11–14 May 1926: The famed Norwegian arctic explorer, Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen, departed Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, Norway, aboard the semi-rigid airship Norge.
The airship had been designed by Colonel Umberto Nobile and built at the Italian State Airship Factory at Rome, originally named simply N1. In discussions between Amundsen and Nobile, it was determined that N1 was not suitable for an arctic flight. Amundsen didn’t want to wait for a new lighter-than-air craft to be be built, so Nobile modified it. Amundsen purchased N1 and re-named it Norge.
According to an article in the 20 March 1924 edition of Flight, the airship was 106 meters (347 feet, 8 inches) in length, 26 meters (85 feet, 3 inches) in height, with a maximum diameter of 19.5 meters (64 feet). Buoyancy was provided by 19,000 cubic meters (670,700 cubic feet) of hydrogen. The airship had a useful load of 10,850 kilograms (10.5 tons). Its maximum speed was 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour).
Norge was propelled by three water-cooled, normally-aspirated 23.093 liter (1,409.225 cubic inch) Maybach-Motorenbau GmbH Mb.IV inline six-cylinder overhead valve (OHV) engines with four valves per cylinder and a compression ratio of 6.88:1. The engine was able to produce 240 pferdstarke (236.7 horsepower) at 1,400 r.p.m. The engines were placed in gondolas suspended by cables under the hull, and drove propellers through a clutch. A reverse gear was available.
With a 16-man expedition and Umberto Nobile as pilot, Amundsen departed Ny-Ålesund at 9:55 a.m., enroute to Nome, Alaska, via the North Pole. Norge arrived at the Pole at 1:25 a.m. GMT, 12 May, and descending to an altitude of 300 feet (91 meters), dropped three flags, Norwegian, Italian and American, then proceeded south to Alaska. The explorers arrived at Teller at 3:30 a.m., 14 May, and due to adverse weather conditions, ended their flight at that location. Norge had covered 3,393 miles (5,460.5 kilometers).
Amundsen’s flight began just two days after that of Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett aboard their Fokker F.VII/3m, Josephine Ford. Byrd’s flight has been the subject of some controversy as to whether they actually had arrived at the North Pole. The flight of Norge is undisputed.
12 May 1902: Aeronaut Augusto Severo de Albuquerque Maranhão and engineer Georges Saché lifted off aboard the semi-rigid airship Pax, which Severo had designed, at Vaugirard, Paris.
This was Severo’s second airship. He had designed and built a larger craft, Bartolomeu de Gusmão, eight years earlier in Brazil. It had been destroyed by gusty winds. After raising enough money to build a new ship, he went to Paris, France. His new airship was a semi-rigid keel-and-girder type. The envelope was silk but it was given some rigidity by a structure of bamboo.
The craft was approximately 30 meters (98.4 feet) long and 12.4 meters (40.7 feet) in diameter. The volume of the hydrogen gas used for buoyancy was about 2,330 cubic meters (82,283 cubic feet). A gondola was suspended below.
Though he had planned to power the craft with electric motors and batteries, time and money forced Severo to substitute internal combustion engines. Pax was propelled by two Société Buchet engines, with a 24-horsepower engine driving a 6 meter (19.7 feet), two-bladed propeller in a pusher configuration at the rear, and a second, 16 horsepower engine driving a 5 meter (16.4 feet) propeller in tractor configuration at the front of the airship. The propellers turned at 50 r.p.m.
Augusto Severo had designed both of his airships with a new method which increased their stability in flight. The gondola, rather than being suspended by ropes or cables, was rigidly attached to the envelope above with a structure of bamboo. This structure continued inside the envelope from front to rear and formed a trapezoid. This prevented the oscillation that was common with a more flexible arrangement.
Very early on the morning of 12 May 1902, Augusto Severo took his new airship on its first flight. It soon reached approximately 1,200 feet (365 meters). It then exploded, caught fire and fell to the ground near Monteparnasse Cemetery. The descent took approximately 8 seconds. Both men were killed.
A contemporary newspaper article reported the accident:
M. SEVERO AND HIS ASSISTANT KILLED.
TERRIBLE SCENE IN MID-AIR
At an early hour one morning recently all Paris was startled by the report that M. Severo, the Brazilian deputy, and his assistant, M. Sachet, had been killed while making an excursion in the steerable balloon Pax.
M. Severo and his mechanician left the balloon shed, which is behind the Montparnasse Railway Station, at half-past five in the morning in the Pax. The Brazilian, in his eagerness to make the free ascent, had slept alongside the balloon for the last few nights, waiting until the weather should be entirely propitious.
At daybreak he decided that the favourable moment had arrived. Workmen were hastily summoned, the last preparations completed, and the motors started. The Pax left the shed of M. Lachambre for her first free voyage in the air.
The Brazilian deputy, who was naturally of a gay and genial temperament, was delighted with the ideal morning. He and M. Sachet got the machinery ready, while M. Lachambre and his assistants held on the guide-rope, until Pax should be clear of the surroundings.
As M. Severo cried “Let go!” amid much fluttering of handkerchiefs the Pax rose quietly and steadily, and the calm, blue sky seemed to promise a pleasant excursion.
For the first few minutes all went well, and the motors seemed to be working satisfactorily. The airship answered the helm readily and admiring exclamations rose from the crowd. “Let’s follow her,” cried those on bicycles and motor-cars, and immediately a mad race commenced in the direction taken by the balloon.
But as the Pax rose higher she was seen to fall off from the wind, while the aeronaut could be seen vainly endeavouring to keep her head on.
Then M. Severo commenced throwing out ballast, and M. Lachambre, anxiously watching the balloon from his premises remarked that something had evidently gone wrong.
THE AIRSHIP IN FLAMES.
All this time the Pax was gradually soaring higher and higher, until, just as the balloon was over the Montparasse cemetery, at the height of probably 2000ft, a sheet of flame was seen to shoot up from one of the motors, and instantly the immense silk envelope, containing 9000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas, was enveloped in leaping tongues of fire.
The aeronauts were distinctly seen to be gesticulating despairingly, but no mortal aid could reach them.
As soon as the flames came in contact with the gas, a tremendous explosion followed, an din an instant all that was left of the beautiful airship fell with lightning swiftness to the earth.
“I shall never be able to forget the awful sight,” said a spectator; “it made me dizzy, and I was compelled to turn my head away. When I looked again everything had disappeared, and all the people in the street were running towards the spot where the balloon had fallen.
“When I reached the Avenue du Maine the Pax, mangled beyond description, was lying across the street almost at the corner of the Rie de la Gaite, and the two ill-fated passengers lay dead amid the ruins. M. Severo had fallen on his feet. The upper part of his face was uninjured, but blood was flowing from his mouth an dears. The lower part of his body was crushed and horribly mutilated.
“Near him was Sachet, who had fallen on his face, which was dreadfully burned and congested. His hands, and, in fact, his whole body were covered with blisters where he had been burned, and he had also sustained several fractures. It was a gruesome sight, and it must have been a fearful death.”
A TERRIFIC REPORT.
“The noise of the explosion,” declared one spectator, “made me jump out of bed. I thought of Martinique and wondered if out turn had come, and when I ran to the window, there were two men lying, crushed beneath the remainder of the balloon.”
Another bystander told how Mme. Severo, wife of the aeronaut, whom he had laughingly kissed only twenty minutes before he met his death, fell unconscious to the ground as she witnessed the calamity which overtook her husband.
Poor woman! He had embarked his all in the airship which carried him to his death, and now she is left with seven children and no resources.
M. SANTOS DUMONT’S OPINION.
“I cannot tell you how very sorry I feel at what has happened, ” says M. Santos Dumont, “but I am not greatly surprised. M. Severo did not know anything about airships. He had only been up once or twice in his balloon, and was quite incapable of managing it. The fact that he commenced throwing out ballast when the balloon was going up showed how little he knew.
“Then his escape-valve was only about three yards from the motor, and my opinion is that, as in going up the balloon dilates and the gas must escape through the valve, in so escaping it came in contact with the motor, which was far too near the balloon, and that caused the explosion. Or if the valve did not work, the balloon may have burst and the gas immediately took fire; but a balloon must be built very stupidly to catch fire.
“From the construction of the Pax, however, it seems to me as if it had been made on purpose to kill somebody.”
M. Severo was thirty-eight years old and a member of the Brazilian Parliament. After the catastrophe his watch was found flattened in his waistcoat pocket. It had stopped at 5.40 a.m., the moment of the accident. The body will be taken to Rio Janeiro for interment. His fellow victim, the mechanic Sachet, was only twenty-five years of age and unmarried.
The balloon which began and ended its career in disaster was cigar-shaped, 100ft long, and 36ft in diameter. It was driven by screw fore and aft.
— The Star, Christchurch, New Zealand, Monday 30 June 1902, No. 7411, Page 2, Column 7. (The photographic images are from other sources and were not a part of the newspaper article.)
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.
4 March 1957: At 6:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, a United States Navy non-rigid airship, Goodyear ZPG-2, Bu. No. 141561, departed NAS South Weymouth, Boston, Massachussetts, on a long-dstance flight to demonstrate the capabilities of a modern lighter-than-air military “blimp.” The airship had been involved in cold-weather testing and had been given the name, Snow Bird. During this flight, the blimp used the radio call sign “Planner 12.”
Snow Bird was under the command of Commander Jack Reed Hunt, U.S.N.R., a fifteen-year veteran of airship operations. There were two additional pilots, Commander Ronald W. Hoel, U.S.N., and Lieutenant Commander Robert S. Bowser, U.S.N. The crew also consisted of three navigators, Lieutenant Stanley W. Dunton, Lieutenant Charles J. Eadie, and Lieutenant John R. Fitzpatrick. The remainder of the crew were Chief Aviation Electronicsman (ALC) Lee N. Steffan, crew chief and radio; Aviation Machinist’s Mate 1st Class (AD1) Thomas L. Cox, flight mechanic; Aviation Electricians’s Mate 1st Class (AE1) Carl W. Meyer, electrician; Aerographer’s Mate 1st Class (AG1) William S.Dehn, Jr., aerologist and photographer; Aviation Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class (AD2) James R. Burkett, Jr., flight mechanic; Aviation Metalsmith 2nd Class (AM2) George A. Locklear, rigger and cook; and Aviation Electrician’s Mate 2nd Class (AT2) Frank J. Maxymillian, radio. Also on board the air ship was a civilian flight engineer, Mr. Edgar L Moore, a Goodyear Aircraft Corporation Field Representative.
Snow Bird headed east across the Atlantic Ocean, passing north of the Azores on 7 March. At this point, the airship had burned off enough fuel that it was light enough to cruise on one engine. This allowed a much greater range. (A lateral rive shaft between engines allowed both propellers to continue turning.) Late in the third day the flight, the blimp reached the west coast of Portugal, having completed the first Atlantic crossing by a lighter-than-air craft in 12 years.
Snow Bird turned south, heading for Casablanca on the west coast of North Africa, which it reached the morning of 8 March. The airship continued south along the African coast before turning west to re-cross the ocean. The route took the blimp past the Canary and Cape Verde Islands, and then onward to the Virgin Islands. Arriving back in the United States, Snow Bird made landfall at Miami Beach on the afternoon of 14 March.
A radio message was sent to the crew of Planner 12 by Admiral Arleigh Burke, Chief of Naval Operations:
HEARTIEST CONGRATULATIONS ON ESTABLISHING A NEW WORLD ENDURANCE RECORD FOR AIRSHIPS X YOUR UNTIRING EFFORTS AND DEVOTION ARE MOST COMMENDABLE X THIS FLIGHT DEMONSTRATES AN INCREASED ASW AND AEW CAPABILITY AND OTHER ACHIEVEMENTS WHICH SERVE TO DEMONSTRATE A CONTINUING SEARCH FOR TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES BY THE U S NAVY X WELL DONE X ARLEIGH BURKE
Not finished with its voyage, the airship next headed to Dry Tortugas at the far western end of the Florida Keys, and then finally landed at NAS Key West, Florida, on 15 March.
Snow Bird had traveled 9,448 miles (15,205 kilometers) without landing or refueling. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) lists this as “the longest recorded airship flight.” This exceeded the distance record set by Graf Zeppelin, flying from Friedrichshaven, Germany, to Tokyo, Japan, (11,247 kilometers) 15–19 August 1929. From takeoff at NAS South Weymouth to landing at NAS Key West, the total duration of the flight was 264 hours, 14 minutes.
The crew was met by a large group of dignitaries. Commander Reed was presented the Distinguished Flying Cross by Fleet Admiral William Frederick Halsey, Jr., United States Navy, one of the greatest military leaders of World War II.
Commander Hunt was later presented the Harmon International Trophy by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Goodyear ZPG-2 Bu. No. 141561 was built by the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation at Akron, Ohio. It was the 11th of 12 “N-class” airships which were used for patrol, anti-submarine warfare ASW), and when equipped with radar, for airborne early warning (AEW).
The ZPG-2 is 343 feet (105 meters) long and the envelope has a maximum diameter of 76 feet (23 meters). A two-deck control car was suspended beneath the envelope. The airship had an overall height of 107 feet (33 meters). Bouyancy was provided by 1,011,000 cubic feet (28,628 cubic meters) of Helium.
There are four fins placed in a X-pattern at the tail of the ZPG-2, called ruddervators. (These were similar to the fins used on the experimental submarine USS Albacore (AGSS-569) several years later.) The ruddervators allowed the airship to be controlled by a single control column, a change from the two controls used previously. Also, the decreased vertical span of the fins allowed greater ground clearance, so that the blimp could takeoff at steeper angles than if it had been equipped with the standard cruciform fins.
The Goodyear ZPG-2 was powered by two air-cooled, supercharged, 1,301.868 cubic inch displacement (21.334 liter) Wright Aeronautical Division R-1300-2 (Cyclone 7 865C7BA1) seven-cylinder radial engines mounted outside the control car. The R-1300-2 was a direct-drive engine with a compression ratio of 6.2:1. It was rated at 700 horsepower at 2,400 r.p.m., and 800 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m., for takeoff, using 91/96 octane aviation gasoline. The engines turned three-bladed Curtiss Electric variable pitch, reversible propellers. The R-1300-2 was 48.12 inches (1.222 meters) long, 50.45 inches (1.281 meters) in diameter, and weighed 1,067 pounds (484 kilograms).
The ZPG-2 had a cruise speed of 57 miles per hour (92 kilometers per hour) and maximum speed of 80 miles per hour (129 kilometers per hour). Its normal endurance was three days.
Bu. No. 141561’s cockpit, nose cone and a frame of a ruddervator are displayed at the National Naval Aviation Museum, NAS Pensacola, Florida.
Jack Reed Hunt was born at Red Oak, Iowa, 18 May 1918. He was the second of seven children of Smith Reed Hunt, a baker, and Blanche Luise Seefeldt Hunt. The family moved to southern California, where Jack grew up.
Jack R. Hunt joint the United States Navy on 4 April 1942. He was trained as an airship pilot and flight instructor. Hunt was commissioned as an Ensign in the United States Naval Reserve, 1 October 1942, and promoted to Lieutenant (junior grade), 1 October 1943. Hunt remained in the Navy following World War II. He was promoted to Lieutenant Commander 1 August 1951, and to Commander, 1 July 1956.
From 1963 until 1984, Jack Hunt was the president of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a fully-accredited aerospace university.
Hunt was married three times (Bethel, Donna and Lynne) and had seven children. He died 7 January 1984, at the age of 65 years.