Tag Archives: Lighter-Than-Air

12 February 1935

USS Macon (ZRS-5) recovering two Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk scout biplanes. (U.S. Navy)
USS Macon (ZRS-5) recovering two Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk scout biplanes. (U.S. Navy)

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.

Captain Herbert Victor Wiley, United States Navy

Lieutenant Commander Wiley was a 1915 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. He had previously served aboard the U.S. Navy’s first rigid airship, USS Shenandoah (ZR-1) and then commanded USS Los Angeles (ZR-3), 1929–1930. He had been assigned as executive officer of USS Akron (ZRS-4) and had been one of only 3 crew members to survive the wreck of that airship off the coast of New Jersey, 4 April 1933. He took command of USS Macon in June 1934. During World War II, Captain Wiley commanded Destroyer Squadron 29 (consisting of thirteen Clemson-class “flush-deck” destoyers) with the Aisatic Fleet, and later, the Colorado-class battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48). He rose to the rank of rear admiral before retiring in 1947.

USS Macon was built by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation at Akron, Ohio. It was launched 21 April 1933, and commissioned 23 June 1933.

USS Macon (ZRS-5) under construction at the Goodyear Airdock, Akron, Ohio, 1933. (U.S. Navy)

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).

Maybach VL-2 60° V-12 in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

Propulsion was provided by eight water-cooled, fuel-injected, 33.251 liter (2,029.077-cubic-inch-displacement) Maybach 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.

Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk, Bu. No. 9056. (U.S. Navy)
Curtiss-Wright F9C-2 Sparrowhawk, Bu. No. A9056. (U.S. Navy)

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. 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. The rest of the crew was rescued by the light cruiser USS Richmond (CL-9).

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 (ZRS-5) is seen from directly below as it passes over San Diego, California, 9 February 1934. (U.S. Navy)
USS Macon (ZRS-5) is seen from directly below as it passes over San Diego, California, 9 February 1934. (U.S. Navy)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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8–11 February 1914

This photograph was taken during the Gordon Bennett Cup race, 12 October 1913. On of the men in the photo is identified as Hans Rudolph Berliner. Unfortunately, the source does not say which one. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)
This photograph was taken during the Gordon Bennett Cup race, 12 October 1913. Unfortunately, the source does not say which one. According to his grandson, Mikael Manstrom, Berliner is the man just to the left of center. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

8–11 February 1914: Aeronaut Hans Rudolph Berliner and two others, Alexander Haase and A. Nicolai, departed Bitterfeld, Germany, aboard Berliner’s gas balloon. They were carried across the Baltic Sea and into Russia. After encountering rain storms, gale force winds and howling wolves, their balloon came to rest in deep snow near the town of Kirgischan in the Ural Mountains.

In 47 hours, the men had traveled 3,052.7 kilometers (1,896.9 miles), setting a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Absolute Record for Distance. This record remained current until 1978.

FAI Record File Num #10605 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – superseded since approved
Region: World
Class: A (Ballooning)
Sub-Class: A-Absolute (Absolute Record of class A)
Category: Not applicable
Group: Not applicable
Type of record: Distance
Performance: 3 052.7 km
Date: 1914-02-10
Course/Location: Bitterfeld (Germany) – Bissertsk (Russie)
Claimant Hans Berliner (FRG)
Balloon: SS Bitterfeld

Hans Berliner’s balloon was described as being spherical and painted yellow. It had a volume of 2,250 cubic meters (79,458 cubic feet) and was inflated with hydrogen. Prior to this flight, the balloon had made more than 50 ascents.

The New York Times reported:

BALLOON DISTANCE RECORD

German Pilot Berliner Reached a Point in the Ural Mountains.

BERLIN, Feb. 16.—The German balloon pilot Hans Berliner, who ascended with two passengers on Feb. 8 in his spherical balloon, telegraphed to-day from Kirgischan, in the Ural Mountains, that he had landed near there after a forty-seven-hour flight from Bitterfield.

The flight, it is understood, broke the distance record but not the duration record.

Berliner had been unable to reach a telegraph office until to-day.

The flight of Berliner’s balloon extended considerably further than that of Dr. Korn, who, after ascending last week at Bitterfield, landed at Krasno Ufimsk, 110 miles southeast of Perm, Russia.

The New York Times, 17 February 1914.

The Russian government charged the three Germans with espionage and sentenced them to six months solitary confinement and a fine. They were released on 8 May 1914 and allowed to return to Germany. The balloon was also returned.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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17 January 1906

Graf von Zeppelin's LZ 2 at Lake Constance, 1906. (RAF Museum)
Graf von Zeppelin’s LZ 2 at Lake Constance, 1906. (RAF Museum)

17 January 1906: Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin’s second airship, LZ 2, designed by Ludwig Dürr, made its first—and only—flight at Lake Constance.

Ludwig Dürr (1878–1956)
Ludwig Dürr (1878–1956)

LZ 2 was 414 feet (126.19 meters) long and 38 feet, 6 inches (11.75 meters) in diameter. It had a volume of 366,200 cubic feet (10,370 cubic meters). The rigid structure was provided by triangular-section girders that provided light weight and strength. Buoyancy was provided by hydrogen gas contained in bags inside the airship’s envelope.

The airship was powered by two 85 horsepower Daimler engines. It was capable of reaching 25 miles per hour (40 kilometers per hour). The airship’s ceiling was 2,800 feet (850 meters).

An engine failure forced the ship to make an emergency landing close to a small town named Sommersried, Allgäu, in southern Germany, and was so badly damaged by a storm during the night that it had to be scrapped.

Wreckage of LZ 2.
Wreckage of LZ 2.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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9 January 1793

Jean-Pierre François Blanchard. (Library of Congress)
Jean-Pierre François Blanchard. (Library of Congress)

9 January 1793: At approximately 10:00 a.m., Jean-Pierre François Blanchard ascended from the courtyard of the Walnut Street jail in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, aboard a hydrogen-filled silk balloon. Aboard were various scientific instruments and a small dog.

Blanchard has sold tickets for viewing the balloon launch, and many people were present, including George Washington, who provided Messr. Blanchard with a letter of introduction.

A contemporary newspaper article described the event: [Note, at the time, the English letter ſ (“long s”) was similar to the symbol for “f”.]

M. Blanchard,

     The celebrated aeronaut made his 45th voyage in a magnificent balloon, from the Priſon court of the city of Philadelphia, the 9th inſt.  amidſt the acclamations of an immenſe concourſe of ſpectators. His aſcencion was majeſtick; he ſaluted his terreſtial gazers with his flag, and appeared to be as much elated, as he was elevated. At the moment in time when THE PRESIDENT arrived, to be preſent at the inflation of the the baloon, 15 rounds were fired by Capt. Fiſher‘s artillery; two cannon were fired every quarter hour until Mr. B. aſcended, when he was ſaluted with a federal diſcharge. At the date of our accounts, he had not deſcended; and it was impoſſible for anyone to ſay in what direction his car would move; or where he would land. If the wind in the upper atmosphere was fair, he was expected to arrive at New-York at night — The citizens of which place were on the look-out for this unusual viſitant.Columbian Centinel, Boston, Saturday, 19 January 1793, Page 2, Column 4.

Jean-Pierre Blanchard began his ascent at the Walnut Street jail, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 9 January 1793.
Jean-Pierre Blanchard began his ascent at the Walnut Street jail, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 9 January 1793. (W. Birch & Son, 1800)

The “aerostat” and its passengers rose to an altitude of approximately “200 fathoms” (600 feet, 183 meters) and drifted to the southeast with the air currents. After 46 minutes of flight, Blanchard and his balloon alighted near the village of Deptford, Gloucester County, New Jersey. Though he spoke no English, Blanchard was able to have some local farmers help him return to Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter, he returned to France.

The approximate route of travel of Jean-Pierre Blanchard's balloon, 9 January 1793.
The approximate route of travel of Jean-Pierre Blanchard’s balloon, 9 January 1793.

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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7 January 1785

Balloon Leaving Dover, Jean-Pierre François Blanchard and Dr. John Jeffries depart Dover, 7 January 1785, by E.W. Cocks, oil on canvas, ca. 1840 (Science Museum, London)
Balloon Leaving Dover, Jean-Pierre François Blanchard and Dr. John Jeffries depart Dover, 7 January 1785, by E.W. Cocks, oil on canvas, ca. 1840 (Science Museum, London)

7 January 1785: On a clear, calm day, Jean-Pierre François Blanchard and Doctor John Jeffries flew across the English Channel in a hydrogen-filled balloon. They lifted off from Dover Castle, Kent, England at about 1:00 p.m. The journey to Guînes, Pas-de-Calais, France took about two and a half hours.

The balloon was approximately 8.2 meters (27 feet) in diameter. A gondola was suspended beneath the gas envelope, equipped with oar-like devices that were intended to steer and propel the light-than-air craft.

With sufficient buoyancy to just lift the two aeronauts and their equipment, the Channel crossing was made at a very low altitude. During the flight all ballast, their equipment and most of their clothing were jettisoned. They crossed the French coast at about 3:00 p.m. and at 3:30, came to rest in a clearing in the Felmores Forest, near Guînes.

Balloon Arriving at Calais, by E.W. Cocks, oil on canvas, ca. 1840 (Science Museum, London)
Balloon Arriving at Calais, by E.W. Cocks, oil on canvas, ca. 1840 (Science Museum, London)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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