Tag Archives: Rigid Airship

17 October 1913

Zeppelin L2 LZ 18 (© Ullstein Bild)
Zeppelin L2 (LZ 18). The smoke is coming from the forward engine car. (© Ullstein Bild)

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.

L2 New York Times 18 October 1913
L2 at altitude. This photograph was published in the New York Times, 18 October 1913. (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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.

LZ2 leaves a trail of smoke as it crashes to the ground, !7 October 1913.
L2 leaves a trail of smoke as it crashes to the ground, !7 October 1913.

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.

The flight crew of Marine-Luftschiffes L2 (via LZDEAM.NET)
The flight crew of Marine-Luftschiffes L2

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

Wreckage of the L2 at Flugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof, Germany, 17 October 1913. (Photo Gebr. Haeckel, Berlin # 3227/2)
Wreckage of the L2 at Flugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof, Germany, 17 October 1913. (Gebrüder Haeckel, Berlin  3227/2)

The Marine-Luftschiffes L2 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.

The Kaiser and Imperial princes lead the funeral procession.
The Imperial Princes lead the funeral procession. Left to right, Prince Oskar, Prince August Wilhelm, Prince Adalbert, Crown Prince Wilhelm, Prince Eitel Friederich, Prince Joachim.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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5 October 1930

Rigid Airship R101, G-FAAW, at mooring mast. (The Airship Heritage Trust)
Rigid Airship R.101, G-FAAW, at its mooring mast, RAF Cardington. (The Airship Heritage Trust)
Flight Lieutenant Herbert Carmichael Irwin, AFC, Royal Air Force (1894 –1930)
Flight Lieutenant Herbert Carmichael Irwin, AFC, Royal Air Force.

5 October 1930: Two days after receiving its Certificate of Airworthiness from the Air Ministry, the British rigid airship R.101, registration G-FAAW, was on its maiden voyage from Cardington, Bedfordshire, England, to Karachi, India, with 12 passengers and a crew of 42. The new airship was under the command of Flight Lieutenant Herbert Carmichael (“Bird”) Irwin, AFC, Royal Air Force, a highly experienced airship commander.

Among the passengers were Lord Thomson, Secretary of State for Air, Sir Sefton Brancker, Director of Civil Aviation, and several senior Royal Air Force officers who had been involved in the planning and development of the airship.

R.101 was the largest aircraft that had been built up to that time. Not until the Hindenburg was built five years later would there be anything bigger. Its teardrop shape and been developed in wind tunnel testing and actual flights with R33, which had been extensively modified to obtain detailed flight data.

R.101 required a minimum flight crew of fifteen: a first officer, two second officers, two helmsmen and ten engineers.

The airship was 777 feet, 2½ inches (236.893 meters) long and 131 feet, 9 inches (40.157 meters) in diameter. The airship had an overall height of 141 feet, 7 inches (43.155 meters). Built of stainless steel girders which were designed and built by Boulton & Paul Ltd., and covered with doped fabric, buoyancy was created by hydrogen gas contained in bags spaced throughout the envelope. The maximum gas capacity of the airship was 5,508,800 cubic feet (155,992 cubic meters). The hydrogen weighed 71.2 pounds per 1,000 cubic feet (32.3 kilograms/28.3 cubic meters). The airship’s fuel capacity was 9,408 gallons (42,770 liters) and it carried 215 gallons (977 liters) of lubricating oil.

R.101 was powered by five steam-cooled, 5,131.79-cubic-inch-displacement (84.095 liters) William Beardmore & Company Ltd. Tornado Mark III inline 8-cylinder heavy-oil compression-ignition (diesel) engines. These were developed from railroad engines. Each engine weighed 4,773 pounds (2,165 kilograms). They could produce 650 horsepower, each, at 935 r.p.m., but because of vibrations resulting from the very long crankshaft, engine speed was reduced to 890 r.pm., which decreased power output to 585 horsepower. The engines turned 16 foot (4.877 meter) diameter two-bladed wooden propellers, which gave R101 a maximum speed of 71 miles per hour (114.3 kilometers per hour), with a sustained cruising speed of 63 miles per hour (101.4 kilometers per hour). Two of the engines, designated Mark IIIR, could be stopped then restarted to run in the opposite direction to slow or reverse the airship.

The airship had an empty weight of 113 tons (114,813 kilograms), and 169.85 tons (380,464 kilograms) of gross lift capacity.

A  400 man ground handling crew walks R.101 out of its shed at Cardington, Bedfordshire. This photograph shows the immense size of the airship. (The Airship Heritage Trust)

R.101 departed its base at Cardington, Bedfordshire, on 4 October and soon encountered rain and high winds which continually blew it off course. The course was constantly adjusted to compensate and by 2:00 a.m., 5 October, the airship was in the vicinity of Beauvais Ridge in northern France, “which is an area notorious for turbulent wind conditions.”

At 0207 hours, R.101 went into an 18° dive which lasted approximately 90 seconds before the flight crew was able to recover. It then went into a second 18° degree dive and impacted the ground at 13.8 miles per hour (22.2 kilometers per hour). There was a second impact about 60 feet (18 meters) further on and as the airship lost buoyancy from the ruptured hydrogen bags, it settled to the ground. Escaping hydrogen was ignited and the entire airship was engulfed in flames. Of the 54 persons on board, only 8 escaped, but 2 of those would soon die from injuries in the hospital at Beauvais.

The stainless steel girder structure of R.101 is all that remains after the fire. (Wikipedia)

This was a national disaster. The dead were honored with a state funeral, and all 48 lay in state at the Palace of Westminster.

The cause of the crash of R.101 is uncertain, but it is apparent that for some reason it rapidly lost buoyancy forward. It was considered to have been very well designed and built, but as it was state-of-the-art, some of the design decisions may have led to the disaster.

The wreckage of R.101 on Beauvais Ridge, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France. (The Airship Heritage Trust)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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12 August 1908

Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1 at Fort Myer, Virginia, 1908 (U.S. Army)

12 August 1908: Test flights begin for Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1 at Fort Myers, Virginia, with Thomas Scott Baldwin as pilot and Glenn Hammond Curtiss as flight engineer.

Brigadier General James Allen, Chief Signal Officer, 1906–1913. (U.S. Army)

On 1 August 1907, Brigadier General James Allen, Chief Signal Officer, United States Army, issued a directive establishing the Aeronautical Division within the Signal Corps. Captain Charles Chandler was the officer in charge. Specifications were published in Signal Corps Bulletin No. 5, soliciting bids for both lighter- and heavier-than air vehicles. There were 41 responses. Plans were submitted and a board of officers selected plans for those that seemed most practical.

The lighter-than-air craft was required to be a self-propelled dirigible (a “directable” balloon) able carry two persons and to be able to travel at 20 miles per hour (32.2 kilometers per hour). Thomas Scott Baldwin’s proposal was selected. (The Wright brothers’ Military Flyer was selected as the heavier-than-air winner on 2 August 1909, and designated Signal Corps Airplane No. 1.)

Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1 (SC-1) emerges from its shed at Fort Myer, Virginia, 3 August 1908. (Carl Harry Claudy/NASM-Claudy-205)

On 3 August 1908, Baldwin No. 8 was presented to the Army for trials. Although the the Baldwin No. 8 reached an average speed of just 19.61 miles per hour (31.56 kilometers per hour). It demonstrated the required endurance of two hours, averaging 14 miles per hour (22.5 kilometers per hour). Although the airship’s speed was short of the requirement, on 5 August, the Army purchased it from Baldwin for $5,737.59. The airship was designated Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1.

Contemporary sources give the airship’s dimensions as being 96 feet (29.26 meters) long with a maximum diameter of 19 feet, 6 inches (5.94 meters). The envelope was made of two layers of silk fabric separated by a layer of vulcanized rubber, and supported by 30 wooden frames. Buoyancy was provided by hydrogen gas. The envelope’s volume was approximately 20,000 cubic feet (566 cubic meters).

An open girder beam gondola (or “car”) built of spruce was suspended beneath the balloon. The gondola was 66 feet (20.12 meters) long with a  2½ feet × 2½ feet (0.76 × 0.76 meters) cross section. A water-cooled Curtiss-built inline four-cylinder gasoline engine was mounted at the front end of the gondola. The engine produced 20 horsepower and drove the tractor propeller through a steel drive shaft at 450 r.p.m. The two-bladed spruce propeller had a diameter of 10 feet, 8 inches (3.25 meters) and pitch of 11 feet (3.35 meters).

A two-plane “box-kite” canard elevator unit behind the engine provided control for pitch. The pilot was located behind the control surfaces. Another crew member was at the rear of the gondola, followed by a fixed cruciform stabilizer unit.

The dirigible had a lifting capacity of  1,350 pounds (612.4 kilograms). The payload was 500 pounds (226.8 kilograms).

The U.S. Army’s first aviators, Lieutenants Benjamin D. Fulois, Thomas Etholen Selfridge and Frank P. Lahm were taught to fly the airship. Lahm and Fulois made the first flight of an all-Army crew on 26 August.

Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1 was assigned to the Signal Corps Post at Fort Omaha, Nebraska, where the Army had a balloon factory. It was operated there until 1912. The airships envelope needed to be replaced, and unwilling to spend money for that, the airship was sold.

Second Lieutenants Lahm and Fulois flying Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1 (SC-1) at Fort Myer, Virginia, 28 August 1908. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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