The ship’s rise was carrying her right into the squall

Posted by | September 6, 2012

At 3 A.M. a storm began to brew in the northwest, and a few minutes later Commander Zachary Lansdowne, the skipper of the dirigible USS Shenandoah, was back in the control car. The Shenandoah was making little progress against a strong head wind. Lansdowne ordered the man at the elevator controls to bring the ship down to 2,000 feet, in an effort to find a hole in the wall of wind. It was useless.

For an hour and a half the slender airship struggled westward, drifting first to port, then to starboard. At a few minutes after 5 A.M., E. P. Alien, the elevatorman, turned to Lansdowne. “Captain,” he said, a slight undertone of nervousness in his voice, “the ship has started to rise.”

“Check her,” said Lansdowne.

Alien turned the big elevator wheel clockwise to drive the ship down. It was obvious that the Shenandoah was not responding to the controls. Sweat covered Alien’s forehead. “She’s rising two meters per second. I can’t check her, sir.”

Lansdowne ordered engines 4 and 5 speeded up. But despite the increased power, the ship continued to rise.

“I can’t hold her down,” said Alien. There was a note of panic in his voice now. He started to pull the wheel even farther over.

Lansdowne stopped him. “Don’t exceed that angle,” he said in a calm, confident voice that reassured everyone in the cabin. “We don’t want to go into a stall.” He ordered Rudderman Ralph Joffray to change his course to the south.

Joffray tugged his wheel counterclockwise. He had to put his whole body into the effort. “Hard over, sir,” he grunted, “and she won’t take it.”

“I’ve got the flippers down and she won’t check,” said Alien, his voice rising again.

“Don’t worry,” said Lansdowne, as if there were nothing to fear.

In spite of rudders, elevators, and motors, the ship continued to shoot up, tail elevated about fifteen degrees, and to head relentlessly westward, directly into the storm. The dirigible was rolling now like a raft in the sea.

The situation was more serious than the Shenandoah’s crew, at least for the moment, suspected. Down on the ground, in a little Ohio town called Caldwell, a man awakened when the wind slammed the furniture around on his front porch. He went outside, looked up at the sky, and spotted the giant airship. Directly above it was a dark cloud that seemed to be in a great turmoil. It looked to him, he later told friends, “as though two storms had gone together.” And in Ava a woman, seeing the same cloud, called her husband out into the yard. “Come out and see the boiling cloud!” she cried.

What they saw was a line squall gathering directly above the ship. Formed by a clash of opposing winds—one moist and warm, the other dry and cold—such a squall was capable of seizing the Shenandoah, twisting her in different directions, and wringing out her light metal frame. The ship’s rise was carrying her right into the squall.

wreck of the USS Shenandoah in 1925CLICK PHOTO TO SEE MORE DETAIL. The Navy dirigible USS Shenandoah left Lakehurst, NJ, on September 2, 1925, at approximately 4:00 P.M., headed for St. Louis and Detroit. Lieutenant Commander Zachery Lansdowne was in charge, with approximately 36 men on board.

They were traveling over southeastern Ohio when they flew into a severe electrical storm, at approximately 4:00 A.M. The crew changed course almost a dozen times — moving between altitudes of 1,800 and 7,000 feet. However, the air pressure and twisting were so great that the ship broke. The control car that was attached to the underbelly of the airship fell to the ground. Fourteen people died, including Lansdowne. This panorama shows the nose, which continued its flight for 12 miles, landing in Sharon, OH.

—excerpt from ‘Death of a Dirigible,’ by John Toland, American Heritage Magazine, February 1959, Vol 10, Issue 2
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