Thursday, October 21, 2010


The anniversary was a few days ago: on 15 October 1910, airship America set off from Atlantic City, bound for Europe.

Owner Walter Wellman had already made three attempts to fly America to the the North Pole, none successful. The Atlantic crossing probably looked like a more attainable goal. Alas, it was not to be; the airship began losing altitude and by the third day, it was clear they'd have to abandon ship.

Calling for help on their radio -- a double first: the first two-way radio on an aerial vehicle and the the first distress call from the air! -- they were picked up by a passing surface vessel and returned to the U.S., receiving a hero's welcome.

It was nine years before the Atlantic Ocean was successfully crossed by air -- thanks in part to the lessons learned by America.

...Some lessons are never learned. The Wikipedia article tells us, "A spark gap radio set was added to the underhanging life boat and operator Jack Irwin used it during the flight, callsign "W", and with the frame of the airship as the antenna. Given the hydrogen used for lifting the craft this was a very dangerous system." Probably not. The airship had only a partial frame, at the bottom of the gasbag; the spark gap was down at the radio set, at the same level as the internal combustion engines that propelled the vehicle and almost certainly of the enclosed-gap type. Released hydrogen does not sink; it's still lighter than air and floats up, up and away. This is a bit of reading history backwards, in this case while looking through a porthole from the Hindenburg. (Quck, now, pop quiz: what proportion of those aboard died in that famous wreck? 95%, 37% or 64%?) . There are a lot of likelier ways to die in an airship; hydrogen fires are well down on the list.

The Wellman Expedition failed without loss of life, not even the airship's cat(!). And its failure was a learning experience.


Jim said...

Well, the date tends to rule out a Remington 700 going off all by itself. That would have been my second guess.

Joanna said...

I always imagine airships making a kind of "wum-wum-wum" or "wubbita-wubbita-wubbita" sound. I have no idea if it's accurate, but it makes me smile.

Roberta X said...

The Goodyear blimp (not sure which one) does, in my experience, kind of go "wummmm-wummm-wummm." One of them used to use a place where I worked as a landmark when navigating into town for the 500 every May.

reflectoscope said...

If something doesn't work the way you thought it would, then you've simply eliminated one way that doesn't work.

If you don't learn from the experience, then you've failed.


Montie said...

I know! I know!

It's 37% (of course I cheated by following your link). But, I did know that is was some amount less than half the passengers and crew. Quite amazing really. If you view the news footage it looks almost unsurvivable.

Bubblehead Les. said...

More Airship Trivia: As an Akron Native, the Modern Goodyear Blimps are no longer kept in the Airdock in Akron. They are housed and serviced at the Wingfoot Lake Complex across the county line in Brimfield Township, Portage County, the home of Kent State. I used to live about a mile from there.

The Airdock still exists, but is now part of the Lockheed-Martin Complex. More trivia: During WW2, about 4,000 Corsairs of "Blacksheep Squadron" fame were made in the Airdock. Patrol Blimps and Barrage Balloons were made elsewhere.

As to the engine noise: Those suckers are LOUD! You can hear them coming for miles. They kinda/sorta sound like a low-revving Wright Cyclone engine from the WW2 era.

Other bit of Trivia: When they deflate and service one of the Blimps, they routinely find spent bullets in the Skins, but there was only one "Magic BB" that made its way into one of the Heliums Cells, causing a "Controlled Crash" about 10-15 years ago. The teenage kid who shot at it from a farm down the road was caught later in the day.

Hope this helps.