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Naval Aviation: USS Shenandoah (ZR-1)


Naval Aviation: USS Shenandoah (ZR-1)

USS Shenandoah over New York City, 1923

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center


USS Shenandoah (ZR-1)

  • Dead Weight: 77,500 lbs.
  • Useful Lift: 53,600 lbs.
  • Length: 680 ft. [li}Diameter: 78 ft. 9 in.
  • Height: 93 ft. 2 in.
  • Nominal Gas Volume: 2,100,000 cu.ft
  • Speed: 70 mph
  • Range: 5,000 miles
  • Complement: 25
  • Armament: 6 x .30 cal. Lewis machine guns, 8 x 500-lb. bombs

USS Shenandoah - Construction:

The first rigid airship constructed for the US Navy, USS Shenandoah was based on the L-49 (LZ-96) Zeppelin bomber used by the Germans during World War I. As Shenandoah's design evolved, a number of structural improvements were made, including the use of a new copper and aluminum alloy, duralumin, in the vessel's frame. Also, a change was made in the vessel's lifting gas by using helium instead of hydrogen. Construction commenced at Lakehurst, NJ on June 24, 1922, with the airship's parts fabricated by the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia. The airship entered service on October 10, 1923.

USS Shenandoah - Service Career:

The first weeks of Shenandoah's career were focused on trials and shakedown flights to test the airship's systems. On October 27, the airship commemorated Navy Day with a flight down the Shenandoah Valley, returning to Lakehurst via Washington and Baltimore. All along the flight path, spectators turned out to see the airship. Later that fall, Rear Admiral William Moffatt, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics and an airship advocate, secured permission for Shenandoah to fly to the Artic to conduct weather testing. This plan was scuttled following a severe storm on January 16, 1924, which damaged the airship's nose.

After spending the spring of 1924, repairing the damage, Shenandoah joined the fleet in August for tactical exercises. The airship served admirably as a scout for the fleet, however issues arose regarding support facilities and the airship was forced to depart the area before the end of the maneuvers. In anticipation of these difficulties the Navy had begun the conversion of the oiler USS Patoka into an airship tender in July. Housing machine shops as well as fuel and helium tanks, Patoka reentered service in August and for the rest of the month conducted mooring exercises with Shenandoah.

In October 1924, Shenandoah made its most famous flight becoming the first rigid airship to cross North America. Flying from Lakehurst to California and back to Washington, the airship tested new mooring masts and thrilled the public. Through the winter and spring of 1925, Shenandoah remained at Lakehurst undergoing maintenance and ground testing.

USS Shenandoah - Loss:

For the fall of 1925, the Navy planned a promotional tour through the Midwest that included over 40 flyovers and visits. On September 2, Shenandoah departed Lakehurst under the command of Commander Zachary Lansdowne. Due to areas of severe thunderstorms over Ohio, Lansdowne had requested that the trip be cancelled. His request was overridden by his superiors who wished to showcase the airship and Lansdowne was only permitted postpone his departure. Early on the morning of September 3, Shenandoah encountered violent atmospheric conditions while over Noble County, Ohio.

Buffeted severely by air currents, Shenandoah's crew lost control of the airship. Rapidly rising and falling, the airship's structure amidships became overstressed, breaking it in two. As Shenandoah broke up, it external control car and engines fell free, killing Lansdowne and several of the crew. Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Rosendahl and other members of the crew were able to safely descend, flying the bow section as a balloon. All told the crash claimed 14 dead, while 29 managed to reach the ground alive.

The crash illustrated the need for reinforcing the structure of rigid airships to protect against strong winds and weather. Following the Shenandoah crash, the Navy designed its airships with much heavier and stronger framing to prevent them from breaking apart in flight. Despite these efforts, the Navy lost two more rigid airships, USS Akron (1933) and USS Macon (1935), to severe weather. The loss of these vessels brought the Navy's experiment with rigid airships to an end in 1935.

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