6 May 1937: After a three-day Trans-Atlantic crossing from Frankfurt, Germany, the rigid airship Hindenburg (D-LZ129) arrived at Lakehurst, New Jersey, with 36 passengers and 61 crewmembers.
At 7:25 p.m., while the airship was being moored, it suddenly caught fire. The fabric covering burned first, but then the hydrogen gas contained in the buoyancy tanks exploded and burned. Hindenburg settled to the ground and was completely destroyed within 30 seconds.
Of those on board, 13 passengers and 22 crewmembers died. One member of the ground crew was also killed.
Surprisingly, though there were many survivors and witnesses—as well as newsreel footage of the accident—the cause has never been determined.
This dramatic accident ended the airship passenger industry.
12 February 1935: The United States Navy rigid airship USS Macon (ZRS-5), under the command of Lieutenant Commander Herbert Victor Wiley, crashed into the Pacific Ocean off Monterey Bay, on the central California coastline. The airship soon sank to the sea floor, approximately 1,500 feet (457 meters) below. Of the crew of 76 men, 74 survived.
During an earlier transcontinental flight, USS Macon had encountered severe turbulence while crossing mountains in Arizona. A diagonal girder in one of the ring frames failed. Temporary repairs were made, but permanent repairs were deferred until the next scheduled overhaul.
On 12 February 1935, the airship flew into a storm near Point Sur, California. The ring frame failed and the upper vertical fin was lost. Pieces of broken girders punctured several of the aft helium cells.
With the loss of helium, Macon lost rear buoyancy and began to settle. To compensate, all engines were run at full power and ballast was released. The airship began to climb with a nose-up pitch angle. When it passed 2,800 feet (853.4 meters) altitude, it reached its Pressure Altitude Limit (“Pressure Height”). At this point, expanding helium began to vent from the gas cells. Macon continued rising until reaching 4,850 feet (1,478.3 meters), by which time it had lost so much helium that the engines could no longer keep it airborne and it again began to settle toward the ocean’s surface. The descent took twenty minutes.
One sailor jumped from the airship, but did not survive the fall. Another swam back to the sinking ship to collect personal belongings and drowned.
Survivors were rescued by three U.S. Navy Omaha-class light cruisers, USS Cincinnati (CL-6), USS Richmond (CL-9), and USS Concord (CL-10), which had responded to Macon‘s distress signal. Lieutenant Commander Wiley was commended by Claude A. Swandon, Secretary of the Navy, for his handling of the accident, and he was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for personally rescuing a member of the crew at the risk of his own life.
USS Macon was the U.S. Navy’s last rigid airship. For the next twenty years, all lighter-than-air craft were non-rigid “blimps”.
USS Macon was built by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation at Akron, Ohio. It was launched 21 April 1933, and commissioned 23 June 1933. Macon was constructed of duralumin ring frames and girders, covered with a fabric envelope. The rigid airship was 785 feet (239.3 meters) long with a maximum diameter of 132 feet, 10 inches (40.488 meters). The overall height was 146 feet, 2 inches (44.552 meters). The airship displaced 7,401,260 cubic feet of air (209,580 cubic meters). Lift was provided by 6,500,000 cubic feet (184,060 cubic meters) of non-flammable helium gas contained in 12 rubberized fabric gas cells.
Macon had a dead weight of 108.2 tons (98,157 kilograms) and a useful lift of 160,644 pounds (72,867 kilograms).
Propulsion was provided by eight water-cooled, fuel-injected, 33.251 liter (2,029.077-cubic-inch-displacement) Maybach Motorenbau GmbH VL-2 overhead valve 60° V-12 gasoline engines producing a maximum 570 horsepower at 1,600 r.p.m., each, or 450 horsepower at 1,400 r.p.m. for cruise. In addition to gasoline, the VL-2 could also use blau gas (similar to propane) as fuel. The engines were reversible and drove Allison Engineering Co. out-drives, which turned three-bladed, fixed-pitch, rotatable propellers. The VL-2 is 6 feet, 5 inches (1.96 meters) long, 3 feet, 0 inches (0.91 meters) wide and 3 feet, 2 inches (0.97 meters) high. It weighs 2,530 pounds (1,148 kilograms).
The airship had a maximum speed of 75.6 knots (87.0 miles per hour/140.0 kilometers per hour).
USS Macon was armed with eight Browning .30-caliber machine guns for defense. It also carried five Curtiss-Wright Airplane Division F9C-2 Sparrowhawk reconnaissance airplanes in an internal hangar bay. These were small single-place, single-engine biplanes, with a length of 20 feet, 7 inches (6.274 meters) and wingspan of 25 feet, 5 inches (7.747 meters). The Sparrowhawk had an empty weight of 2,114 pounds (959 kilograms) and loaded weight of 2,776 pounds (1,259 kilograms).
The F9C-2 was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, 971.930-cubic-inch displacement (15.927 liter) Wright Aeronautical Division Whirlwind R-975E-3 (R-975-11, -24 or -26) nine-cylinder radial engine with a compression ratio of 6.3:1. The R-975E-3 had a normal power rating of 420 horsepower at 2,200 r.p.m., and 440 to 450 horsepower at 2,250 r.p.m. for takeoff, depending on variant. These were direct drive engines which turned two-bladed propellers. They were 3 feet, 7.00 inches to 3 feet, 7.47 inches (1.092–1.104 meters) long, 3 feet, 11 inches to 3 feet, 11.25 inches (1.143–1.149 meters) in diameter, and weighed from 660 to 700 pounds (299–317.5 kilograms).
The Sparrowhawk had a maximum speed of 176 miles per hour (283 kilometers per hour), a range of 297 miles (478 kilometers) and a service ceiling of 19,200 feet (5,852 meters).
The airplane was armed with two fixed Browning .30-caliber machine guns, synchronized to fire forward through the propeller arc.
Four of Macon‘s fighters, Bureau of Aeronautics serial numbers A9058–A9061, were lost when the airship went down.
Herbert Victor Wiley was born at Wheeling, Missouri, 16 May 1891. He was the second of three children of Joel Augustine Wiley, a dry goods merchant, and Minnie Alice Carey Wiley.
Herbert Victor Wiley entered the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, as a midshipman, 10 May 1911. During his third year, Midshipman Wiley served aboard the battleship USS Wisconsin (BB-9). “Doc” Wiley graduated 5 June 1915 and was commissioned an ensign, United States Navy.
Ensign Wiley was assigned to the Pennsylvania-class armored cruiser USS San Diego (ACR-6), then the flagship of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Ensign Wiley was promoted to the rank of lieutenant (junior grade), effective 15 October 1917. On this same date, Wiley was promoted to the temporary rank of lieutenant. This rank became permanent 1 July 1920.
Lieutenant Wiley married Miss Marie Frances Scroggie, circa 1919. They would have two sons, Gordon Scroggie Wiley and David Carey Wiley. Mrs Wiley died 17 September 1930 in Los Angeles County, California.
On 11 April 1923, Lieutenant Wiley was assigned to the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, New Jersey. He served aboard the U.S. Navy’s first rigid airship, USS Shenandoah (ZR-1), and was aboard on its first flight, 4 September 1923. A year later, as Shenandoah‘s mooring officer, Wiley was standing by at Lakehurst, New Jersey, when, on 3 September 1925, the airship was destroyed during a violent storm. Of its 40-man crew, 14 were killed.
Lieutenant Wiley was then assigned to the dirigible USS Los Angeles (ZR-3), 19 January 1925. (Los Angeles was built by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH, and designated LZ-126. It was commissioned in the U.S. Navy in 1924.) Wiley was promoted to lieutenant commander 17 December 1925 and transferred to NAS Pensacola, Florida. In 1928, Lieutenant Commander Wiley served as the executive officer of Los Angeles. He commanded the airship, April 1929–April 1930.
Lieutenant Commander Wiley was the executive officer of USS Akron (ZRS-4) when it was destroyed in a storm off the coast of New Jersey, 4 April 1933. Of the crew of 76 men, only 3, including Wiley, survived.
Wiley took command of USS Macon 11 July 1934.
On 23 September 1935, Lieutenant Commander Wiley married Mrs. Charlotte Mayfield Weeden (née Charlotte May Mayfield) in Los Angeles County, California.
Lieutenant Commander Wiley was promoted to the rank of commander 1 November 1935. He was assigned to the battleship USS Mississippi (BB-41). In 1938, he transferred to the U.S. Naval Academy.
Commander Wiley was promoted to the rank of captain, with date of rank from 1 July 1941.
During World War II, Captain Wiley commanded Destroyer Squadron 29 (consisting of thirteen Clemson-class “flush-deck” destroyers) with the Asiatic Fleet. His flagship was USS Paul Jones (DD-230).
Captain Wiley took command of the Colorado-class battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48), 15 January 1944. The battleship had been sunk at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, 7 December 1941. It was refloated and returned to a shipyard on the West Coast of the United States, where it was completely rebuilt and modernized. Wiley was awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism at the Battle of the Surigao Strait, 25 October 1944.¹
During the Battle of Okinawa, Captain Wiley remained on the bridge of his battleship for thirty consecutive days. During this period, West Virginia was hit by a kamikaze suicide attack.
Captain Wiley served as West Virginia‘s commanding officer until 2 May 1945.
Captain Wiley was promoted to the rank of rear admiral, and commanded a naval aviation facility on the island of Trinidad. While there, he suffered a heart attack. He retired from the U.S. Navy on 1 January 1947, after nearly 36 years of service.
Following his naval career, Admiral Wiley was the dean of the School of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.
Rear Admiral Herbert Victor Wiley, United States Navy, died at Pasadena, California, 28 April 1954. He was buried at the Golden Gate National Cemetery.
¹ The Battle of the Surigao Strait was a major naval engagement between surface forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States Navy, a part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf. It was the last battleship vs. battleship naval battle.
History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume XII, Leyte, June 1944–January 1945, by Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, United States Navy. Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1958.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf 23–26 October 1944, by Lieutenant Commander Thomas Joshua Cutler, United States Navy. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., New York, 1994.
17 October 1913: On the morning of a scheduled test flight at Flugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof, an airfield south east of Berlin, Germany, Marine-Luftschiffes L2, the second rigid airship built for the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy) by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin at Friedrichshafen, was delayed by problems with the engines. The morning sun heated the hydrogen contained in the airship’s gas bags, causing the gas to expand and increasing the airship’s buoyancy.
Once released, L2 rapidly rose to approximately 2,000 feet (610 meters). The hydrogen expanded even more due to the decreasing atmospheric pressure. To prevent the gas bags from rupturing, the crew vented hydrogen through relief valves located along the bottom of the hull.
In this early design, the builders had placed the relief valves too close to the engine cars. Hydrogen was sucked into the engines’ intakes and detonated. L2 caught fire and a series of explosions took place as it fell to the ground.
All 28 persons on board were either killed immediately, or died of their injuries shortly thereafter.
At the time of the accident, L2 had made ten flights, for a total of 34 hours, 16 minutes.
A contemporary news article described the accident:
AIRSHIP AND BALLOON NEWS.
The Wreck of the Zeppelin.
ELSEWHERE in this issue we comment upon the terrible catastrophe which befell the German Navy’s new Zeppelin L2, on Friday last week, just outside the Johannisthal aerodrome, near Berlin. From the following official account it appears that the airship was making a trial voyage:—
“She started this morning for a high flight, with twenty-eight persons on board. After three minutes she had attained a height of two hundred metres (over 600 feet) when flames burst forth between the fore engine-car and the envelope. In two or three seconds the whole ship was on fire and an explosion occurred. At the same time the airship fell slowly head downwards, until she was forty metres (130 feet) from the earth. Here a second explosion took place, presumably of benzine. When the vessel struck the earth a third explosion occurred, and the framework collapsed. A company of pioneers and guide-rope men hastened to the scene, and doctors were immediately in attendance. Two of the crew were picked up outside the ship still alive, but they died shortly afterwards. Lieut. Bleuel, who was severely injured, was taken to hospital. The remaining 25 of the crew had been killed during the fall of the airship or by the impact with the earth. The cause of the disaster appears to have been, so far as is at present known, an outbreak of fire in or over the fore engine-car.”
The commanding officer was Lieut. Freyer, and he was assisted by Lieuts. A. Trenck, Hansmann, and Busch, with thirteen warrant and petty officers. There were also on board as representing the German Navy, Commander Behnisch, Naval Construtors Neumann, and Pretzker, and three secretaries, named Lehmann, Priess, and Eisele. The Zeppelin Co. were represented by Capt. Glund and three mechanics, and Lieut. Baron von Bleuel was a passenger. The last mentioned was the only one rescued alive, and he died from his injuries a few hours later.
One of the first messages of sympathy was addressed by President Poincare’ to the German Emperor.
Extraordinary scenes, showing the way in which the calamity was regarded in Germany, were witnessed at the funeral service of 23 of the victims, held on Tuesday at the Garrison Church. Upon each of the coffins Prince Adalbert placed a wreath from the German Emperor and Empress, who with the Crown Prince and princess, and Princes Eitel Friedrich, Adalbert, August Wilhelm, Oscar and Joachim attended in person, while the Government was represented by the Chancellor, Admiral Tirpitz, the Chief of the General Staff, Field Marshall von Moltke, and many other officers. Count Zeppelin was also present.
— FLIGHT, First Aero Weekly in the World. No. 252. (No. 43, Vol. V.), 25 October 1913 at Page 1179
The Marine-LuftschiffesL2 had been designated LZ 18 by the builders. Both identifications are commonly used (sometimes, L.II). Technical data for L2 is limited and contradictory. One source describes it as having a length of 158 meters (518 feet, 4½ inches), with a diameter of 16.6 meters (54 feet, 5½ inches). Another states 492 feet.
Eighteen hydrogen-filled gas bags were placed inside the rigid framework and covered with an aerodynamic envelope. The airship had a volume of 27,000 cubic meters (953,496 cubic feet), and a lift capacity of 11.1 tons (24,471 pounds).
Four water-cooled, normally-aspirated, 22.921 liter (1,398.725 cubic inches) Maybach C-X six-cylinder inline engines were carried in two cars beneath the hull. They produced 207 horsepower at 1,250 r.p.m., burning bensin (gasoline). Each engine drove a four-blade propeller through a drive shaft and gear arrangement. These engines weighed 414 kilograms (913 pounds), each.
L2 had a maximum speed of approximately 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour). At reduced speed, L2 had a 70 hour radius of action.
16 October 1910: Maurice Clément-Bayard flew the dirigible, Clément-Bayard No. 2, from the Astra Clément-Bayard airship hangar at La Motte-Breuil, France, to Wormwood Scrubs, England, with six passengers. This was the first crossing of the English Channel by airship. The 244 mile (393 kilometer) distance was covered in less than six hours.
The Chronicle Annual Register reported,
The airship Clément-Bayard No. 2 travelled from near Paris to Wormwood Scrubbs between 6.55 a.m. and 1.25 p.m. Her average altitude was 200–300 metres, her average speed about 60 kil. hourly.
—CHRONICLE OF EVENTS IN 1910, Part II, at Page 33
A contemporary newspaper article described the event:
LONDON, October 16.
The airship Clement Bayard II., carrying seven passengers, has made a remarkable journey from Compiegne, 52 miles to the north-east of Paris, to London, alighting at Shepherd’s Bush, five miles to the west of St. Paul’s Cathedral, in 6 hours, 11 minutes. The distance travelled was approximately 150 miles.
The Clement Bayard left Compiegne at 7.15 a.m. yesterday, the weather conditions being perfect at the time. Boulogne, about 75 miles distant, was reached three hours later, and then the trip across the Channel was made in three quarters of an hour.
French torpedo-boat destroyers were echelonned across the English Channel, and acted as guides to the airship as far as Folkestone, on the coast of Kent, and 71½ miles east south-east of London.
The Clement Bayard, however, outdistanced each torpedo-boat destroyer in turn. Tunbridge, 42 miles beyond Folkestone, was reached at a quarter past 12, and three-quarters of an hour later St. Paul’s Cathedral, 29½ miles from Tunbridge, was passed, the Clement Bayard on this part of the journey going faster than motor-cars following the airship. The remaining distance to Shepherd’s Bush was accomplished shortly afterwards.
M. Clement Bayard was on board his airship, and the passengers also included Mr. William Harvey De Cros, the Unionist member for Hastings, who represented the British Parliamentary Aerial Committee.
The Clement Bayard I. was completed in April last, and was on the eve of making its departure for London, when the French Government exercised its right, and acquired the airship. In August M. Clement Bayard made several successful flights in the Clement Bayard II., the building of which was started immediately after the French Government acquired the Clement Bayard I. In September, 1909, the “Daily Mail” completed, at a cost of £5,000, a garage for an airship on land belonging to the War office. It was constructed to accommodate the Clement Bayard airship, which was to make the journey through the air from Paris to London. The British Government has the option of purchasing the vessel.
Maurice Clément-Bayard was the son of the company’s founder, Gustave Adolphe Clément-Bayard, and would succeed him after his father’s death.
The airship had been built for the Armée de Terre (the French Army), but because of the very high price, ₣200,000, it was not accepted. It was then sold to the British War Office for ₤18,000, more than twice the price the builders had offered to the French government. The British newspaper, The Daily Mail, contributed the cost of building an airship hangar.
After arriving in England, Clément-Bayard No. 2 was deflated for transport to another location. The airship was damaged in transit and was never repaired.
Clément-Bayard No. 2 was 76.5 meters (251 feet) long, with a diameter of 13.2 meters (43 feet). The dirigible had a volume of 6,500 cubic meters (229,545 cubic feet). It was powered by two water-cooled, normally-aspirated, 1,590.75-cubic-inch-dispalcement (26.068 liters) Clément-Bayard four-cylinder overhead cam engines, which produced 120 horsepower, each. These turned two, two-bladed, fixed-pitch laminated wood propellers with a diameter of 6 meters (19 feet, 8 inches) at 350 r.p.m.
According to an article in American Machinist,
. . . This engine is a four-cylinder, vertical, water-cooled motor, of the latest Clement racing type. The cylinders are cast separately and are copper jacketed; have a bore of 7.48 inches and a stroke of 9.05 inches[1,590.75 cubic inches, 26.07 liters], giving a horsepower estimated at over 200. The valves are mechanically operated and placed in the cylinder head. A magneto is used for ignition. The weight is 1100 pounds [499 kilograms].
There will be two of these motors used in the new Clement-Bayard airship being constructed for the British government; each motor having a propeller of its own, although when desired, both motors can run one propeller, or one motor can run two propellers.
—American Machinist, Volume 33, Part I, 7 April 1910, at Page 645
The airship was debated in the British Parliament, with a question asked by Mr. Herbert Pike-Pease, M.P. (later, 1st Baron Daryngton): “May I ask the right hon. Gentleman if he thinks the action of the War Office in regard to this airship was justified? If the airship was fit for service, why was it not used, and if it was not fit for service, why was it purchased?“
Colonel John Edward Bernard Seely, D.S.O., (Later, 1st Baron Mottistone, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., T.D., P.C., J.O., D.L.), the Secretary of State for War, replied, “I think part of the last two supplementary questions is answered in some of the replies I have just given. Of course, it is the fact that the envelope of this balloon leaked so badly that it would have been very costly to have inflated it. No doubt mistakes were made on both sides, by hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House, as well as by my Department, but we have not made half as many mistakes in this matter as our neighbours.“
Mr. Pike Pease then asked, “Was not the leakage known to the War Office before the ship was purchased?“
Colonel Seely answered, “It was before my time. There was a strong Committee of this House engaged in those transactions, and I understand they thought the airship was serviceable, and I suppose we thought it was when it was taken over. Mistakes must be made in a new matter of this kind. We have not made very many mistakes of a large kind in the matter of airships. We have been signally successful.“
Earlier in the debate, Colonel Seely stated that, “The engines are still available and are at the aircraft factory.“
—The Parliamentary Debates, 30 April 1913, at Page 1161.
8 October 1883: The first airship powered by an electric motor was flown by brothers Albert-Charles Tissandier (1839–1906) and Gaston Tissandier (1843–1899) at at Auteuil, a suburb of Paris, France.
The brothers were experienced aeronauts, having designed and built a number of balloons.
Gaston Tissandier described the event in La Nature:
From the end of September the gas apparatus was ready to operate., the balloon was stretched out upon the ground, under a long movable tent, so that it could be at once inflated; the car and motor were stored away under a shed, and my brother and I awaited fine weather in order to perform our experiment.
On Saturday, the 6th, a high barometer was noted, and on Sunday, the 7th, the weather became fine, with a slight wind, and we therefore decided that the experiment should be made the next day, Monday, October 8.
The inflating of the balloon was begun at 8 o’clock in the morning, and was continued uninterruptedly until half-past two in the afternoon. This operation was facilitated by the equatorial cords which hung from the right and left of the balloon, and along which were let down the bags of ballast. These cords are shown in Fig. 2, which gives a front view of the balloon. The aerial ship having been completely inflated, the car was at once fixed in place along with the ebonite reservoirs, each containing 30 liters of acid solution of bichromate of potash. At twenty minutes past three, after piling up the ballast in the car and balancing the latter, we slowly ascended into the air through a slight E.S.E. wind.
At the surface the wind was nearly null, but, as frequently happens, it increased in velocity with altitude, and we ascertained by the movement of the balloon over the earth that it attained at a height of 500 meters a velocity of 3 meters per second.
My brother was specially occupied in regulating the ballast in order to keep the balloon at a constant altitude, and not far from the surface of the earth. The balloon hovered over the earth very regularly at a height of four or five hundred meters. It remained constantly inflated, and the gas in excess escaped through expansion by opening, under its pressure, the lower automatic safety valve, the operation of which was very regular. . .
At thirty-five minutes past four we effected our descent upon a large plain in the neighborhood of Croissy-sur-Seine, where the maneuvers connected with landing were performed by my brother with complete success. We left the balloon inflated all night, and, on the next morning, it was found not to have lost the least quantity of gas, but was as fully inflated as on the preceding eve. . . .
—Translation of La Nature article published in Scientific American Supplement, Vol. XVI., No. 416, 22 December 1883, at Pages 6632–6634
The Tissandier brothers’ dirigible was the first to be powered by electricity. A 1.5 horsepower Siemens electric motor, turning 180 r.p.m., drove a two-bladed propeller through a reduction gear, producing 26 pounds of thrust (116 newtons). 24 bichromate of potash (potassium bichromate) cells provided electricity for the motor, which propelled the airship at 3 miles per hour (4.8 kilometers per hour).
The airship was 28 meters (91 feet, 10 inches) long with a maximum diameter of 9.2 meters (30 feet, 2 inches). Its gas capacity was 1,060 cubic meters (37,434 cubic feet). The total weight of the airship, with “two excursionists,” instruments and ballast, was 1,240 kilograms (2,734 pounds).
Scientific American described the airship:
“. . . It was constructed by Mr. Albert Tissandier, who very happily replaced the usual netting by a suspension covering formed of ribbons sewed to the longitudinal elliptical strips, according to the geometrical diagram. This suspension covering is fixed upon the sides of the balloon to two flexible rods which accurately adapt themselves to its form from one extremity to the other, and keep the entire affair in shape. To the lower part of the suspension covering there is attached a netting that terminates in twenty suspension ropes which support the car by its four upper corners.
“The car is in the shape of a cage and is constructed of bamboos, which are strengthened by cords and gutta-percha-covered copper wires. The suspension ropes are connected together horizontally by a ring formed of cordage fixed two meters above the car. To this ring, which distributes the traction equally during a descent, are attached the stoppage apparatus—the guide rope and the anchor-line. The rudder which consists of a large surface of unvarnished silk held in place by a bamboo rod, is also fitted to the stern. Teh car contains the motor, which is formed of 24 bichromate of potash elements that actuate a Siemens dynamo which is connected with the helix through the intermedium gearing. The motor has a power of 100 kilogrammeters, equivalent to that of 10 meu, and drives the helix, which is about 3 meters [9 feet, 10 inches] in diameter, at the rate of 180 revolutions per minute.”
—Scientific American Supplement, Vol. XVI., No. 416, 22 December 1883, at Page 6631