USS Shenandoah (ZR-1)
USS Shenandoah was the first of four United States Navy
United States Navy
The United States Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. The U.S. Navy is the largest in the world; its battle fleet tonnage is greater than that of the next 13 largest navies combined. The U.S...

 rigid airship
An airship or dirigible is a type of aerostat or "lighter-than-air aircraft" that can be steered and propelled through the air using rudders and propellers or other thrust mechanisms...

s. It was built in 1922-1923 at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, and first flew in September 1923. It developed the Navy's experience with rigid airships, even making the first crossing of North America by airship. On the 57th flight,
Shenandoah was torn apart in a squall line
Squall line
A squall line is a line of severe thunderstorms that can form along or ahead of a cold front. In the early 20th century, the term was used as a synonym for cold front. It contains heavy precipitation, hail, frequent lightning, strong straight-line winds, and possibly tornadoes and waterspouts....

 over Ohio in 1925.

Design and construction

Shenandoah was originally designated FA-1, for 'Fleet Airship Number One' but this was changed to ZR-1. The airship was 680 ft (207.26 m) long and weighed 36 ST (32.7 t). It had a range of 5000 mi (4,344.9 nmi; 8,046.7 km), and could reach speeds of 70 mph (57.5 kn; 112.7 km/h). Shenandoah was assembled at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in 1922-1923, in Hangar No. 1, the only one large enough to accommodate the ship; her parts were fabricated at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia. Lakehurst had served as a base for Navy blimps for some time, but Shenandoah was the first rigid airship to join the fleet.
The design was based on Zeppelin
A Zeppelin is a type of rigid airship pioneered by the German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the early 20th century. It was based on designs he had outlined in 1874 and detailed in 1893. His plans were reviewed by committee in 1894 and patented in the United States on 14 March 1899...

L-49 (LZ-96). L-49 was a lightened "height climber", designed for altitude at the expense of other qualities. The design was found insufficient and a number of the features of newer Zeppelins were used, as well as some structural improvements. The structure was built from a new alloy of aluminum and copper
Copper is a chemical element with the symbol Cu and atomic number 29. It is a ductile metal with very high thermal and electrical conductivity. Pure copper is soft and malleable; an exposed surface has a reddish-orange tarnish...

 known as duralumin
Duralumin is the trade name of one of the earliest types of age-hardenable aluminium alloys. The main alloying constituents are copper, manganese, and magnesium. A commonly used modern equivalent of this alloy type is AA2024, which contains 4.4% copper, 1.5% magnesium, 0.6% manganese and 93.5%...

. Girders were fabricated at the Naval Aircraft Factory
Naval Aircraft Factory
The Naval Aircraft Factory was established by the United States Navy in 1918 at Philadelphia in order to assist in solving the problem of aircraft supply which faced the Navy Department upon the entry of the U.S. into World War I...

. Whether the changes introduced into the original design of L-49 played a part in Shenandoah later breaking up is a matter of debate. An outer cover of high-quality cotton cloth was sewn, laced or taped to the duralumin frame and painted with aluminum dope.

The gas cells were made of goldbeater's skin
Goldbeater's skin
Goldbeater's skin — the outer membrane of calf's intestine — is a parchment traditionally used in the process of making gold leaf by beating, reducing gold into mere 1μm-thick leaves....

s, one of the most gas-impervious materials known at the time. Named for their use in beating and separating gold leaf, goldbeater's skins were made from the outer membrane of the large intestines of cattle. The membranes were washed and scraped to remove fat and dirt, and then kept in a solution of water and glycerine in preparation for application to the rubberized cotton fabric providing the strength of the gas cells. The membranes were wrung out by hand to remove the water-glycerine storage solution and then rubber-cemented to the cotton fabric and finally given a light coat of varnish. The 20 gas cells within the airframe were filled to about 85% of capacity at normal barometric pressure. Each gas cell had a spring-loaded relief valve and manual valves operated from the control car.

Shenandoah had a significant edge in safety over previous airships, being the first rigid to use helium
Helium is the chemical element with atomic number 2 and an atomic weight of 4.002602, which is represented by the symbol He. It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert, monatomic gas that heads the noble gas group in the periodic table...

 rather than hydrogen
Hydrogen is the chemical element with atomic number 1. It is represented by the symbol H. With an average atomic weight of , hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant chemical element, constituting roughly 75% of the Universe's chemical elemental mass. Stars in the main sequence are mainly...

. Helium was relatively scarce at the time, and the
Shenandoah used much of the world's reserves just to fill its 2.1 million-cubic-foot volume. —the next rigid airship to enter Navy service—was at first filled with the helium from Shenandoah until more could be procured.

Shenandoah was powered by 300 hp, eight-cylinder Packard gasoline engines. The first frame of Shenandoah was erected by June 24, 1922; on August 20, 1923, the completed airship was floated free of the ground. Helium cost $55 per thousand cubic feet at the time, and was considered too expensive to simply vent to the atmosphere to compensate for the weight of fuel consumed by the gasoline engines. Neutral buoyancy was preserved by installing condensers to capture the water vapor in the engine exhaust.
It was christened on 10 October 1923; sponsored by Mrs. Edwin Denby, wife of the Secretary of the Navy; and commissioned on the same day, Commander
Commander is a naval rank which is also sometimes used as a military title depending on the individual customs of a given military service. Commander is also used as a rank or title in some organizations outside of the armed forces, particularly in police and law enforcement.-Commander as a naval...

 Frank R. McCrary in command.

Early Naval service

USS Shenandoah took to the sky for the first time on September 4, 1923.

Shenandoah was designed for fleet reconnaissance work of the type carried out by German naval airships in World War I. Her precommissioning trials included long range flights during September and early October 1923, to test her airworthiness in rain, fog and poor visibility. On October 27, Shenandoah celebrated Navy Day with a flight down the Shenandoah Valley and returned to Lakehurst that night by way of Washington and Baltimore, where crowds gathered to see the new airship in the beams of searchlights.
At this time, Rear Admiral
Rear Admiral
Rear admiral is a naval commissioned officer rank above that of a commodore and captain, and below that of a vice admiral. It is generally regarded as the lowest of the "admiral" ranks, which are also sometimes referred to as "flag officers" or "flag ranks"...

 William Moffett—Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics
Bureau of Aeronautics
The Bureau of Aeronautics was the U.S. Navy's material-support organization for Naval Aviation from 1921 to 1959. The bureau had "cognizance" for the design, procurement, and support of Naval aircraft and related systems...

 and staunch advocate of the airship—was discussing the possibility of using Shenandoah to explore the Arctic. Such a program, he felt, would produce valuable weather data as well as experience in cold-weather operations. With her endurance and ability to fly at low speeds, the airship was thought to be well-suited to such work. President
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

 Calvin Coolidge
Calvin Coolidge
John Calvin Coolidge, Jr. was the 30th President of the United States . A Republican lawyer from Vermont, Coolidge worked his way up the ladder of Massachusetts state politics, eventually becoming governor of that state...

 approved Moffett's proposal, but in a gale on January 16, 1924
Shenandoahs upper tail fin covering ripped; the sudden roll tore out her mooring tube from the Lakehurst mast. As well a damage to the nose the first gas bag was deflated and the second holed. Although being blown backwards, it rode out the storm under the pilotage of Anton Heinen (a Zeppelin test pilot) and landed safely, but a period of repair was needed, and the Arctic expedition was dropped.

Shenandoahs repairs were completed in May, and the summer of 1924 was devoted to work with her powerplant and radio equipment to prepare for her duty with the fleet. On August, it reported for duty with the Scouting Fleet and took part in tactical exercises. Shenandoah succeeded in discovering the "enemy" force as planned but lost contact with it in foul weather. Technical difficulties and lack of support facilities in the fleet forced her to depart the operating area ahead of time to return to Lakehurst. Although this marred the exercises as far as airship reconnaissance went, it emphasized the need for advanced bases and maintenance ships if lighter-than-air craft were to take any part in operations of this kind.

Flight across North America

In July 1924, the oiler put in to Norfolk Navy Yard for extensive modifications to become the Navy's first airship tender. An experimental mooring mast some 125 ft (38.1 m) above the water was constructed; additional accommodations both for the crew of Shenandoah and for the men who would handle and supply the airship were added; facilities for the helium, gasoline
Gasoline , or petrol , is a toxic, translucent, petroleum-derived liquid that is primarily used as a fuel in internal combustion engines. It consists mostly of organic compounds obtained by the fractional distillation of petroleum, enhanced with a variety of additives. Some gasolines also contain...

, and other supplies necessary for
Shenandoah were built; as well as handling and stowage facilities for three seaplanes. Shenandoah engaged in a short series of mooring experiments with Patoka to determine the practicality of mobile fleet support of scouting airships. The first successful mooring was made on August 8 . During October 1924, Shenandoah flew from Lakehurst to California
California is a state located on the West Coast of the United States. It is by far the most populous U.S. state, and the third-largest by land area...

 and on to Washington to test newly erected mooring masts. This was the first flight of a rigid airship across North America.

Later Naval career

The year 1925 began with nearly six months of maintenance and ground test work.
Shenandoah did not take to the air until June 26, when it began preparations for summer operations with the fleet. In July and August, it again operated with the Scouting Fleet, successfully performing scouting problems and being towed by Patoka while moored to that ship's mast.

Wreck of the Shenandoah

On September 2, 1925,
Shenandoah departed Lakehurst on a promotional flight to the Midwest which would include flyovers of 40 cities and visits to state fair
State fair
A state fair is a competitive and recreational gathering of a U.S. state's population. It is a larger version of a county fair, often including only exhibits or competitors that have won in their categories at the more-local county fairs....

s. Testing of a new mooring mast at Dearborn, Michigan
Dearborn, Michigan
-Economy:Ford Motor Company has its world headquarters in Dearborn. In addition its Dearborn campus contains many research, testing, finance and some production facilities. Ford Land controls the numerous properties owned by Ford including sales and leasing to unrelated businesses such as the...

 was included in the schedule. While passing through an area of thunderstorms and turbulence over Ohio
Ohio is a Midwestern state in the United States. The 34th largest state by area in the U.S.,it is the 7th‑most populous with over 11.5 million residents, containing several major American cities and seven metropolitan areas with populations of 500,000 or more.The state's capital is Columbus...

 early in the morning of September 3, during its 57th flight, the airship was caught in a violent updraft that carried it beyond the pressure limits of its helium gas bags. It was torn apart in the turbulence and crashed in several pieces near Caldwell, Ohio
Caldwell, Ohio
Caldwell is a village located along the West Fork of Duck Creek in Noble County, Ohio, United States. The population was 1,956 at the 2000 census...

. Fourteen of Shenandoahs crew—including her commanding officer, Commander Zachary Lansdowne
Zachary Lansdowne
Lieutenant Commander Zachary Lansdowne, USN Navy Cross was a United States Navy officer and early Naval Aviator who contributed to the development of the Navy's first lighter-than-air craft...

—were killed. This included the entire crew of the control cabin (except for Lieutenant Anderson, who barely escaped before it detached from the ship), two men who went through holes in the hull, and several mechanics who fell with the engines. Twenty-nine survivors succeeded in riding three sections of the airship to earth. The largest group was eighteen men who made it out of the stern after it rolled into a valley. Four others survived a crash landing of the central section. The remaining seven were in the bow section which Commander (later Admiral) Rosendahl navigated as a free balloon. In this group was Anderson who—until he was roped in by the others—straddled the catwalk over a hole. A number of those crew who survived would later be killed in the loss of the Akron.


Thousands of people flocked to the wreckage which was then heavily looted, with the logbooks and most of the ship's fabric stolen. Official inquiry into the fatal flight brought to public attention the fact that it had been made under protest by Commander Lansdowne (a native of Greenville, Ohio
Greenville, Ohio
Greenville is a city in Darke County, Ohio, United States. The population was 13,227 at the 2010 census. It is the county seat of Darke County.-History:Greenville is the historic location of Fort Greene Ville,Greenville is a city in Darke County, Ohio, United States. The population was 13,227 at...

), who warned of the violent weather conditions which were prevalent in the area and common to Ohio in late summer. His pleas for a cancellation of the flight only led to a postponement. His superiors were keen to publicize airship technology, and justify the huge cost of the airship to the taxpayers. So, as Lansdowne's widow consistently maintained at the inquiry, publicity rather than prudence won the day. This event was the trigger for Army
United States Army
The United States Army is the main branch of the United States Armed Forces responsible for land-based military operations. It is the largest and oldest established branch of the U.S. military, and is one of seven U.S. uniformed services...

Colonel , abbreviated Col or COL, is a military rank of a senior commissioned officer. It or a corresponding rank exists in most armies and in many air forces; the naval equivalent rank is generally "Captain". It is also used in some police forces and other paramilitary rank structures...

 Billy Mitchell to heavily criticize the leadership of both the Army and the Navy, leading directly to his court-martial
A court-martial is a military court. A court-martial is empowered to determine the guilt of members of the armed forces subject to military law, and, if the defendant is found guilty, to decide upon punishment.Most militaries maintain a court-martial system to try cases in which a breach of...

 for insubordination and the end of his military career.
Heinen, according to the Daily Telegraph put the blame on the removal of safety valves, saying he would not have flown on her "for a million dollars".
Ultimately a positive result of the disaster was that future airships were better built. Hulls were strengthened, control cabins were built into the keels rather than suspended from cables, and engine power was increased. More attention was also paid to weather forecasting. When the U.S. used blimp
A blimp, or non-rigid airship, is a floating airship without an internal supporting framework or keel. A non-rigid airship differs from a semi-rigid airship and a rigid airship in that it does not have any rigid structure, neither a complete framework nor a partial keel, to help the airbag...

s in World War II and the Cold War, these improvements may have prevented other crashes.


Several memorials exist near the crash site, as well as a small private museum, located in Ava, Ohio
Ava, Ohio
Ava is an unincorporated community in northwestern Noble Township, Noble County, Ohio, United States. Although it is unincorporated, it has a post office, with the ZIP code of 43711. Also located in Ava is a small museum dedicated to the nearby crash of the airship USS Shenandoah in...


The Noble Local School District—which services the area where Shenandoah crashed—has named its elementary, junior high, and high schools after Shenandoah. Their sports teams are named "The Zeps." Additionally, a truck stop located about 15 mi (24.1 km) away in Old Washington
Old Washington, Ohio
Old Washington is a village in Guernsey County, Ohio, United States. The population was 265 at the 2000 census.-History:In July 1863, Old Washington was the site of a small engagement during the course of Morgan's Raid...

 was named Shenandoah Plaza after the airship. The truck stop has since closed and is in the process of being torn down.

See also

External links

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