Naval History and Heritage Command

U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

The Civil Engineer Corps and the "space program" of the twenties


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View of the Hull drafting room at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, 1936.


What was a naval officer doing, dressed in a fleece-lined jacket and Levis, trekking across the half-frozen cattle ranges of northern Texas in mid-December 1919? He was being a good sailor and obeying orders that carne directly from the Acting Secretary of the Navy.

Although World War I had ended the previous year, the young officer was completing an assignment relating to a high-priority wartime project, one that would aid the U.S. in the postwar development of aircraft -- more specifically airships. It was ironic that he should be furthering air development at ground level, his own two legs his only mode of locomotion.

LT Ira P. Griffen, CEC, USN, as his orders read, was “...to personally walk the length of the pipeline making notes on blueprints” to assess damage claims the property owners might have against the government as a result of construction. The pipeline in question ran from Petrolia, Texas, to an unusual gas processing plant in Fort Worth. LT Griffen had previously participated in the construction of both pipeline and plant by the Bureau of Yards and Docks.

The recent war had seen airplanes introduced in force, but mainly as short range weapons. It  was the airship, or zeppelin, that appeared to have the greatest potential as a long-range air weapon. Not only had the Germans used airships to bomb London, but one of their airships, the

L.59 flew a non-stop 4,000-rnile round-trip from Bulgaria (an ally) to the German colonies in southern Africa carrying 15 tons of cargo. In an era when airplanes were mostly small and short range, the airship with its great range and carrying capacity appeared to be the strategic air weapon of the age.

Nevertheless, airships had one major disadvantage: their lift was provided by hydrogen, a highly flammable gas that made them very vulnerable to both attack and accidents.LT Griffen's "long march" was part of the acquisition of an alternate, safer gas for lighter-than-air ships: helium.

As it happened, the U.S. had the world's only known source of helium. The natural gas secured from the Petrolia gas field had a very high helium content.  After extraction, this gas would be piped to a government-owned processing plant in Fort Worth.  With a readily available supply of nonflammable helium, airship development seemed assured in the days following World War I.

The U.S. Helium Production Plant, as it became known, was initially funded by the War and Navy Departments; however, the Bureau of Yards and Docks oversaw construction of both plant and pipeline.  The Bureau of Engineering through a contract with Linde Air Products, Inc., operated the plant after completion. Built at a cost of $3.5 million, the plant enabled the U.S. to enjoy an international monopoly of helium. The plant produced 40,000 cubic feet of helium a day and was the sole source of the gas until richer fields were subsequently discovered -- also in the U.S.

In 1919 the future looked bright for airships and, indeed, for much of the 1920s and 1930s the airship appeared to be the bright star in aviation's sky -- both as a commercial carrier and air weapon.

The Navy had originally gotten involved with lighter-than-air aircraft when it ordered 16 small, non-rigid airships for maritime reconnaissance and submarine-spotting. Between 1917 and 1919 the Bureau of Yards and Docks built eight steel-frame hangars for these airships at naval air stations along the Atlantic Coast, at Coco Solo in the Canal Zone, and at San Diego, California. These small hangars were built from a standard design produced by the bureau's design personnel just before American entry into the war. This represented the Bureau of Yards and Docks' first involvement with airships. Most of the World War I hangars were dismantled in the early 1920s because of postwar budget cuts, or were demolished in the 1930s because of deterioration.

In the early-1920s the Army was also involved in airship development; it designed and operated the RS-1, a semi-rigid airship. The Army, however, abandoned airship development to the Navy following the loss of the Italian-built ROMA at Langley Field, Virginia, in 1922. A sudden squall forced the ROMA into high-tension lines and the hydrogen-filled airship exploded, killing 34 of its 45 man crew. This incident resulted in a national policy decision that only helium would be used as the lifting agent in U.S. airships. At the time LT Griffen's pipeline and helium plant had only just begun operation and most of its- rare product had thus far been used only in observation balloons and decompression chambers for deep-sea divers.

After the ROMA disaster, the Navy took the lead in airship experimentation and development in the U.S. There was no doubt that Navy men developed an emotional attachment to airships,  after all they had a bridge and wheel and sailed through the air, performed best with the least hazard over the oceans, had a substantial crew, a full galley and mess, enlisted and officer quarters, and were vehicles to which nautical terms could readily be applied. The Navy viewed the airship as its potential long-range, strategic air weapon. So, with the U.S. controlling the world's supply of helium and possessing the necessary technological and industrial capacity, and having a supportive public, the Navy went ahead to build and operate the biggest and safest airships yet seen.

In late summer of 1919 the Secretary of the Navy approved the construction of an airship based on the German airship L.49, which had been captured during the war. The new vessel would be the first rigid-frame airship constructed in the U.S. The Navy acquired Camp Kendrick, New Jersey, from the Army, and, on 28 June 1921, commissioned it as the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst. The Bureau of Yards and Docks then designed and built a huge airship hangar there in which the airship would be assembled. This enormous structure was an engineering marvel at the time. It was 961 feet long, 350 feet wide and 200 feet high. The steel frame of the hangar was covered by corrugated asbestos composition which in appearance resembled corrugated sheet metal roofing. Asbestos was used because of the fire danger inherent in hydrogen which at the time was still the main lifting gas. Unlike metal, the outer covering required no paint, was impervious to the elements, and had an extremely low rate of heat conductivity. The doors of the hangar were not an integral part of the structure. They were operated by enormous counterweights and mounted on rollers. These rollers ran on rails which were parallel to the  ends of the hangar. Each door was operated by four 20-horsepower motors, weighed 2,700 tons, and when opened could admit the largest airships then in existence.

The Navy's new airship was completed in late summer of 1923, and was christened the SHENANDOAH. The SHENANDOAH had its home port at Lakehurst and made many sorties before going on what was to be her last flight in 1925. On 3 September of that year she was caught in vertical wind currents over Ohio and broke up with a loss of 14 crewmembers. It was determined that structurally she was too weak because she had been copied from a wartime airship in which strength had been sacrificed for lightness.

The history of the Navy's next airship was dramatically different from that of the unfortunate SHENANDOAH. In 1924, as part of a war reparations agreement, Germany built and delivered a zeppelin to the U.S. government which was subsequently christened the LOS ANGELES.  Between 1924 and 1932 the LOS ANGELES made 331 flights, a total of 5,368 air hours, cross-country and participated in naval exercises in both oceans. The longest flight was from Lakehurst, New Jersey, to the Panama Canal Zone and back. After a long and successful career, the LOS ANGELES was decommissioned in 1932 and finally scrapped in 1938.

Congressional and Navy enthusiasm for airships, engendered in part by the enviable safety  record of the LOS ANGELES, led to the signing in 1928 of a contract with the Goodyear Zeppelin Company of Akron, Ohio, for the construction of two super airships. The manufacturer was to construct a monstrous hangar in which to assemble the giant vessels; and the Navy would construct the hangar facilities where the ships would be based.

Goodyear's assembly hangar was to be 1,000 to 1,200 feet long and have a top clearance of 160- 180 feet, since the new airships would be 785 feet long and 133 feet in diameter. The already existing hangar at Lakehurst could house the LOS ANGELES and one of the new ships simultaneously; however, by 1928, the Bureau of Yards and Docks recognized that there was room for great improvement in the Lakehurst design. In short, the Civil Engineer Corps and the bureau set out to build the biggest and most modern airship hangar yet constructed

Goodyear was to deliver the first of the new airships within 30 to 35 months and the second within 50 months. Since Lakehurst could already handle one ship upon delivery, the Bureau of Yards and Docks had four short years to design, build and have the second hangar ready for use. The Navy decided to base the second airship at a west coast location and so the site selection for the new hangar and attendant facilities got underway. On 1 June 1929 Secretary of the Navy Charles F. Adams appointed a board of officers to recommend west coast sites for the new hangar. The board members were RADM William A. Moffett, USN (of Great Lakes and 12th Regiment fame), Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics; RADM Joseph M. Reeves, USN, Navy general board member; CDR Garland Fulton, CC, USN, Bureau of Aeronautics; LCDR Charles E. Rosendahl, Commanding Officer of the LOS ANGELES; and LCDR Edward L. Marshall, CEC, USN, member and recorder.

The general board directed the site selection board to limit its choice to the Los Angeles-San Diego area; and Camp Kearney, near San Diego, seemed to be a foregone conclusion. It had a strong Navy presence, community and local political support for expansion, and the land in question was already mostly government-owned. Other communities, however, also entered the competition to be the site of the proposed lighter-than-air facility. Most notable was San Francisco and its satellite communities. The Chamber of Commerce there offered a substantial acreage near Sunnyvale to the Navy for the legal token of one dollar.

In view of the stricture to select a site only in the Los Angeles-San Diego area, the board did a strange thing: it recommended the Sunnyvale location by a vote of four to one. The lone dissenter, CDR Fulton, opted for the Camp Kearney site. Secretary Adams, in spite of the majority vote, reversed the decision and selected Camp Kearney. Congress became involved in the selection which was delayed almost a year before Sunnyvale was finally approved in December 1930 as the site for the new west coast airship facility.

On 8 August 1931 Mrs. Herbert Hoover christened the newly-completed AKRON before a quarter of a million people at the Goodyear Zeppelin Company in Akron, Ohio. The airship was immense, far exceeding her German counterparts in size, lifting power, and above all, in safety. Her   helium filled cells permitted innovations previously unthinkable. The German zeppelins had external engines to reduce spark danger; the engine gondolas, however, created drag and educed air speed. The AKRON had internal engines driving external propellers via belts. The propellers could be rotated 90 degrees from the horizontal to the vertical in order to provide additional lift and reversed to increase descent. The internal placement of the engines also facilitated servicing while underway.

As mentioned earlier, the new airship had its home port at the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst,  New Jersey. The Bureau of Yards and Docks had completely modernized the landing and hangar facilities at Lakehurst.One of the most difficult and dangerous flight operations was berthing because unexpected ground winds could push the airship into the hangar sides while it was entering. Docking to a high mast was equally perilous because down and updrafts could rapidly elevate or drop the stern. During landings, the airship dropped long lines and a large ground crew walked the ship into its hangar.

Civil Engineer Corps officers studied the problem of airship berthing and developed several ingenious modifications to the berthing facilities. The 171 foot high mast was replaced by a stub mast, approximately 60 feet high. The shortened mooring tower footings were mounted on railroad tracks 40 feet apart and the tower became self-propelled -- using a central powerhouse mounted on crawler treads. Side and stern stability was added by use of low profile locomotives especially designed for the task. Both static and mobile mooring masts were surrounded by a circular trackage with rail-mounted trucks that permitted the ship to always face windward in order to prevent turbulence. This innovation reduced the need for large landing crews and eased the task of hangaring the craft.

At the Sunnyvale site, the Civil Engineer Corps officers of the Bureau of Yards and Docks  planned to build the biggest and best airship terminal yet seen. Through consultations with air crew personnel and aeronautical engineers, the bureau evolved several proposals:a huge circular hangar on tracks that could be exactly positioned into the wind; a cross-shaped hangar with four entry ways; or an open-ended hangar similar to that built by Goodyear at Akron.  Some of the individuals concerned favored a 16 to 24 sided building with openings on six or eight faces. Such a structure could house two large airships and several small ones and would permit an airship to be walked to the appropriate exit within the enclosed still-air area.

Prevailing winds in the Sunnyvale area and economic considerations finally led to the choice of an Akron-type hangar and work was soon underway. The new hangar would be 1,000 feet long and 180 feet high and would have doors of a hemispherical shape carried on tracks on the ground. The doors were so arranged that, when open, they would fit snugly around the hangar sides to eliminate eddy currents as much as possible -- a problem with the doors of the Lakehurst hangar. The door design was similar to that used on a World War I German hangar. For the Civil Engineer Corps, construction of the big hangar was a "glamor" activity, a major project akin to Trident submarine base construction in the 1970s and 1980s.

Meanwhile, the first of the new airships, the AKRON, entered service at Lakehurst. However, after some fifty flights, disaster struck. On 3 April 1933 the AKRON crashed in the Atlantic Ocean; 75 of 78 crewmembers were killed, including RADM Moffett! The tragedy initiated a heated controversy over the safety of airships. While work continued on the Sunnyvale facility and while the AKRON's sister ship, the MACON, neared completion, airship critics attacked the whole airship concept reminding the public of the loss of the Navy's first airship, the SHENANDOAH.

Following a christening by RADM Moffett's widow at Akron, the MACON was officially commissioned at Lakehurst on 23 June 1933. Congressional hearings on the feasibility of airships were underway at the time and it was up to the MACON to restore public confidence in lighter-than-air ships. The Navy purposely scheduled a number of flights over metropolitan centers to expose the huge airship to as many people as possible. Unfortunately for airships, in 1935 disaster struck the MACON after she had successfully participated in naval maneuvers. A rain squall off Point Sur, California, sent the MACON into an uncontrolled descent into the sea. The airship was destroyed; however, only 2 of its 81 man crew were lost. The loss of the two sister ships ended U.S. pursuit of air power through airships. The sole remaining monuments to the brief but exciting adventure of the airship are the two hangars, one located at Lakehurst and the other at Sunnyvale. In themselves, these structures represent major engineering achievements.

While the loss of the AKRON and MACON effectively ended the era of large military airships, the Navy continued to operate lighter-than-air craft until 1964. These airships were the much smaller non-rigid "blimps" of World War II fame which were use very effectively for antisubmarine patrol and convoy escort. The approximately 150 blimps in service at the end of the war operated from bases in the continental U.S., the West Indies, Morocco, and Brazil. The Bureau of Yards and Docks had to provide the hangars and other support facilities for these airships -- and this led to some extraordinary engineering developments.

In the U.S. alone, the bureau built eight new lighter-than-air stations during the war. The   bureau had originally planned to build the blimp hangars of steel; however, construction of only two new steel-frame hangars was underway before U.S. entry into the war created a severe steel shortage. Because of this shortage, the bureau undertook to design an all-timber airship hangar, which would use wood even for structural members. The design was a great engineering challenge, for in the early 1940s no clear-span building of such huge dimensions had ever been constructed with an all-timber frame. Nevertheless, a team of engineers led by Dr. Arsham Amirikian, the bureau's Chief Engineer, labored hard on the project during 1942 and by September had completed the design for an all-timber hangar, featuring braced-wood, hingeless, parabolic-arched trusses.  The completed hangar would be 1,000 feet long, 170 feet high at the crown, and 296 feet wide at ground level. The head of the design division, under whom  Dr. Amirikian worked, was CDR Emil H. Praeger, CEC, USNR. Before the war, CDR Praeger   had been Chairman of the Civil Engineering Department of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. During World War II the bureau built 17 of these hangars at various locations, some of which are still standing and in use.

Thus, the Civil Engineer Corps not only played a major role in the grand experiment with airships during the 1920s and 1930s, but also provided the facilities necessary to support the large blimp fleet of World War II.

Published:Sat Jan 21 12:48:16 EST 2017