Unfolding the Map
Have you ever wanted to ride in a blimp? Are you fascinated when you see pictures, film or movie representations of zeppelins? Are you steampunk? This post is all things airship, as Lakehurst was the scene of one of the most iconic moments in flight - the explosion and destruction of the Hindenburg. While William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) tells a story about how the giant zeppelin may have gone down, I look a little further into these beautiful but fated modes of transportation and war. To see where lighter-than-air travel died in flames, float over to the map.
"It isn't widely known in America that the descendents of Jolly Roger pirates put an end to dirigible flight. So I heard at breakfast in a diner....
"The gist was this: a storm forced the Hindenburg into a holding pattern (that was a fact I could check out). The airship, only a few hundred feet off the ground, circled central New Jersey for two hours. Lakehurst, where it was trying to land, is on the edge of the Pines, and everyone knows Pineys don't tolerate anyone poking into their woods. They figured the zeppelin was a government ship looking for their stills where they turn blueberries into whiskey, so they shot at the thing and opened leaks in the fabric. By the time the Hindenburg started to tie up, there was enough free hydrogen to blow the ship to kingdom come, which it did....
"I stopped at Lakehurst Naval Air Station to look at the dirigible hangars, those thousand-foot-long, twenty-story buildings, where the Pineys allegedly did in the blimp. Another era of flight ended here too: Lakehurst was the last place the Navy trained carrier pigeons."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 8
Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey
When I was a kid I read a lot of science fiction. One author I read, Michael Moorcock, put together a series of books that was based on an alternate historical timeline. While I don't remember the first book very well, what I do remember was his fictional world where giant lighter-than-air ships were the norm, instead of the propeller or jet-propelled versions that we have.
I have always been fascinated by blimps as they hover or slowly move through the air. I remember seeing my first one at a baseball game in Oakland. In the night sky above me, the noise of the blimps propellers would occasionally attract my attention to where I would look up and see the advertisement blazing across its underside. Blimps are non-rigid airships, though, and therefore smaller than the rigid airships, airships that have a frame inside the envelope, or skin, of the aircraft. The large airships of yesteryear, like the Hindenburg, were rigid airships.
I learned as a kid that modern airships are kept aloft by helium, but that the older rigid airships like the Hindenburg were kept aloft by hydrogen. Hydrogen is very combustible, and I was told that after the Hindenburg disaster hydrogen was banned in airships. However, the day of the airship must have been very exciting, especially to see one of these giants of the air go by. My father said that he once saw the Graf Zeppelin, the sister ship of the Hindenburg, float by over our hometown. Since the Graf Zeppelin made regular trips between Germany and Brazil during its heyday, I assume that he saw it in 1929. He would have been about 5 years old, so he might have seen the zeppelin as it made an around the world trip. One of the legs took it down the west coast of North America. I can just imagine his wonder at seeing this giant airship racing by, high in the air, at the speed of 73 miles per hour (its top cruising speed).
Many countries, such as Germany, France, England, and the United States experimented with airships. German airships were used in bombing raids over England and other countries in World War I, though their accuracy was not good. Initially terrifying, and almost impervious to planes because regular bullets had little effect, they were effectively neutralized by incendiary bullets that set them alight. It is also interesting that the first successful air raid launched from an aircraft carrier occurred in World War I when British Sopwith Camels bombed a German airship base. Between the wars, the development was focused mainly on intercontinental travel.
I wonder what it might have looked like had air travel developed in in such a way, rather than propeller and jet-powered travel. After all, the traveling airships of yesterday were conceived as ocean-liners of the air. The Hindenburg and the Graf Zeppelin were outfitted with all kinds of creature comforts meant for long voyages. A trans-Atlantic crossing on a zeppelin could take three days, certainly faster than an oceangoing ship and yet leisurely enough for such amenities. For a little while, one of the airships had a piano on board. Of course, such travel would not have been meant for the common person as one needed to be exceedingly wealthy to take one. However, plane travel started very similarly, with high-end amenities and gradually becoming more affordable so that now, almost anyone can fly. The amenities are now gone, however, replaced if you're lucky by a pack of peanuts and free soda.
I can imagine our airports, with zeppelins, dirigibles and blimps buzzing around, drifting slowly into the sunrise or the sunset. In Albuquerque, we have the world's largest balloon gathering, Balloon Fiesta, every October and, on days when they have a mass ascension, there are often 500 balloons in the sky at once over the city. If lighter-than-air flight had become the mode of air transportation, every day in every city would have been a balloon fiesta of sorts.
But, alas, the explosion of the Hindenburg ended the brief heyday of lighter-than-air travel. Hydrogen, though cheap to make, is highly combustible. Helium, a safe gas, is only available in small quantities and because of overuse may be unobtainable in the near future - in perhaps less than 40 years, helium may not be available at all. Hydrogen is probably the best gas, though science has now made a solid called SEAgel, which supposedly can float in the air if infused with nitrogen, hydrogen, helium or other lighter-than-air gases. Perhaps if a solid can be made to float, it can be used to lift a new generation of airships.
LHM alludes to a conspiracy theory about why the Hindenburg crashed. In this version, told to him by a person in Lakewood, New Jersey, backwoods folk shot at the Hindenburg as it circled over the Pine Barrens, causing extensive leaks and an eventual explosion. However, this doesn't really stand up. Other explanations included the combustibility of the hydrogen lift of the zeppelin, lightning, since there were lightning storms in the area, and sabotage from within. But the most interesting explanation I've read is that the skin of the Hindenburg itself was the cause of the fire. Made up of elements like cellulose nitrate, cellulose acetate, and flecks of aluminum, the skin of the zeppelin was highly flammable in its own right. A spark could have set them off, and then the hydrogen became an additional fuel, feeding the flames. Hydrogen itself burns with no flame, and would have probably exploded but the Hindenburg caught file in the tail and burned in all directions.
Regardless, the footage of the Hindenburg, crashing to earth in flames and leaving a smoldering skeleton and 36 deaths in its wake at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, captures one of the most iconic moments in history, and signals the end of the days of the giant airships. Yet somehow, I wish that these giants, majestic, beautiful and comfortable, had survived to be more than simply mere curiosities circling over our stadiums.
A first, Littourati. I had to put in this scene from The Rocketeer, where a zeppelin makes a brief, but memorable, appeareance.
If you want to know more about Lakehurst Naval Air Station
Hangar No. 1, Lakehurst
Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst
Navy Lakehurst Historical Society
Ocean County Historical Society
Wikipedia: Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst
Wikipedia: Lakehurst Naval Air Engineering Station
Next up: Somewhere on the Wading River, New Jersey