Learn about Life in the 1920s

Newspaper reports on the destruction of the Dirigible Shenandoah

THE TRAGIC COLLAPSE on September 3 of the Shenandoah, one of America's two great dirigibles of the Zeppelin type, seemed, under the first shock of the news, a grave blow to the cause of American aviation. Yet, if we may judge from the reaction of the nation's press, this disaster, involving tho it does the sacrifice of fourteen lives, will not check the development of planes and dirigibles for both military and commercial uses.

In some quarters, it is true, the destruction of the great silver-gray naval airship, whose beauty had become familiar to millions of our citizens, is still regarded as justifying a pessimistic view of the future of lighter - than - air flying machines. Thus several papers, shocked by the loss of valuable lives, discuss the disaster under such headings as, "Is It Worth While?" "Why Not Abandon Airships?" "The Passing of Dirigibles," and "No More Zeppelins." Some, while admitting that dirigibles might have a future in the commercial field, argued against replacing the Shenandoah with another dirigible.

But "it is not the American way to give up in the face of defeat," declares the Savannah News, which is confident that the loss of the big airship in a very violent thunder-storm over Ohio will not prevent our Government from continuing its experiments with both heavier- than-air and lighter-than-air flying machines. And the note sounded by this Georgia paper finds an echo in all sections of the country. "Americans are not going to give up the task of conquering the air," insists the Buffalo Evening. Post. Henry Ford, too, announces from his son's summer home at Seal Harbor, Maine, that the Shenandoah disaster will not affect his plans for developing airplanes and dirigibles. The men who died, the Albany Evening" News reminds us, "believed in the future of aerial navigation, were willing to risk their lives in pioneering, and would not have America say 'stop.'" "Sacrifice for a 'vision splendid' is never unavailing, and the blood of those who fall in battle for the skyways will become in truth the seed of ultimate victory," declares the Atlanta Journal. "To turn failure into success is the best tribute we can pay to the intrepidity and daring of aviation's fated pioneers," the Newark Evening News assures us.
Such "tragedies of progress" must not discourage us, agree such representative papers as the New York World, Commercial, and Evening Post: Cleveland Plain Dealer, Chicago Tribune, Journal of Commerce, and Daily News; Milwaukee Journal, Brooklyn Eagle, Minneapolis Journal, Philadelphia Public Ledger, Washington Evening Star, Baltimore Sun, Boston News Bureau, and Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph. Nor does the attitude of the Government seem to be out of harmony with this spirit.
President Coolidge, a dispatch assures us, will urge the Navy to build another great dirigible to replace the Shenandoah, and carry forward the conquest of the air; and Secretary of the Navy Wilbur is quoted as saying that the disaster will cause no immediate change in naval policy with respect to the use of huge rigid airships as an element of national defense." From the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey, a dispatch to the New York Times tells us that—


"A new airship of more than 5,000,000 cubic feet capacity, or twice the size of the Shenandoah, will replace that ill-fated vessel, in the opinion of naval officers here. Plans for a ship of this type are said to have been prepared by the Navy Department several months ago, and to be now in Washington.
"The new ship will be designed along lines similar to the giant dirigible now being built by the British Government. Experiments are now being conducted with Diesel oil-burning engines, it is said, in the hope of eliminating gasoline and the attendant hazard from fire."

The Shenandoah disaster created almost as great a sensation in Europe as in the United States, reports A. G. Gardiner in a Consolidated Press dispatch from London; but there, as here, we are told, the general opinion is that airship transportation is so important to the world that experiments must go on.
But while public opinion, as reflected in the press, does not seem in a mood to approve any panicky retreat from the field of aviation, neither does it seem content to ignore the problems raised by the Shenandoah disaster. The demand for a full investigation of our naval and military air policy was brought to a head immediately after the accident by the sensational charges of Col. William Mitchell, deposed assistant chief of the Army Air Service, who invited court-martial by declaring in a published statement that the loss of the Shenandoah was "the result of incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable ad- ministration of the War and Navy Departments." Public in- terest in the subject is now so thoroughly aroused, journalistic observers report, that the whole subject of American military aviation will have to be thrashed out in Congress this winter. In an editorial headed, "Stormy Days for Aviation," the New York Evening World has this to say:

"The effect of the Shenandoah tragedy on the immediate future policy of the country as to aircraft will be determined by the reactions of the members of Congress. In a sense the tragedy is a vindication of the 'old guard,' which has never shared the enthusiasm of the younger officials concerning the military value of the Air Service. The 'old guard,' including Secretary Wilbur, will point to the inability of a structurally perfect dirigible to weather a storm as making their case.
"If it be accepted as true that 'no structure made by human hands' could possibly have withstood the buffeting of the winds before which the Shenandoah crumpled, it will not be an easy matter to persuade Congress to appropriate money to replace the lost ship.
"The attitude of the head of the Navy, the present skepticism of the man in the street, and the traditional unfriendliness of Congress toward large appropriations for military purposes all combine to make the wrecking of the country's only home-made dirigible a serious blow to the development of the Air Service.
"The Shenandoah will certainly not be soon replaced, and while no one will seriously suggest the abandonment of the airplane, it will be difficult to convince the public that it is wise to continue building two-million-dollar dirigibles that are unable to ride a storm."

In this connection it is interesting to read the following comment in the Vancouver Sun, which argues that Canada is no less interested than the United States in the temporary loss of the PN-9 No. 1 and the complete destruction of the Shenandoah:

" If the Hawaii fiasco, the Shenandoah disaster and the attacks of Colonel Mitchell are of prime interest to the American nation, which now realizes that future national supremacy rests in the air, they are of no less import to Canada.
"This country and the United States may be separated politically and economically. But whether they like it or not, the peculiar exigencies of a real defense tie them up forever in air development.
"If that development, a new and highly technical branch of study that will require a tremendous amount of untrammeled creative brain effort, is going to be restricted to what can filter through the musty traditions of Army and Navy, little progress will be made. The future story of North American prowess in the air is being written right now in Washington."

While awaiting official information as to the cause or causes of the Shenandoah disaster, the public is offered a choice of various unofficial explanations. Six of these are listed by James Robbins in a Caldwell, Ohio, dispatch to the New York World:

  • "The stopping of two of the five motors in the storm.
  • "Inadequate fastening of her control and radio cabins, which dropt off.
  • "The breaking loose of gas-tanks and the tearing apart of her frame.
  • "Centralization of her water supply instead of distribution of it, causing a centered strain.
  • "The reported removal of eight of her eighteen safety-valves on her gas-cells, preventing the discharge of helium quickly enough when she shot up in the air.
  • "Strain of towing a target blimp at the end of a 500-yard steel cable in the Navy maneuvers off the Virginia Capes."
Says a Lakehurst dispatch to the New York Times:

"Checking up of the stories told by survivors of the Shenandoah indicates that a ' twister' or cyclonic disturbance which wrenched the nose off the Shenandoah was responsible for the wreck. The theory advanced by Capt. Anton Heinen, former Zeppelin pilot, that the removal of eight of the sixteen safety-valves was re- sponsible, is scouted by all of the remaining crew of the dirigible.
"All agree that the actual breaking-up of the ship occurred at or near the 3,500-foot level when the cells were only normally inflated, and point out that had the break been due to the bursting of one or more gas-cells, it would have occurred when the Shenandoah was shot up by an 'air geyser' to a height of 7,000 feet.
"Lieut. Joseph B. Anderson, aerological officer of the ship, states that as the airship started up after coming down from her highest altitude, Commander Lansdowne ordered gas to be valved, but when she shot downward again he tried to steady her by loosing some of the water ballast. He then gave orders to point her nose down and drive through the storm, but at that moment the ship seemed to be seized by two. parallel currents of air, one of which was traveling upward at a far greater speed than the other."

Says another correspondent, writing from the scene of the accident:

"Just what caused the accident is still a matter of doubt tonight, but there were two theories put forward by survivors of the ship. One was that the radio cabin and control cabin, which were wrenched loose and fell to the ground clear of the ship, left holes in the outer covering of the vessel through which the night gale rushed, ripping the helium bags to bits and causing unequal stresses which broke the ship in two. The other was that the gas-tanks broke loose, and in sliding through the ship smashed girders and so weakened the structure that it collapsed."

Capt. Anton Heinen thus explains his theory that the disaster was due to the reduced number of safety-valves for the escape of the helium gas:

"Those fourteen gallant men need not have been killed. An airship might possibly go through her whole career without ever being subject to an emergency such as that which arose on the fateful third of September. Yet it is for just such emergencies that the system of safety-valves is provided. At the time that her extremely able constructors turned her over to the Government of the United States, she was provided with safety-valves sufficient in number to withstand any kind of weather conditions which our past experience had encountered.
"I am afraid that a false feeling of security has brought about a change in the construction of the all-important safety-valve device, which was to safeguard the most precious thing aboard the ship—human lives—from destruction. From a device used for the protection of human life it has been changed to a device for saving the valuable helium contained in the gas-bags.
"The referred-to change in the plan and construction of the safety-valve system is the primary and only cause of the terrible disaster. As a result we have been deprived of many splendid friends and promising airmen. Then, too, we have lost the wonder ship Shenandoah, that has found a glorious but unnecessary place in the disaster list of airship history.
"In spite of what has happened, the airship, when properly constructed, handled and cared for, is the safest way of human transportation. Years that are to come will prove this to be so. And in the passing of years, with the greater and more pronounced success of airship transportation, will come the realization that the apparent greater regard for the safety of the helium than tor the lives of those now our heroes has brought about this ghastly situation.
"Time will show that the inexcusable change in the construction of the Shenandoah has caused the loss of part of her crew and the ship itself, which was such a tender part of my- heart and my life, and the pride of all who watched her float among the clouds."

According to an Associated Press dispatch, Commander Lansdowne of the Shenandoah, before starting on the trip, had criti- cized the new water-recovery system which was installed some weeks ago. One man quotes him as saying: "I don't like it. It's going to cause trouble in a high wind." The change involved is explained as follows:

"The original water-recovery system distributed the water recovered from exhaust gas of the engines to ballast bags scattered throughout the ship to counteract the loss in weight from gasoline consumption.
"The new system, installed at Section 110, near the place where the dirigible is said to have broken, concentrated a great part of the recovered water in a canvas bag holding three tons at the spot where the ship broke.
"Not only is it believed that the new system concentrated too much weight in one part of the ship, but in addition it is believed that the cutting of one of the main circular ribs of the ship and an intermediate rib for installation of the new system resulted in further weakness. These formed the main structure of the ship.
"The two ribs, or rings, as they are called in dirigible construction, were reunited by a square connection instead of the original circular form, and this also was criticized by Commander Lansdowne in private conversations just before departure of the ship."

But many of the survivors, we are told, say that the accident was caused by "the most feared of storms to an aviator, a 'line squall,' (is this what we call "Wind Shear" today?) which no craft, once caught in its clutches, could have survived. "The line in a line squall," explains Prof. Henry J. Cox, forecaster for the Chicago weather bureau, "is defined by the sudden clash of temperatures or of winds blowing from different directions." Mrs. Lansdowne is quoted as saying that her husband had grave misgivings about taking the Shenandoah over Ohio at this season, knowing the prevalence of such disturbances in that region.

Source: Literary Digest - September 19, 1925