This day in 1923 marked the inaugural flight of America’s first naval rigid airship, the USS Shenandoah. The word is apparently derived from the Iroquian for “deer” (although some have suggested it also means “daughter of the stars”), but the vessel was actually named after Shenandoah Valley in West Virginia, home of the Secretary of the Navy, Edwin Denby, whose wife “christened” the airship on 10th September 1923.
The craft was designed for reconnaissance work, similar to that carried out by German airships during the First World War. It was also thought that following pre-commissioning trials, the Shenandoah would be able to carry out long-range, and low speed flights, gain important weather data, and possibly even undertake a trip to the Arctic.
Probably the most significant change to previous airships was that the Shenandoah used helium rather than the much more volatile hydrogen. However, one main problem was that helium was not readily available at the time and with a volume in excess of two million cubic feet, it required a significant proportion of the world’s reserves to get the vessel airborne.
In January 1924, the upper tail fin covering tore during a gale, whilst the craft was moored to its mast. That caused the vessel to roll, ripping it away from its mooring and ultimately puncturing both gas bags. The Arctic expedition was cancelled whilst repairs were completed, but when the Shenandoah returned to service, concerns remain about the possible effects of extremes of weather on a craft that was basically lighter than air.
On 2nd September, almost two years to the day after it made its first flight, the Shenandoah left her base in New Jersey for a voyage (her 57th) that would be both a publicity trip, and an opportunity to test a new mooring mast in Michigan. Early on the morning of 3rd September however, whilst flying over Ohio, the crew lost control of the airship during violent storms; a sudden updraft forced the craft to a height beyond the pressure limits of the helium gas bags, resulting in the eventual fracture of the overstressed hull.
The commander (Zachary Lansdowne) was killed, as were several other men in the cable-suspended control cabin. Miraculously though, twenty-nine survived, having been in one of three sections of the craft that descended like a free balloon. Sadly, some of those survivors would later perish with USS Akron (courtesy of another weather-related incident), but at the time the loss of the Shenandoah was arguably America’s most significant aviation disaster.
Thousands of people came to the crash site, where the wreckage was looted. An official enquiry subsequently resulted in improvements to airship design and construction, and it also revealed that Lansdowne, who lived in Ohio, had argued against the flight because of the prevalence of turbulent weather patterns in the area; but the voyage was only postponed, not cancelled, because the powers that be were intent on showing off their technology...
And, in fairness, it would be hard to argue that the last flight of the USS Shenandoah did not make the headlines... sadly it was for all the wrong reasons.