The Flying Carrier: The Goodyear Aircraft Proposals

This 1943 Goodyear conceptual illustration suggests a design to completely enclose full sized fighter-bombers inside the airship. Goodyear publicist Hugh Allen put out the following article for public consumption during that War year:

Out of the mists seaward off Dakar emerges the silvery shape of a huge airship.  It grows gradually larger, heads inland for the airport, where a jury-rig mooring mast, supported by guy wires, has been erected.  The ship circles slowly, swings low, drops the handling lines.  The ground crew, goggle-eyed natives with a sprinkling of American marines as section leaders, catch hold, walk the ship to the mast, make it fast. Immediately a ramp is pushed into place underneath and out of the belly of the ship, fighter planes roll down, are hurried over to the service depot where their pilots are waiting.  Natives scramble up the ramp as the last plane leaves, begin unloading crates and boxes—guns, ammunition, critical supplies needed in the battle of North Africa.  Now, lines are connected with the ship itself, for fuel, oil and water, to prepare the dirigible for its return trip. The whole operation takes little more than two hours.  Again the ground crew strain on the lines.  The ship is put in equilibrium by adding sand bags or removing them. “Up ship,” comes the command.

The men at the handling rails of the control car give it a mighty push upward, the others release the lines, the ship floats into the air.  At 200 feet the motors cut in.  The ship swings around on course, moves away.  As it goes, the shadowy outline of a second airship appears out of the north.  And behind it, at two-hour spacing, more airships. The operation has been carefully planned.  The ship could have put in at Casablanca, where the Graf Zeppelin used to pause briefly on its trips to Rio and Buenos Aires long enough to drop mail and express by small parachute and pick up the last outgoing European mail by lowering a line.  Or she could have released her load of planes 200 miles out at sea, turned back for Lakehurst, making the round trip without refueling.

The airships had been stripped down to carry the greatest possible loads.  The need was urgent.  Even the old trainer airship, no bigger than the Los Angeles had been pressed into service in this emergency, carried two planes and its load of supplies, having refueled at Trinidad.  A larger ship, of the Akron-Macon type,   had carried six planes.  The four new ships of 10,000,000 cubic feet capacity had brought in 14 planes each. Sixty-four planes delivered to Africa in a little over 60 hours—as against the ten days or more that the slower moving surface convoy would need.  They could deliver a hundred more fighters to Dakar by the time the convoy reached Gibraltar.

This, of course, is purely fictional.  We did not have six airships at hand when the African campaign was planned.  We had exactly none.  America gave up rigid airships after the Hindenburg burned.  Today many people, studying the spectacular performance given by the smaller non rigid blimps have asked:  “Why don’t we have any rigid airships?”

Destroyer captains, escorting supply ships to Iceland in the first months of the war, raised the question of larger dirigibles.  They got valiant help from the blimps within the limits of their cruising radius.  The non rigid airships went as far north as they could, but had to save enough fuel to get back to an expeditionary base in New England.  The big airships would have no such limitations.  They can travel farther without refueling than any other aircraft.

In the last war and the present one, enemy U-boats indicated that they did not like to tangle with craft which can fly as slowly as need be, can see deep under the water and whose approach their detectors do not report.  High German command has admitted frankly that this is one anti-submarine defense “not completely solved.”  As patrol airships extended their reconnaissance, the fishing grew poor.  In the previous World War not one blimp-escorted convoy was ever molested.  To date in this war only one merchant ship has been lost while a watchful helium shepherd dog was around—and this a straggler in a convoy scattered over 30 miles—an event which led to the revamping of convoy practice.

Convoy duty, however, is not the only use open to rigid airships.  They may also be used as scouts, which is their primary function, as high speed airplane carriers, or as cargo ships.  We could use a dozen such ships right now carrying critical materials and supplies, non stop and swiftly, to Australia, Moscow, Chungking, or Capetown—which can’t be done by any other transport vehicle.  They would have been handy delivering fighter ships this spring to North Africa. A dozen such ships, manned by thoroughly trained crews, might conceivably have been able to deliver enough planes to turn the tide at Corregidor and the Netherland Indies.  And it is interesting to speculate at least as to whether the Pearl Harbor attack would ever have happened if we had even a small force of scouting airships there.  It seems unlikely that an Armada as extensive as that which struck on December 7th could have gotten as close as the outer harbor of Honolulu undetected if scouting airships had been around.  They would not have turned back the attack, but America’s participation in World War II might have started with a sea battle off Hawaii, on somewhat more equal terms that we got December 7.  Some of the airships would have been lost, but the information they could have radioed back would have been easily worth the sacrifice.

This country has an accumulation of experience in lighter than air second only to Germany, and it has one asset no other country in the world has, the safe, non-flammable lifting gas, helium, the lack of which blocks the Nazis from using airships. Airships, rigid and non rigid, might have been a real “secret weapon,” had we had the foresight and initiative to utilize them—and a weapon which thanks to God’s gift of helium to America exclusively, no other country could duplicate.

What is the characteristic of the American people which leads us to take up something new, go like a house on fire for a while, then put it away and forget about it, until it is virtually needed, and then have to work twice as hard to get in stride?  We are fast starters, and judging by the accelerated speed at which we are turning out fighting airplanes, we are good finishers.  But we certainly can slow down in the interim period of adolescence. The case of the airship is not unique.  The heavier-than-airplanes had the same experience.  America started the whole airplane business, then let France, Germany and England carry the ball.  We got back into it in the emergency of the first World War, did a good job, under the circumstances, in design, production and operation—and then we quit again until the gathering clouds of a new World War sent us back to the drafting room and the assembly line.

Much of the airplane development work between wars was carried on in Europe, while American designers all but starved to death, and Army and Navy fliers who believed in their ships ate their hearts out through long years of disinterest and pinch-penny appropriations. So is the case of lighter than air.  We got under way during the last war with blimps, and had a few bases in operation along the coast at the time of the Armistice, with a handful of ships and men.  But many of our Navy pilots were sent abroad to fly French ships, indeed, took over and operated the biggest French base, at Panboeuf.  No blimps were shipped abroad, where the fighting was, and those on this side saw little action. We didn’t even start building blimps until February, 1917, two months before we got into the war.  We slowed down once the armistice was signed.  The Army tried valiantly to carry on, but finally even General Westover, chief of the Air Corps, and a staunch believer in lighter than air, told Congress bluntly that unless he could get enough money to do the job right, the Army would get out of the business.  Which it did.  The Navy started its development work with blimps only after the Army gave up.

In the case of rigid airships, we did not even start until after the war, although England got under way during that struggle.  We completed our first ship in 1923, the Shennadoah; got a windfall the following year, in a German-built ship, the Los Angeles, as  “reparations;” built the Akron and Macon in the early 1930’s; but after they were lost and the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg was burned, we closed up shop. Instead of proceeding to build up a fleet of airships, which we now realize might have been useful as part of a well-rounded Naval establishment, we permitted the 20 years’ accumulation of engineering, construction and operating experience to be tragically dissipated.  It might well seem that the sacrifices of Moffett, Lansdowne, McCord and the others who believed in airships, have been in vain. We can’t blame the Navy for this, nor the Army. nor even Congress.  The public was caught in the post-war psychology of disarmament, was day-dreaming about universal peace.  The war of 1914-1918 was the last war we would ever know.  The fangs of the aggressor had been drawn and a peace-minded people could go about their business without fear.  An army big enough to quell internal disorders, a navy stout enough to keep the rum runners off our coasts, would be all we needed.

If the Navy didn’t hammer on the desk of Congress and demand that at least an experimental program be carried on in lighter than air, to take advantage of the costly lessons learned from the ships which had been lost, it can hardly be criticized.  Congress, sensing public sentiment, would grant the Navy only a niggardly portion of its urges and immediate needs for capital ships of the fleet—and any money spent for lighter than air would come out of that small amount. We have referred to four principal Naval uses of rigid airships—scouting, convoy escorting, cargo carrying, and as an airplane carrier.  The last named is the most promising. Extensive development carried on by U.S.S. Los Angeles, U.S.S. Akron and U.S.S Macon, 10 to 12 years ago, indicated definitely that this was fully practicable.  Not a few times as a stunt, but hundreds of times as a routine operation, under widely varying weather conditions, and even at night, planes flew up underneath the airships, hooked on to the trapeze, were hauled aboard to be refueled, was lowered away, and cut loose again.  The airship didn’t have to change speed or course for the transfer to be effected.

Naval strategy changes with events.  We know more now than we did in 1939 about the advantages and limitations of surface carriers, battleships, bombers and patrol boats—because all have been tried in the testing field of combat operations.  We missed that experience in the case of rigid airships.  Navy airship men told us the blimp had a value in anti-submarine patrol, but we didn’t believe it.  We didn’t think any enemy submarines would ever approach our shores, had completely forgotten that in the last few months of World War I German U-boats sank an even 100 merchant ships almost in sight of New York harbor.

It was only on insistence of such hardy proponents of airships as Captains Rosendahl and Mills that even practice exercises got under way in 1939—and that with a motley assortment of obsolescent  blimps—one post- war J-type ship, with open cockpit slung underneath, two larger ships which the Army had discarded when it got out of lighter than air, a metal-clad experimental ship ready to be scrapped after a number of years in service, two larger ships, prototypes of the present K-type patrol craft, but both of them experimental, and the K-1 already 12 years old; and two training ships the size of the Goodyear passenger blimps—perhaps the only ones which could properly be called modern. Even with this ill-assorted squadron, Mills’ pilots at Lakehurst built up so impressive a record in square miles covered and regularity of operation in all weathers, that in October, 1940, six new airships, K’s for patrol and L’s for training, were ordered.  That program was stepped up sharply as the war approached, but only the original four K’s were on hand for patrol duty on December 7, 1941, and the program of new bases and personnel training was still largely in the blueprint stage.

If we had a hundred such K ships when the war started, flown by experienced officers and crews, from the bases we have, rushed into commission since along the three coasts, scores of tankers and merchantman would be in service today, and their gallant crews would still be alive. We started late with the non- rigid airships.  In the case of rigids we have missed the boat entirely. We took a defeatist attitude after a few setbacks, although the Germans had proved by nearly 200 Atlantic crossings made by the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg, that large airships could be built and flown and if the Germans could do this, certainly we could. But we argued that rigid airships were too large, too expensive and too vulnerable, that as airplane carriers the “flat tops” could do everything the airship could do, and with less risk.

Since it appears now that we could have used both to advantage, let us analyze the reasons which led us to reject the airship, despite the advantages which helium gas offered.  Thinking of the two primarily as carriers of airplanes, let’s make a comparison between one CV (airplane carrier of, say, the Wasp type) and a squadron of ZV’s (airships) enough units to carry the same number of planes.  We will assume that the engineering and design work has been done, and that plants, equipment and competent personnel are at hand. First, as to time needed to build the ships.  Under stress of war the ship yards have considerably cut down the time formerly required.  But they could not expect even to approach the record made by the German airship builders, toward the end of the last war, a new craft every six weeks—any more than American airship builders could do so until they got into full swing.  Germany had built a hundred airships over a period of years before it reached that production. It might indeed take as long to build the first Naval airship as to build a carrier.  Still the advantage in time is patently in the airship’s favor, and a 3 to 2 ratio, suggested is conservative. The cost of construction of a squadron of airships might well be about the same as a single carrier.  Capital investment is difficult to estimate, however, and the cost might be three times as great, since surface ships are built in open ways, and airships in closed buildings. In man-hours of labor, and tonnage of steel, duralumin and other critical materials, the advantage is definitely with the airship, in the ration of 2 to 1 in the former and perhaps 10 to 1 in materials, since we are comparing a 20,000 ton carrier with a squadron of 300 ton airships.

The speed of an airship is better than twice that of a carrier.  Steaming endurance, at 20 knots in the one case, 50 in the other, will not be greatly different, but the square miles that a squadron of faster flying airships could reconnoiter in a given time is obviously much greater than that of a single carrier. Obviously, too, it will take fewer men to operate these airships that would be needed on an aircraft carrier.  The advantage in fuel consumption is also greatly with the airship. We come now to the moot question of vulnerability.  We will discard in this discussion the matter of improved performance of the ZV’s planes, which can take off at higher speeds and with heavier loads, may even dispense with the conventional landing gear—factors which effect range, speed and bomb loads. Vulnerability cannot be measured mathematically.  Much of the statistical data on CV’s is confidential, and the ZV’s have had no combat experience in the present war.  Against airplane attack, a single airship would have much less firepower and fewer planes to defend it that the CV, but would be aided by its greater speed and its maneuverability in three dimensions.  Both CV and ZV would be vulnerable to air attack by torpedo bombers.  But the airship need not worry about mines, submarines or surface gunfire. We might conclude then that between one ZV and one CV there would not be a great deal of difference as to vulnerability.  It would, however, obviously be a tougher job for the Japs to sink a squadron of ZV’s that one CV, so that the vulnerability ratio of 3 to 1 in favor of the airships also seems conservative.  On the side of the airship is the fact that it could deliver planes to a distant objective in much less time than would be possible for the surface carrier.  It might carry enough fuel to supply additional planes, act as a flying gasoline station.  The airship could be itself refueled at expeditionary bases overseas, such as Dr. Eckener set up at Pernambuco and Seville, and the USS Macon at Miami and in the Caribbean.  The Graf Zeppelin used a jury-rig mast, hauled up from San Diego, when it refueled at Los Angeles during its round-the-world cruise of 1929.

This discussion has studied principally the use of airships as carriers.  Better known is its employment as a scout, with its planes extending its own reconnaissance, quickly, and over a wide area. But we haven’t any rigid airships.  Are we going to get any?  Can we afford to pass up a useful weapon any longer on the easy assumption that we will win a 1918 victory in 1944 or 1945?  History is full of disasters occasioned by such “soft” and comfortable assumptions.

Read on to ZRS: The Major Motion Picture


Read the Barkely-Buckley WWII airship article Carrier Crisis


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