast of the United States. He was building a second one in California as well. In the meantime, the culmination of everything America knew about big rigids operated just a few miles south of New York City.

There was nothing small about Moffett’s rigid airship program. From the size of its budget to the thousands of miles the Akron could fly without having to land, no string of superlatives quite did it justice.

There’s no denying the Akron was a window into the future. A miracle of modern engineering, she was state-of-the-art for the U.S. Navy when commissioned in 1931. Seven hundred and eighty-five feet long and 140 feet tall, she dwarfed everything around her including her crew which looked Lilliputian by comparison. Even King Kong, the giant ape in a new movie released the previous month was a chimp by comparison.

Size didn’t mean she was slow, however. The Akron was the fastest dirigible the Navy had ever flown. Her eight Maybach engines generated a top speed of more than 80 miles per hour. That wasn’t as fast as airplanes of the day, but the Akron didn’t need to be. Her job wasn’t to get some place in a hurry, but to scout thousands of square miles for days at 1 a time. This required range not speed. Able to travel more than 10,000 miles without refueling, the Akron was a marathoner not a sprinter.

Incredibly, she was also a self-contained city in the sky with everything she needed to keep her 80 man crew aloft for days on end. This included three separate mess halls plus a galley; three separate sleeping quarters for her officers, Chief Petty Officers, and enlisted men; “heads” with toilets and sinks (if not showers); navigation and radio rooms; a weather center; sick bay, smoking room, and captain’s cabin all residing inside her enormous hull connected by a labyrinth of catwalks, stairs and ladders. Additionally, the Akron not only had running water, but her own power plant to generate electricity. Eighteen telephones spread throughout the ship assisted communication while eight machine gun emplacements helped repel attack. There was even a sub cloud observation car that could be lowered on a cable to spy on the enemy below.

If that wasn’t impressive, the Akron was also a flying aircraft carrier. She not only carried two airplanes inside her belly, which could be deployed and retrieved in mid-flight, but a third which hung from a trapeze outside the airship. The world had seen nothing like it.

Unfortunately, the Akron also suffered from the same high hopes so many first born are saddled with. Although she’d only been flying 18 months, there was the feeling she wasn’t living up to expectations. Having experienced a series of mishaps as well as judged vulnerable to being shot down, the Akron had a long ways to go before proving herself an effective ocean-going scout. One flight wasn’t going to change that, but Rear Admiral Moffett wanted to be on board that night if for no other reason than to demonstrate she could fly even in inclement weather. As if being a wunderkind weren’t enough, the future of America’s airship industry depended on how the Akron performed. If she did well then the financial community would feel comfortable investing in passenger-carrying airships, but if the Akron failed to live up to expectations then the financial markets would steer clear of what they deemed a risky investment. In other words, Moffett to show the Akron could fly in poor weather if he wanted the financial community to invest in America’s nascent airship manufacturing industry. That’s why he didn’t want a fewstorm clouds preventing the Akron from taking off that night. Unfortunately, that decision would cost Moffett his life.

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