LIGHTER-THAN-AIR AIRCRAFT OPERATIONS
By Rear Admiral Harold B. Miller
[Producer’s captions and edits in bold italics; producer selected photos believed to be identical or similar to those shown by Miller when presenting]
This is quite a title! It might be “HTA and LTA” or it even be HTA vs. LTA!” But, the idea is correct and I propose to discuss the operations of a heavier-than-air machine which is launched or recovered by an airship in flight. This covers such things as gliders and airplanes, and I would consider the “spy basket” to be part of that system. I am sure that in an audience such as this there are proponents of airships. Should my discussion cross the line into a discussion of the merits or detriments of airships – so be it.
The basic thought behind this operation was to provide the airship with some means of dispatching scouts for reconnaissance, or fighters for protection, or even taxi aircraft to transport passengers or cargo to and from the airships, freeing the ships from the necessity of docking at frequent intervals and making them relatively independent in flight. It is clear, however, that whatever the mission of the airship, the carrying, launching, and recovery of aircraft must be an integral part of the design and operation.
Obviously, there comes to mind two possible missions for an airship. The first, of course, is military use, and the second is the transportation of freight and passengers in the course of commercial operations. To be sure, far-out planners believers in lighter-than-air craft advocate many other missions. I was simply amazed to see a publication the other day cover uses of airships I had never dreamed about, such as dusting of crops, planting of seeds, and things of that sort, but, utterly impractical.
A certain amount of romance surrounded the work of the heavier-than-air units attached to the AKRON and the MACON. Certainly it was a unique operation which excited onlookers as they saw the tiny airplanes being swallowed up into the belly of the airship, while equally exciting was the sudden dropping of a tiny fighter airplane from the huge hull. The fact was, however, that those sun- worshippers on the beaches along the New Jersey and California coasts were seeing merely the ultimate development of an idea which was nothing new.
(Producer’s caption: John Montgomery’s HTA contraptions killed pilot Daniel Maloney in 1905 and the “Professor” himself in 1911. Montgomery’s heirs sued to invalidate the Wright brothers’ patent, arguing he had the first controllable HTA machine. They lost. To this day, few people realize the Wrights used a catapult to launch their underpowered Flyer, and it is considered sour grapes to mention how many men were killed by the early Wright machines.)
Perhaps this inspired the well-known Brazilian aeronaut, Santos Dumont. Although he did most of his flying in France as an airship pilot, he also qualified as a heavier-than-air pilot–when he could get into the air, as witnessed by this slide. He found almost insurmountable problems in endeavoring to fly his Hargrave-type boxkite [- based airplane] into the air from the ground. Being a LTA pilot, he conceived the idea of attaching the airplane to his airship number fourteen. In this way he hoped to get the airplane into the air with flying speed at which point he would release it and have a little flying experience that afternoon. As is true of so many great ideas, the equipment he had to work with was unequal to the task and that combination of HTA and LTA never got off the ground.
(Producer’s caption: Santos-Dumont also made the first purely HTA flight in Europe. Many also thought that rise-off-the-ground without a catapult, fully controllable HTA machine predated the Wrights’ underpowered sling-glide in the quest for NTA glory.)
As early as 1912, Count Zeppelin discussed the feasibility of using airplanes in conjunction with his Zeppelins – his large airships. Already some of his airships were being used for passenger carrying in Germany. As a matter of fact, although this operation started as a sight-seeing venture, it did blossom into a rudimentary sort of a scheduled airline. The Count foresaw the ease with which passengers could be transported by airplane to the airships. L-3 carried a plane aloft and launched it in the vicinity of Berlin. Shortly afterwards, World War I put a stop to these dreams, since the Zeppelins were enlisted into the war effort. But this novel idea emerged again in 1915 in connection with the carrying of fighters aboard airships.
Two years later a plane was carried aloft and launched in the vicinity of Berlin. Captain Strasser, [photo] the Chief of German Naval Airship Service, who sponsored the idea of launching this fighter, unfortunately was killed in the [shooting down] crash of the L.70, and this ended the development of the German efforts with an aircraft. They did, however, come up with a variation idea in which mounted wings on a torpedo and launch it on target. It had no particular accuracy and the project was dropped and the Germans again resorted to bombs.
The Zeppelins were giving the British problems for the airships could outclimb the low-powered British fighters. HNAS Squadron Commander [ W.P de C.] Ireland, unconsciously turned the pages back to Santos Dumont and reconceived the idea of attaching a fighter aircraft to a non-rigid envelope. On the approach of the Zeppelins, he proposed to launch this hybrid aircraft to achieve altitude, conserve fuel, and attack the airship. He not only planned projects but he executed them. It was February 1916, when the experiment was carried out with Wing Commander [Nevil F. Usborn] acting as observer and Ireland himself piloting this odd craft. They reached their ceiling, and the pilot pulled the cables. These failed to release evenly and the [HTA] pilot was thrown out to his [drowning] death. The whole mess floundered to the ground killing [Ireland].
The British, who had become enamored with airships, then began to plan to carry airplanes on their few airships. In 1918, the R-23 launched an unmanned Sopwith Camel with locked controls. The plane went into a perfectly normal glide and made a very respectable landing. Shortly afterward, the same airship launched a Camel with an R.A.F. pilot, F. O. Keyes, at the controls. Although the launching was successful, no effort was made to recover the airplane in flight. With the end of the war came a slowdown in LTA operations and the experiments were discontinued [for years]. [Seven years later] the British again worked on their lighter-than-air airplane combination. They made several launches and succeeded in making one landing aboard the R-33. Interest in this work came to a halt.
It is now the summer of 1924, and the scene shifts to the United States where the Army Air Corps began to experiment with non-rigids and the launching of radio-controlled aircraft armed with bombs. From this idea evolved a set of orders to First Lieutenant Clyde Finter to proceed to Scott Field, Belleville, Illinois, for the purpose of “testing apparatus for hooking Messenger airplanes to airships.” The non-rigid TC-7 was a bit under 200,000 cubic feet capacity. The Sperry Messenger, which weighed about 900 pounds, carried a pyramidal structure with a horizontal guide bar reaching out over the propeller. Lowered from the ship was a trapeze bar which carried the plane [as it was lifted skyward]. The plane was launched in flight. No problem there whatsoever. Finter then endeavored to recover and that became a difficult problem owing to the lunging airship. If the pilot hit the trapeze too hard, he went right through the automatic releasing gear. He went through and kept on going. That happened three or four times to the point the pilot gave up. It was a month later when they made another effort along this line and actually had one successful landing. This success closed out the Army experiments for at that time. The U.S. Navy was given the responsibility for the development of rigid airships, hence the Army was dealt out of that type of an operation, and they discontinued their efforts. But they actually had made the first landing on a lighter-than-air craft with this little operation right here.
In the meantime, in October 1924, the USS Los Angeles, the ZR-3, was added to the U.S. Navy list as war reparation from the Germans. This shot demonstrates one of the problems we had with the airships. This is a high mast, as you can see. The only portion of the ship touching the earth is through the nose cone, which means that she is nothing but a wind sock. She’s free to swivel around in the wind with the tail high in the air. You actually had to fly the ship even though she was moored to a mast. [While] doing that–you kept her in equilibrium, using ballast to meet whatever the conditions were.
Interest was aroused in the Navy in the use of heavier-than-air with lighter-than-air. The Navy didn’t know quite how to go about this thing. They discussed using a straight wire loop as a trapeze, but finally, after considering all previous work the Army had done, adopted a firm and rigid trapeze-type of gear. Now with the Los Angeles…a very fine airship in operation… a start was made by the Navy. It was in July 1929 when a Vought, the old UO-I you may recall, piloted by Lieutenant Jake Gordon, flew under the Los Angeles, but after several nibbles, he found that he was unable to secure the plane to the trapeze. The project personnel then took a month off and played around with more ideas. Once more they tried, and this time Jake Gordon had no difficulty making three firm landings. This was considered pretty good. Two other pilots, Nicholson and Stevens, were able to make successful landings, and before the year was out some twenty landings had been made. By this time it had passed from the experimental and it was well into actual operation.
The experience learned from this particular operation was built into the AKRON and the MACON–the trapeze gear and all the accessory gear was accepted as practical for use with the fleet. We now move into the airship as we know it–the large rigid type airship–the AKRON and the MACON. Many of you are familiar with these particular ships but let’s look at one of them, in this case the good old AKRON— an enormous thing. This made it a very difficult operation. You may recall when she took off on this particular flight, two men were lost [at Camp Kearny]. They held on to the lines too long and were carried aloft, falling to their death. Now down below is Sunnyvale. I made a point about the airship and the high mast being a bit of a problem.
[Later, planes could be sent out for landing ballast.] If still light after all planes taken aboard, you’d have your ship moored to the ground, free to rotate with the wind. It would be a great operation. That’s the way we finally came to the low mast and the circular railroad track. You can see the mooring mast. The ship would be towed out, moored in the center of the mooring circle and she was then free to rotate. ship could drive to ground [to be winched in and] hook up water lines [pumping ballast aboard]. Now if only we could get the tail of the airship down on the ground, lower the whole operation, and say, set it on a railroad car of some sort… a heavy weighted car, and put that on a circular track, then you’d have your ship moored to the ground, free to rotate with the wind. It would be a great operation. That’s the way we finally came to the low mast and the circular railroad track. You can see the mooring mast. The ship would be towed out, moored in the center of the mooring circle and she was then free to rotate.
[Now to the smaller aircraft], there are several remarkable things about the [XF9C-1] airplane. It was built because the Navy wanted to get more airplanes on its surface aircraft carriers. This meant that you had to have either a small airplane or you had to have folding wings. It was even proposed, at one time, that you stow airplanes on the deck by putting horses under them at, say, a forty-five degree angle of stowage. Anything to get more airplanes aboard. This Curtiss fighter was the result of effort to design a small airplane to get the maximum number aboard ship. Fokker was in this competition with Berliner-Joyce as the third one. Of them all, none were successful as a carrier aircraft. [The Sparrowhawk] is one of the most beautiful airplanes ever built. Not only was it beautiful from a visual point of view, it was a beauty from an operational point of view. The Navy had no restrictions on it…terminal velocity, greatest stunt fighter ever built, because it had no dimensions. It had a twenty-six and half foot wing. It weighed something just under 3,000 pounds, 450-horsepower Wasp. You could do anything with it.
This picture happens to be me. I brought it because of the [center visible] hook which was the key to the whole operation. The hook is similar to the one used earlier by the Army. The bar stretches out over the prop to prevent hitting the trapeze while trying to hook on. That was protection. As you look further aft, you see the hook itself. This contains a spring loaded, automatic lock. Once you got your hook around the bar, you were hooked on firmly and you had no problems. Notice the fairing on the wheels. We added those little flanges, because we never knew when we were at sea working from the airships whether or not we might have to go down and land aboard an aircraft carrier. We qualified and checked out on carriers, but if the landing gear wire on the decks of the carriers were to jump up over the fairings, we felt that we would probably go over on our back. Hence the fairings. And, of course, we carried a carrier hook for carrier landings.
We had about three hours fuel. The plane had flotation gear, an inflatable bag on each [under] side of the [upper wing]. The visibility for the pilot was poor although the upper wing was lifted four inches to provide more visibility [beginning with the XF9C-2]. This resulted in the gull wing. The cockpit was very tiny and crowded. As it happened, most of us were rather large, and when you wore a winter flying suit, you got in by a proverbial shoehorn and you didn’t do much moving around. It was an unstable aircraft. You had to fly it constantly. What I’m really getting at is trying to navigate the F9C-2 at sea became quite a problem. But, I must say, in three years flying off the airships, we never had a forced landing nor the slightest bit of engine trouble. Our upkeep or maintenance was superb. We had no trouble at all in operating the airplanes. Good weather, bad weather, daytime, nighttime, it made no difference.
You may recall we had an insignia depicting a trapeze, a great giant of a fat guy hanging from the trapeze and he was throwing a little, skinny guy up in the air, etc. Well, that was the nice one we accepted. As you might imagine, the first design we had was that of a horse’s tail with flies buzzing around it. Lighter-Than-Air didn’t care for that one.
Small problems we had. But one thing that did make it difficult was if the ship would go into a turn and you were nearly in a stall, and not seeing the horizon–you didn’t know what was going on, except you had to keep skidding, and skidding, to hold your position under the ship. It made it difficult because you were trying to put your hook on the center of the trapeze gear. The reason for that was, as small as the airplane was, the hangar aboard the airship still had no clearance. Inside
the ship is an airplane hangar. Thus, she is a flying aircraft carrier. The hangar was constructed to house the little F9C-2’s which we see. Once on the trapeze, you are hoisted up and attached to overhead trolleys that stretched diagonally to each of the four corners. So you can carry four airplanes in the hangar of the ship. Of course, you could hold a fifth airplane on the trapeze itself but this would remove a great deal of flexibility because if you had a dead airplane on the trapeze, you couldn’t do anything with the other four. Those were some of the problems which, fortunately, we never experienced.
Now we come to the actual operation of these aircraft. That is the MACON in flight. You notice two of the F9C-2’s down below, and you can see the trapeze gear hanging down, considerably aft of the control car, just about parallel to the Number One engine. We’d come alongside the control car, and they’d give us the signal to come aboard. They’d lower a green flag, and the trapeze and the ship would get up to speed. These fighters had a stall [speed] of about seventy-one miles an hour, somewhere in there, which in those days we thought was pretty fast. The ship itself was not [all that] fast. She could make eighty-five, if all engines were going full.