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The Hindenburg, a floating German-built palace at 805 feet in length lifted by more than 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen gas, ignited and collapsed to the ground in a billowing tower of flame on May 6 eighty-five years ago this past week.
It was an Iowan who was in charge of design for the United States’ equivalent of the giant airship, two of which were made and both of which suffered an equally ignominious demise.
At the height of the Roaring ‘20s, an era of unprecedented wealth, the desire for international travel soared. Unfortunately, the technology for humanity to soar in heavier than air aircraft had not caught up with the rise in demand, and crossing the Atlantic required at least a week in large steamer ships such as Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic. That meant at least two weeks for a round trip voyage, not including time spent in Europe, making overseas vacations impractical for most of the populace.
Jerome Hunsaker, of Creston, Iowa, believed he had found a solution to the problem. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, he studied the new technique being developed by German engineer, Hugo Eckener. Large sealed bags of hydrogen were sewn together and sheathed by a skin painted with aluminum oxide, forming a cigar shaped “envelope” hundreds of feet in length.
The hydrogen, being lighter than the identical amount of air around it, could lift thousands of pounds in weight (people and cargo) and had diesel engines attached to spin propellers and push the bags, cargo, and crew, forward or backward through the air. Most importantly, being lighter in weight by square foot, and with the installation of powerful 550 horsepower motors, the “airship” as the technology came to be known, could gracefully slide through the heavens at more than 80 miles per hour, finishing a crossing of the ocean in three days instead of seven.
Germany launched the first such trans-Atlantic passenger airship, the Graf Zeppelin, in 1928. A year later, it embarked on the longest and most dangerous flight in history up to that time, an attempt to circle the Earth.
Lifting off at Lakehurst, New Jersey on Aug. 2, 1929, with sixty men (and one woman who had been assigned as a newspaper reporter) on board, the Zeppelin headed east to cross over Europe, Russia, and Japan, then the Pacific Ocean.
Upon arrival above Los Angeles, the crew directed the celebrity flying machine southeast to El Paso, then on to Kansas City. In its final full day of the voyage, the Zeppelin next made a hard turn north, and because of its large German population (and at the request of the mayor- himself of German heritage), the airship circled Davenport as thousands waved and cheered from LeClaire Park on the riverfront and the streets of its downtown business district. Less than twenty-four hours later, the massive “hotel of the heavens,” set down at Lakehurst, its point of origin, having completed a 21,500 miles odyssey around the globe.
Hunsaker, at the time, had just left Bell Laboratories where he pioneered a nationwide aeronautical radio communications system as the Navy announced plans to build its own airship for reconnaissance and to lay the path for eventual construction of civilian airships crossing the seas.
To do that, the Department of War contracted with Goodyear Tire and Rubber, forming a division called Goodyear Zeppelin. Hunsaker was asked to lead the program as Vice President of the company and set up shop at Akron, Ohio (where the grand airship was to be built), serving as design consultant and administrator for the $10 million dollar project.
The Navy was to commission two airships under the program, the U.S.S. Akron and U.S.S. Macon. The Akron was completed first at 785 feet in length, but instead of flammable hydrogen, was lifted by helium gas. The “silver cigar” was rolled out of the hangar (known as the Airdock) in its northern Ohio namesake city, and christened by first lady Lou Henry Hoover, of Waterloo, on Aug. 8, 1931.
It was called the “Queen of the Skies” and accommodated 75 crew, machine gun emplacements for defense, and four hangars housing heavier than air airplanes as an airborne aircraft carrier.
With the rise of fascism in Germany, the airship was also seen as a prospective front line observer to warn of any incoming attacks on the U.S. shoreline. In the same year as Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany, however, the Akron was caught in a microburst storm off the coast of Atlantic City. Swallowed by clouds, the captain was unaware the airship had dropped in altitude and it tore apart as it struck the water. All but three of the crew perished.
Hunsaker was shocked, but with lessons learned, oversaw completion of the sister ship, Macon, which lifted off for its maiden flight on April 21, 1933. Assigned to the Pacific, at what is now NASA’s Ames Laboratories, the Macon proved itself effective as an observation platform when its crew successfully used its scout planes to locate the Navy cruiser that was transporting President Roosevelt to Hawaii.
Regrettably, its record of more than 100 flights came to an equally dramatic end on Feb. 12, 1935 when the upper tail of the airship broke off in a storm and the hulk of the air bags and aluminum frame settled to the bottom of the Pacific near San Francisco, taking two of its crew of 83 with it.
By the time of its loss, Hunsaker had left the project and accepted a position as Aeronautics Engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Two years after the demise of the Macon, the fate of airship travel was sealed when the Hindenburg went up in flames.
The great era of the airship was over, but it had been an Iowan who, in the U.S., led the effort to fill the skies with the largest flying objects ever to grace the horizon.
May we remember this the next time we step onto a not-so-wide body aircraft of modern times and know that it was an ambitious young engineer from the Hawkeye State that, had technology been what it is today, would have had us flying in luxurious palaces of the sky.
David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.