The point was as we got better with our landing procedures, the ship might not be up to speed before we approached. Obviously we had to have the ship at a speed above our stall. So what would happen? We’d place ourselves about twenty-five feet below the ship and just outboard of No. 1 engine, skid in underneath the ship, about twenty-five feet behind and below the trapeze. Now, the only problem we had was that you shifted your eyes from the horizon. Your horizon now was the belly of the ship above you. That made it difficult to follow the ship in a turn. The problem became purely a mathematical one. Our problem was to close the distance between the trapeze and the hook. That was all we were trying to do. We were trying to move the hook up to the trapeze. How we got there didn’t make a bit of difference. Many times I’ve gone on the hook with a closed throttle. What that meant was the ship was coming down. Those airships fly a sort of sine curve. The ship might be coming down on me, but giving me what I wanted, which was to close the distance. I didn’t care how the distance was closed. So what you did was to place yourself underneath looking up, hold the stick and throttle and just keep your eyes on the trapeze as you close distance. If the ship were flying too slowly, then some time you’d just have to open the throttle and practically force yourself up in there. Or, if the ship were too slow, there would be times you’d just be ready to grab hold and then fall off into a stall. You’d just simply start over again.
Now here is a fighter coming up. Tension [springs on the] bars for shock of landing. You notice that the bar of the trapeze is a Vee notch. The reason for that is that when they hoist you aboard, the plane must be absolutely centered, because of the small wing clearance. But, if you should land off-center, all you had to do was kick your rudder and let the plane slip down to the center. The pilot would keep his prop turning over until he knew he was locked aboard. Notice the angle of the plane as he landed. He is just on the verge of a stall. We only had about one or two knots above stalling speed. Speed of airship was key to landings. Notice that the pilot is looking straight up. He’s now aboard. You see the flag which signaled him to come aboard. You notice the cable that will pull the trapeze with the airplane up. That strange gimmick to the left is a “saddle.” The reason for that again was because we had little clearance for the airplane as it went through the hangar floor. The saddle was lowered down on the fuselage, holding the plane steady fore and aft. Occasionally, you’d think you were locked on and sit there fat, dumb and happy, and the first thing you know, you would just fall off. It didn’t make any difference, of course, for you had twelve hundred feet to work with, but it did teach you to keep your engine turning over until you knew you were really locked securely on to the trapeze.
If you were a member of the airship’s crew, here’s what you would have seen. You’re looking aft. I don’t think he’s quite hooked on yet. Now the hangar door slides forward. Where the trapeze is now seen there were two big flaps that would open up and there would be room to hoist the plane in, transfer to the overhead trolley and get it out of the way. Refuel it and the plane was ready to go again.
The skin covering of the ship was a type of [doped] fabric so you had to learn to walk very carefully, as you moved around the hangar. One of the concerns of lighter-than-air, of course, was that the heavier-than-air pilots might get careless, and the first thing you know, you’ve got a prop up through the skin of the ship, or some idiotic thing like that. However, we achieved a tremendous rapport and gained the confidence of the lighter-than-air personnel. It became a very happy family relationship. Incidentally, launching a plane was purely the reverse of hooking on. You’d move it from the corner, put it on the trapeze, and lower it away. With oil heaters in the tanks, we could start at any time. We had electric starters energized from a power cable the crew would drop to us. [After unplugging it] You launched yourself by pulling and handle in the cockpit which released the control lock. Simultaneously you eased back on the stick a bit, put lift on the wings, taking weight off the trapeze, then fall free, skid out, and go to work. But still it was a ten minute
(Producer’s caption: Connection for 110V airship’s power is highlighted here on the NASM restored 9056. Pilot could unplug the cable and hang it on the trapeze after startup.)
Now suppose you were in real trouble and wanted fighter protection. Why not hang a plane outside someplace other than the trapeze, or two or three for that matter, and be ready to have them drop off and go to work? So, the after trapeze is called a “perch.” It was very close to the ship as you can see. The reasoning behind this was that it still took ten minutes to get a plane out of the hangar and onto the trapeze. The “perch” was not a hangar operation since it was purely a hang-on device. We could carry a plane there and often did. We could change pilots and refuel the airplane. We could keep a pilot sitting in it ready to go at a moment’s notice. All he had to do was start his engine and release the hook.
(Producer’s caption: “Perch” at Main Frame 102.5 is highlighted. Two additional perches were planned but had not been installed by Feb. 1935.)
[Finally in mid-1934 we began to] remove the landing F9C-2’s landing gear [once aboard]. Far better for [forced] water landings. Substituting a belly tank giving us another hour and a half [of endurance]. Planes ranged 200 miles. Now let’s go out and make another landing. This happens to be the same airplane…the white airplane, Number One, coming in. Notice it has no landing gear. I’ll discuss that in a minute. What he’s doing is making his approach to come aboard. You notice he engaged the trapeze as the ship went into a turn and it was a difficult maneuver because the pilot was unaware of the ship’s turn. He’s a little off-center. You notice his hook is not quite down in the notch of the Vee. [Later] We developed [homing gear to show the ship’s direction].
The planes were usually operated in pairs, with a single airplane being able to range 200 [+] miles from the ship. [Later we] cut down pair of aircraft to singles to provide extra coverage and rest for pilots. 60 degree angles. Out an hour and a half. Always turn 120 degrees toward ship to see her ahead. Notice there are two airplanes hanging from the ship. The first is on the trapeze itself and the plane aft is on the “perch.” Oddly enough, it was much easier to get on the perch back aft, closer to the ship, than it was on the main trapeze, because the main trapeze received turbulence from the control car forward. But the “perch” was no problem. We did all sorts of things. From the perch and the trapeze, we would drop off simultaneously, and frequently you’d drop from the perch and just fly on forward to the main trapeze. We were having fun in those days.
You may recall that the Germans used spy baskets in World War I. There it is. We actually had it aboard, and we used it. However, they contributed very little, but we thought we would try one. The quarter inch cable for rescue gear was also used to suspend the spy basket. It was a dummy fuselage, as you can see. There was, perhaps, a quarter-inch of rudder action, no wings, no stabilizing effect at all, just a dummy fuselage. We wore a parachute but what good it would have done, I don’t know. We tried to rig a telephone using the cable wire but we could never make it work. We had a little key set and we’d tap out Morse code. As the basket was lowered, this quarter-inch wire visually became an eighth, and then a sixteenth, and then a thirty-second and so on, and the wire just got to [visually] be a nothing that was holding you up in the air. With about 3,000 feet of cable out you were praying that those up there working on the reel knew what they were doing. You wanted a lot of cable to be left on the reel. As the basket was lowered, the cable became a catenary. The spy basket would trail the ship far astern to a point of absolute silence. You couldn’t hear the ship which would be somewhere up above the clouds. You were below the clouds or going through clouds with somebody else controlling your destiny. The reason I questioned the parachute was because if they lost you, they’d never have known. It was fun, after a fashion, but had absolutely no practical value.
Suppose a plane had gone into the water: How would the ship get us back. Naturally, that concerned us considerably, So we built…converted shall we say…a ten foot inflated rubber life raft with a web on the bottom and a safety belt. The airship carried a 4,000 foot cable-reel to lower the raft to the water, let us get aboard, and hoist us back to the ship. The fact is we used to have the skipper practice towing the life raft on the water, and he’d do a beautiful job. He could tow this little raft on the surface with the giant airship 2,000 feet above the water, and put it along side of a buoy. It gave us great confidence.
(Producer’s caption: Not seen in still photos, the pilot rescue device is seen here in a NARA print. Motion pictures show the device being lowered and touching the water’s surface.)
Those big ships had crews of about 80 to 85 people. The MACON crew included four or five heavier-than-air pilots and eight heavier-than-air mechanics.
(Producer’s caption: Miller is the third officer from the right in the officer’s row above, and second from left in the pilot’s photo here. Our copy of Miller’s presentation did not contain details of MACON’s last flight, so we include some paragraphs from his USNI oral history here:)
One of the other pilots and I had made a scouting flight on the second afternoon [Feb 12th ’35] returning to the Macon about four o’clock. At that time the Commander-in-Chief
gave us orders to return to Sunnyvale at our discretion. Shortly after five after we had been flying at 1200 feet in a fog for about ten minutes or so the bow suddenly gave a tremendous lurch to starboard and she nosed down violently. There were about ten of us in the [officer’s] smoking room, just abaft the control car proper. We were told to hurry to the bow–in the very extreme portion where the ship was moored to the mast when on the field… By this time we all had on life preservers and had broken out our life rafts–carbon dioxide inflated. By dropping the remaining ballast… slow up the rate of fall sufficiently to give us the gentlest of landings. Just like a feather pillow… When clear of the hull, a fire started and at last the cover burned off as she went down.”
(Returning to Miller’s slide show presentation; in the photo below, Miller is directly below the stars on the Admiral’s barge):
They looked a bit different than they did the next morning when… this is [me and] the MACON crew when we were aboard the USS RICHMOND. Timing is always the primary thing in this world.
So what happened to airships? We lost the SHENANDOAH. We lost the AKRON. We lost the MACON. A little discouraging. At that time, I was one of the ardent proponents of the airship. I thought, “Here is something that gives us 8,000 mile range as a scout, covers the whole Pacific, and there’s nothing like it.” Now there were disadvantages to be sure, but we thought we could overcome some of those things. For instance, large handling crews, proximity of fields which can take an airship. You get a radio call… and find out that the ship will land. The airplanes were used to ferry pilots to return to the ship with more airplanes for ballast. You need two or three hundred men, and cannot afford to valve expensive helium, and all that sort of thing. [The ship’s bow] would be driven to the [mast] and water lines hooked up. It becomes a very difficult operation. The weather becomes a factor with the ships.
Plans had been laid on for an airplane carrier airship. The AKRON and MACON were 6,400,000 cubic feet capacity…the big ships were designed for 15 million cubic feet and were to carry ten airplanes. [ZRCV]
What would a Kamikaze have done to an airship? One Zero is all you needed. As a matter of fact, I blame the death of the airships on the good old venerable PBY. Two ships, the AKRON and MACON cost about $4 million apiece, For $4 million you could pick up, say, twelve PBYs. From a scouting point of view, these PBYs could go out in all directions. They could land at most anyplace. They could be serviced most any place. They had none of the problems of manpower, maintenance, facilities and things like that, so for an equivalent value of one ship, think of what you could do with twelve PBYs. I really believe that this is just about what happened to the airship. I say all this with my good friend [VADM C.E. Rosendahl] still pushing airships, etc. But when a 747 comes along that can carry, in seven and a half hours, 350 people across the Atlantic, I find it very difficult to believe that the airship on a forty-eight hour schedule, with all the problems involved, could be a real competitor.
Let’s not think that the Navy didn’t prove something. First of all, they proved by this ambitious lighter-than-air program, the airship wasn’t feasible. But that wasn’t a waste of money. Let me tell you why. For example, when they were planning and designing the SHENANDOAH, the first airship that we ever built, it became clear that we didn’t know much about airship techniques nor the technical knowledge concerning duraluminum. Dural that we use very day in our kitchen and everyplace else. The United States knew little about it. The Germans knew, the British knew a little bit, but we didn’t know. We went to the Aluminum Company of America, and got them started. This is ten years before the metal was really used, basically, in heavier-than-air craft. Now that alone–getting the industry started producing that metal–was one of the great contributions of the airship program.
Lifting gas…helium a desirable gas because it was inert. We didn’t know where it was, really. Didn’t know what to do about it. This demand for helium which today is an important commercial product, was all brought about by the lighter-than-air program. The Fort Worth plant began to extract helium from natural gas. That was one of the great contributions made.
Still another development emerged from the LTA experience. RADM Ward Harrigan, one of the original HTA pilots attached to LTA, designed a [seat-pack] parachute small enough for the F9C-2 that saved many a life in WWII. [Harrigan at left]
But even more. The big ships were using the Maybach engine of 750 [sic] horsepower. We wanted to get away from German products. We wanted American products. General Motors was working on the Allison V-1710 at that time, and that was the engine selected to replace the Maybach in our airships. The MACON went down in 1935 and we had no need for these engines, but it was on the block–its development was well along. What happened to it? The war came and that was the engine that powered the P-38, to P-39, the P-40 and the Mustang, the P-51. If it hadn’t been for this early work in lighter-than-air, that engine would have undoubtedly not have been available. Certainly, this was one of LTA’s great contributions. So, I will argue that the Navy, although we lost every ship we built, the SHENANDOAH, the AKRON, the MACON, still proved that it was worth the effort because these and other developments evolved out of Lighter-Than-Air efforts.
(A well illustrated first-person account of Macon operations, and an account of her final flight, was also presented in the September 1975 issue of Naval Aviation News. The article, entitled “Airship,” was written by George Carroll, one of the Navy’s first aerial motion picture cameramen. A 1991 congratulatory note from RADM Miller to the producer following the gift of our first video, “The Flying Aircraft Carriers,” will be a treasure forever.)
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