• Dr. Timothy X. Merritt

Airships - History

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Up Ship! A History of the U.S. Navy's Rigid Airships 1919-1935 by Douglas Hill Robinson:


Up Ship! is the latest edition to my constantly growing airship library. I purchased it because I wanted to more about the USS Akron that perished over the Atlantic in a storm off the coast of New Jersey. The crash is important to me because I recreate the conditions in my own novel and detail how the modern hybrid airship St. Paul, armed with extensive weather and navigation equipment, successfully meets the same challenge.


Most people don’t know that the crash of the USS Akron, not the Hindenburg, was the worst airship disaster in history. It killed 73 of the 76 men on board, compared to the Hindenburg disaster, resulting in 36 fatalities. In addition, two more men were killed when the Navy’s J-3 blimp crashed during a rescue mission to look for Akron survivors.


The Akron was a rigid airship, more like a Zeppelin than a blimp, and used rare helium for lift rather than abundant hydrogen. The gigantic 785-foot craft was also a flying aircraft carrier that carried up to five Curtiss Sparrowhawk biplanes stowed aboard built-in hangars and could be launched for reconnaissance or defense.


What surprised and delighted me about Up Ship! was the extensive and detailed history of the US airship program. As a relative latecomer to the airship game, the United States purchased their first rigid airship from Great Britain, the R-38, which crashed on a training mission. Up Ship! also details the career of the to the mighty Shenandoah, which crashed over Ohio violent storm, and the Macon, sister ship of the Akron. The Macon was the last rigid airship to be used by the Navy. In February of 1935, she was thrust aloft by a powerful updraft near Big Sur, California. With severe damage to the tail section, the crew dumped a tremendous amount of ballast to keep her from crashing. Instead, she rose above her pressure height, and automatic valves began discharging helium at a furious rate, making the subsequent crash landing inevitable.


Up Ship! tells all these stories with lavish historical photos. In addition to all the crash landings, it also gives a good sense of what a mature, sophisticated airship operation looks like. It helps to understand the economic and political landscape that supported the manufacture of these mighty ships and the often ferocious and unforgiving nature of the weather. I will reference this fantastic book many times as I research my upcoming novels.



Book review - Airship History




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