Helium Edict – the “Dark Curse”

On the 20th of January, 1921, the British submarine K5 (photo) failed to surface after diving during a fleet exercise in the Bay of Biscay. The total complement of fifty-seven men was lost. Owing to the nature of the ‘silent service’ very little has been published about this tragedy, but trapped hydrogen gas from charging batteries was not retro-actively accused as the cause.  A few months later, an above-surface accident had a dramatically different reaction.


During tests on 23 AUG 21, the British airship R.38 (photo) carried thirty-two British and seventeen American crewmen aloft. The Britons were instructing the Americans how to operate the ship the Americans were purchasing, having already labeled her as  “ZR-2.” During a high speed test run, some one ordered extreme rudder throws. Her ‘height climber’ structure suddenly failed and she broke in half.  With the clear weather, in spite of ZR-2’s speed, most souls still aboard should have been able to simply hang on to the still-buoyant sections until they slowed and settled in the river. Four British crewmen and one American survived by doing just that, holding on to the hydrogen-filled stern until it drifted down to the river Humber. Tragically, as the R.38’s accident report held, a gasoline line break in the vicinity of still-sparking broken electrical cables connected to the running generator set the forward section ablaze. The report also found gasoline fire on the water as the major cause of lives lost.  Pennover noted, “During these tests the ship’s structure failed between frames nine and ten (the strengthening was only carried back as far as frame nine) and completely separated into two parts. The gasoline leads were severed and a fire started in the after end of the forward portion almost at the moment of fracture. An explosion followed shortly after, causing the collapse of this portion, and as it struck the water a second explosion occurred.” Contaminated hydrogen was not cited as causing the accident; rather, the investigating committee found that the midship girders were inadequate to handle loads. Gasoline’s role in the deaths led to the insistence on diesel propulsion for later British rigid airships.


The two accidents, K5 and ZR-2, just months apart, illustrate the unequal treatment we gave our troubles above and below the ocean surface. The emerging art form of the news-reel was then expanding to larger audiences in a growing system of motion picture showplaces. The silent service’s sub tragedy at the bottom of Biscay was not, as we say today, ‘good for TV.’ It lacked images. The other accident was a huge photo opportunity, with floating stern wreckage, flag-draped coffins being paraded down city streets, weeping widows, and newly fatherless children thrown in for emotional effect. A monument would be erected in one case – but not the other. Were the submariners less worthy?


Sadly, the unequal treatment in the media was just getting started. The airship’s inherent safety – even in accidents – worked against it when these new yellow journalists of the motion picture arrived at the dawn of the aeronautical age. It had only been a few years since the first animation re-creation – the sinking of the Lusitania – had been commissioned to show a sequence of events impossible to photograph. No interest in illustrating the submarine accidents, and with little more than a black hole in the ground to mark the impact point of an aeroplane’s killing one or two passengers, such crashes got only a passing nod.   However, losing sixteen American sailor-airmen all at once was real news back home.


Meanwhile, US Army Colonel William Hensley had crossed over to England on the R.34, but his mission to purchase a real Zeppelin failed. Instead, Hensley helped secure a large Italian semi-rigid airship. Christened the Roma (photo) following her reassembly at Langley Field, its leaky bag and balky engines overshadowed its inadequate control system as the Army airmen tried to fly the contraption while actually patching the hydrogen leaks in flight. The LTA history course reads, “A trial trip to test out the newly installed Liberty motors was made on February 21, 1922, at Langley Field, Virginia. At a height of 1500 feet, for some reason and cause that could never be settled to complete satisfaction, the ship became unmanageable. According to some observers the box-kite rudder either failed to function or came adrift and twisted about to an angle of 45 degrees. The ship began a rapid dive to the ground and struck a 2,300 volt transmission line and then exploded, causing the death of thirty-four of the forty-five men on board.”


The official investigation produced three possible causes of the accident, and the word “hydrogen” does not appear in any of them. Neither explanation of the most probable causes of the loss of control and subsequent impact had anything to do with the lifting gas. General Mason Patrick had written “Billy” Mitchell that the fabric “was getting pretty rotten” and (later Lt General) W. E. Kepner believed that “a seriously deteriorated bag” caused the crash. When John Mitchell interviewed participants, their recollections of the accident were still vivid. Major Reardon said, “I jumped for this opening and with my bare hands tore away the flaming fabric.” Master Sergeant Harry Chapman calmly took his knife from his pocket and cut away at the burning fabric, and suffered the most extensive burns of any of the survivors. Having only been flying for an hour, tons of gasoline was available to splatter from the impact, ignite from the broken high-tension line, and turn the hapless victims into what looked like typical air and automobile fire crashes. All too familiar, the grisly task of removing what witnesses called “blackened charred chunks of humanity” was unforgettable.  Kepner’s recollection of “Arms, legs, heads burned away… a head shrunk in heat and burned to the size of a fist…” is consistent with gasoline conflagrations in airplane and automobile accidents, then as now.


Just weeks later, twenty-six British sailors were lost when their sub H42 (similar to H31, photo) sank after being involved in a collision with the destroyer HMS Versatile off Gibraltar.   Yet again the budding newsreel industry had screened the airshipmen’s flagged caissons rolling to the graveyards, tearful, confused children, the widows dressed in black,  et cetera ad nauseum, while the 23 MAR 22 silent underwater accident remained silent – and unseen. Driven by images and editorials, there was public outcry about the airship accidents – and accepted silence about the submarine deaths.


Edward Wagner, Aeronautics Professor at MIT, urged the July 1922 Christian Science Monitor readers to be calm in spite of the Roma’s crash coming just after the cream of the Navy’s airship corps had been wiped out with the ZR-2. “The catastrophe at Hampton Roads, however, even following that at Hull, should not blind us to the real potentialities of the airship and to its real usefulness in the future… the preceding 20 years show hardly a single accident of the same sort.”  Wagner’s appeal for calm was shouted down.


The highly visible accidents prompted Congress to form a committee and schedule a hearing for December, 1922.  The latest newsreels, showing the funerals and bandaged survivors, were indeed gut-wrenching to aging lawmakers who grew up with Daguerre type images.


Elsewhere, the men who’d been part of the effort to isolate and bottle helium in practical concentrations had been wondering if they had any future, what with all this talk of “return to normalcy.” The revelation of helium’s existence had been met with a yawn – and no interest in changing the nature of buoyant flight in order to use it. The Congressional hearing proved to be a golden opportunity – indeed, a key event in the history of the airship – for a main-ring circus show, a P. T. Barnum-quality performance to baffle the lay Congressmen.


C.W. Seibel (photo) in his book “Helium, Child of the Sun,” cheerfully confesses the Bureau of Mines team took advantage of the two accidents to keep their helium empire funded in the postwar drawdown. But how to do that, in the absence of evidence hydrogen played a role in what were, in both cases, demonstrated gasoline explosions resulting from accident? Seibel wrote: “With this history of lighter-than-air craft, it was not strange that early in December, 1922, Dr. Moore was greatly concerned over the coming hearings which were to consider the future of the airship program. With a worried look, he told me a Congressional Appropriations Committee would consider the question on December 5, and he felt that a demonstration was needed to show the hazards of hydrogen and the advantages of helium. I suggested a simple experiment using two toy balloons, each filled with one of the two gases. He liked the idea. As the Congressional Committee watched, Dr. Moore proceeded with the experiment. Holding a helium-filled yellow balloon at the end of a string, he applied a burning taper. His hand was trembling and the wobbling taper merely seared a spot on the balloon, weakening it enough for the gas to escape with a hissing sound, but without bursting the balloon. When the taper was applied to the red balloon filled with hydrogen, there was a terrific explosion. The windows were rocked, and Congressmen raised out of their seats. Dr. Moore must have been as surprised as any member of the group, but he never batted an eye. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘if any of your boys are flying in military balloons or airships, do you want their ships filled with helium or will you be satisfied if they use hydrogen?’ Afterwards, a member of the group said, ‘We can’t make the Army and Navy use helium, but we can say that none of the money we appropriate can be utilized to fill balloons or airships with hydrogen.’ From that day on there was never a question about the advisability of using helium in lighter-than-air craft. Later, with a twinkle in his eye, Moore accused me of adding some air to the red balloon to create an explosive mixture—something I never admitted.”

This fraud has never been challenged to this day.

Seibel himself, then only a young man at the start of a long career with the Bureau of Mines, merely grinned and shrugged when later confronted about the possibility of whether or not it was he who might have added some air to the red hydrogen balloon!

That one little fraudulent trick drastically changed flight for more than a century.  With its funding suddenly cut, the 150-year-old process of generating hydrogen, filling the envelope, blowing off some to gain altitude, carrying out a mission and then venting to land, came to a screaming halt in America. How could this be?


Government employees having become accustomed to feeding from the public trough, or private citizens benefiting from sweet deals, have been known to commit fraud to justify their continued largess. The BoM fraud was effective on Committeemen who (like many today) were ignorant that there is no evidence any powered LTA vehicle, in peacetime accidents or even wartime incendiary-shooting combats, had ever yielded an actual hydrogen explosion.  

Seibel & Moore’s master stoke was avoiding trying to blame hydrogen for just a fire, since anyone who reads, for example, Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition, but known in 1922), knows that, in air, the right mix of “Hydrogen burns with a pale blue non-luminous flame, but will not support the combustion of ordinary combustibles.” No window-rattling drama here – you can’t even see the flame in ordinary light, and it won’t spread a fire if you could see it. Instead, the dramatic jumping-out-of-your-seat loud ‘pop’ found the well-meaning if ignorant Congressmen concluding they would be helping the situation if they would cut funding for flying under hydrogen, thus protecting airmen from imagined hydrogen “explosions.”


By contrast, inside submarines, in which hydrogen generated during battery charging had sometimes leaked into the air the crew was trying to breathe, there certainly had been explosions when precautions against ignition sources were lax. When you have a gas-in-air mix effectively contained, you should do what submariners do – take simple precautions. That built-in danger is the nature of the submarine – it is accepted, and planned for.  But traces of hydrogen gas seeping upward from the battery pack into tightly enclosed steel air volumes surrounded by water is not related in any way to nearly pure hydrogen in balloons above crew’s living spaces.


No matter; word of the BoM “demonstration” spread like gasoline fire.  Suddenly editorials demanded to know why the new “wonder gas” announced by BoM wasn’t being used. The Army calmly answered that while it cost $17,000 to fill the Roma and vent some H2 for a safe landing, it would have cost $120,000 to fill the leaky bag with helium – and venting some to reach altitude and then some more to come down would have been out of the question. It would suddenly have cost thousands of dollars to pull the toggle that had been in near constant use before. Professional officers quietly pointed out that, without the ability to start with a full gas cell and blow off gas for landing, airship flying as they knew it would come to an end.


The Congressional action guaranteed helium customers, and with them the existence of the Bureau of Mines’ helium empire – with much more to come. Seemingly harmless largess – indeed, thought to be beneficial – was in no way foreseen as having such a profound effect on man’s conquest of the air, let alone the use of airships against their natural enemy, the submarine.  Yet no one in authority was willing to stand up to Congress to proclaim the no-hydrogen funding edict was fraud, and impossible to live with.  It would be yet another burden to bear if the military airship – and LTA ASW – was to have a future in America.

Nature had already demonstrated it could occasionally overcame the most perfect gas containment. The Congressional Committee did not seem to realize that, once even just a small portion of a given time period’s helium allotment from Texas leaked out, the ship was no longer airworthy.  There would be no more flying before the bottles could be taken back to Texas and refilled. While they waited, the envelope was still leaking, 24/7. Early on, it should have been obvious you simply could not move enough helium from Texas to keep even a small number of airships airworthy.


Not to be confused with these limitations, imagining themselves championing the cause of airman’s safety, the newspapers carried the New York Herald’s sentiment: “If we can’t afford helium, we can’t afford dirigibles.” Totally ignorant of the laws of aerostatics, the lay journalist saw it only as a reallocation of taxpayer supplied funds. How hydrogen caused the accidents, or made the crashes worse, or caused the nitrate-doped fabric and gasoline burns on the victims, has never been explained. How helium, originally mined to save observation balloons, would have prevented structural breakup, or a nose dive, was also blown off – to this day.


The oldest airships in the American inventory, the B-types, had accumulated 13,600 flying hours on both coasts covering 400,000 miles. One ship had kept its basic hydrogen charge for nine months while flying 743 hours; another made a record forty-hour flight. The entire B-ship service record had been without a single fatality. B-types had once carried a torpedo, towed an underwater microphone, perfected airborne radio, performed rescues, and more.  Yet these missions would not be re-learned until the closing days of WWII, with airships many times their size and cost.  Oblivious to the waste, the helium edict caused all the B-ships to be, simply, thrown away. Likewise trashed were the many C-types, D-types, and other accomplished pressure airships, until there were but two blimps – the J-3 and J-4 – left in the Navy’s inventory.


R. K. Smith wrote, “Flying with helium assumed an adequate supply of the gas. In the mid-1920s there occurred a nagging helium shortage as the gas fields around Forth Worth lost pressure and the Congress debated the wisdom of funds for a new extraction plant near Amarillo which would tap the helium-rich Cliffside gas site…This ‘unusual richness’ nevertheless amounted to something less than one percent of volume… conservation was the order of the day and severely inhibited flying operations. More than a few American airship operators came to regard “safe” helium as less a blessing than a dark curse.”


This very real curse would first claim the Shenandoah when safety valves had to be capped (if given helium allotment was to allow flying), killing 14 of her crew. It would next claim the additional lives of two ground handlers in the infamous California mishandling accident horrifyingly depicted in this cruddy composite photo, when Skipper Rosendahl was faced with the impossible choice of rendering his ship unairworthy indefinitely, or hope the men could somehow hang on long enough. Later, helium would play a major role in the loss of Akron herself.  Why was it that hydrogen-borne funding was cut, again? So operators could be sloppy about allowing oxygen into the lifting gas cells? (*See postscript below)


The Americans would be entering a new area of buoyant flight, tied directly to bottles of helium being shipped from Texas. Given this bitter lemon, it was going to take some real engineering expertise and operational juggling if they were to make lemonade.


Read on to The American Zeppelins

Skip forward to Design for Helium: The ZRS Program

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*Postscript on helium: Andrew Grey would later write about the ZR program in Air Power History, “The fate of the Hindenburg at Lakehurst more than two years [after Macon’s loss] obscured these prior disasters but in fact did no more than underscore the existing verdict against [rigid] dirigibles. There could be no such thing as a weather-proof dirigible lifted by helium, itself a structurally lethal ten percent heavier than hydrogen.”

Not surprisingly the Government never published statistics comparing the accident rate involving helium-lift vs. hydrogen-lift airships. It might not be considered fair, since obviously needing higher capacity and more complex gasoline systems would mean a greater chance of fire. Hence it’s hardly surprising that with the greater number of SS-type airships built, almost three times as many of the fewer number of K-ships built were lost with fire involved. However, remembering the original idea was to prevent envelopes from catching on fire, surely the enormous expenditure of lives and treasure could be justified when helium-filled envelopes would not ignite.

Hardly! 

Even advanced postwar non-rigid envelopes burned just about as well as their more aluminum-rich predecessors.  One “4K” bag ignited and burned 100% just preforming an air inflation test – no car or gasoline. In the photo, a ZSG2-1 envelope, ignited by a lightning strike at the mast at Glynco, burned completely in less than two minutes in spite of the fire crew’s best efforts, and the cats-&-dogs pouring down rainstorm!

However, the ultimate insult,  the inevitable demonstration of helium’s failure to justify its original intention, that of snuffing envelope fires, came on the night of  December 5th, 1957.  The accident got little press because no one was hurt, and the more Cold-war racy news of the Vanguard rocket explosion dominated the headlines (newspaper page here, highlighted story).  The “5K” airship had inexplicably lost power in the Bermuda Triangle, and exhausted its batteries trying to restart its engines. The exercise was halted and the task group came to the aid of the hovering airship. A destroyer stood by as the disabled blimp’s crew easily slid down ropes into the DD’s awaiting boats. Their DD sailor rescuers attempted to tow the valuable ASW asset, but had not been trained to do so, and the tangled line mess became unmanageable. Machine-gunning the derelict with ordinary bullets and tracer rounds, the helium-filled envelope suddenly ignited and burned completely in less than two minutes.


ZRS the movie itself will not need to enter the argument H2 vs. He.  The film will reflect the fact rigid airshipmen knew they would be returning to hydrogen in time of war, since the operation of even just a few rigids – or even just one overseas – would absolutely depend on hydrogen, for several reasons.