Author on ZRS the novel

“ZRS” by Rowan Partridge: Technical Notes by the Author

The USS Long Island never existed. Some would say she never could and never should, an anachronism whose time had passed. Others lament her never-born promise like the demise of a religion. The pages of Lighter-Than-Air history argue that the failure of the rigid airship was a combination of immature technology, bad luck, and poor judgment by the designers and users of these sky giants. A string of disasters through the 1920s and 30s, culminating in the public immolation of the Hindenburg at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on 6 May 1937, spelled the failure of this concept in aircraft. But what would airships have been like had that run of spectacular crashes never happened? This novel explores that alternative history.

The Longboat is an extension of the Akron Class, designed by Doctor Karl Arnstein in the late 1920s at Akron, Ohio, for the Goodyear Zeppelin Company. The “Improved Akrons” described in this novel are the ZRCV design which would have followed had the first two ships, USS Akron and USS Macon, not been lost in crashes at sea. Even this giant might have proved too small to be militarily effective, hence I have expanded the Long Island to a size of twelve million cubic feet, gas capacity being the usual measure of size for an airship. The length of one thousand feet was chosen for its novelistic neatness, but it also fits well into the ship’s specifications. The metalclad outer skin was used in the American ZMC2, which was a small non-rigid blimp. It worked well both as an outer skin and as gas containment. Its use on a large rigid airship would have been inevitable had the type continued. Apart from being double the size of real-life airships and having a metal cover, the Long Island’s only other departures from the conventional design are its powered control system and its use of large Allison engines in place of the specialized German Maybachs. The American engines were in the design pipeline when the U.S. Navy ceased interest in rigid airships. The aircraft depicted in this novel are based on real types. The Douglas SBD Dauntless was, of course, a familiar sight in the Pacific War. The ZRSCV was intended to carry the Douglas-Northrop BT1, a predecessor of the Dauntless, so the “Zone” is only a step away from reality. The P77 is different. The real Bell XP77 was a dismal failure. Designed immediately after Pearl Harbor as a lightweight fighter using a minimum of strategic materials, only two prototypes were constructed, and they were underpowered, skittish and uncomfortable. The XP77 had a tricycle undercarriage and was powered by a 500 hp Ranger V-770-6 engine. Transforming it into the P77 of this novel required giving it an engine of double the power, eliminating the undercarriage and fitting the docking bar. Another pointer to the direction which the dedicated ZRS airplane might have taken was Design 124 by the Bureau of Aeronautics in 1934. The combination of both these developmental aircraft conjectures a fighter which might have had the qualities depicted by the P77 of this novel. The trapeze and docking bar were tested extensively in the Akron and Macon. The docking mechanism fitted to the Curtiss F9C biplane had the hook attached to the airplane. I have moved it to the trapeze to save weight and improve streamlining, and have made the mechanism more complex, with automatic features.

The stress fatigue cracks I inflicted on the Long Island’s upper tail fin were put there to keep Susan in the stern. While the disintegration of the airship’s fin paralleled the accident to the USS Macon on 12 February 1935, the cause was different. The Macon casualty has been analyzed in detail by Jeffrey Cook, who concludes that improper design at the concept stage, which I described above as “immature technology”, made the tail of the real ZRS5 too weak to withstand the gust loads which struck it in the storm front off Point Sur. The Island Class had no such weakness, but their higher speed, fatigue through hard use, the tropical environment of the South Seas, and battle damage provide the necessary climax for our plot. Ground facilities for the real ZRS airships were impressive enough. Because volume is proportional to the cube of the length and diameter, Sunnyvale Hangar Two need be only slightly larger in size than the actual Hangar One in order to house the Island Class. Regrettably, the real Hangar 2 at Moffett Field, Sunnyvale, is a lesser structure than depicted in these pages. The Wellman mast, Bolster beam and other ground handling equipment are described exactly as they were in the golden age of the airships. R101 was the most tragic of the dirigibles, in history as in this story. The modifications necessary to convert her to the use of helium, and to give her sufficient performance to serve the role I have envisaged for her, might have succeeded had she been given the chance by her misguided masters. The bombing of Darwin happened very much as depicted in these pages. Only the Long Island was invented. The attack was as devastating as Pearl Harbor, and had as much shock effect on Australia as the Hawaiian raid had on America. Several characters in this book are real people. Others are based, to a greater or lesser extent, on actual figures in the saga of Lighter-Than-Air. Admiral Moffett, whose Shakespearian demise in the Akron crash ended the navy’s rigid airship program, deserved more time to nurture his dream, and I have given it to him. “Rosie,” latest and greatest of the American airshipmen, would surely have held the post he does in this novel. He would have enjoyed creating this story in reality as I have in fiction.

– Rowan Partridge

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