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Shenandoah III (ZR-1)

1923-1925 

A river formed by the junction of its north and south forks in Warren County, Virginia. It flows northeast some 55 miles, crosses the northeastern lip of West Virginia, and empties into the Potomac at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

III

(ZR-1: dead weight. 77,500 pounds; useful lift 53,600 pounds; length 680'; maximum diameter 78'9"; height 93'2"; nominal gas volume (95% inflation) 2,100,000 cubic feet; speed 60 knots; complement 25; armament 6 .30 caliber Lewis machine guns, 8 500-pound bombs; class Shenandoah)

The first rigid airship to be designed and built by the United States Navy, Shenandoah was designed by the Bureau of Aeronautics; fabricated at the Naval Aircraft Factory, Philadelphia, Pa.; and assembled at the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, N.J. Her first frame was erected by 24 June 1922; and, on 20 August 1923, the completed airship was floated free of the ground. Shenandoah was christened on 10 October 1923; sponsored by Mrs. Edwin Denby, wife of the Secretary of the Navy; and commissioned on the same day, Cmdr. Frank R. McCrary in command.

Shenadoah was designed for fleet reconnaissance work of the type carried out by German naval airships in World War I. Her precommissioning trials included long range flights during September and early October1923, to test her airworthiness in rain, fog, and poor visibility. On 27 October, Shenandoah celebrated Navy Day with a flight down the Shenandoah Valley and returned to Lakehurst that night by way of Washington and Baltimore, where crowds gathered to see the new airship in the beams of searchlights.

At this time, Rear Adm. William A. Moffett, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics and staunch advocate of the airship, was discussing the possibility of using Shenandoah to explore the Arctic. Such a program, he felt, would produce valuable weather data as well as experience in cold-weather operations. With her endurance and ability to fly at low speeds, the airship was thought to be well suited to such work. President Calvin Coolidge approved Moffett's proposal; but, in January1924, Shenandoah was torn from her mooring mast at Lakehurst by a gale, and her nose was damaged. She rode out the storm and landed safely, but a period of repair was needed, and the Arctic expedition was dropped.

Shenadoah's repairs were completed in May, and she devoted the summer of 1924 to work with her powerplant and radio equipment to prepare for her duty with the fleet. On 1 August, she reported for duty with the Scouting Fleet and took part in tactical exercises. Shenandoah succeeded in discovering the “enemy” force as planned but lost contact with it in foul weather. Technical difficulties and lack of support facilities in the fleet forced her to depart the operating area ahead of time to return to Lakehurst. Although this marred the exercises as far as airship reconnaissance went, it emphasized the need for advanced bases and maintenance ships if lighter-than-aircraft were to take any part in operations of this kind. During October, Shenandoah flew from Lakehurst to California and to Washington to test newly erected mooring masts. An experimental mooring mast had also been constructed on board the oiler Patoka (AO-9), to determine the practicality of mobile fleet support of scouting airships, and Shenandoah engaged in a short series of mooring tests with her.

The year 1925 began with nearly six months of maintenance and ground test work. Shenandoah did not take to the air until 26 June, when she began preparations for summer operations with the fleet. During July and August, she again operated with the Scouting Fleet, successfully performing scouting problems and being towed by Patoka while moored to that ship's mast.

On 2 September 1925, Shenandoah departed Lakehurst on a flight to the Middle West for training and to test a new mooring mast at Dearborn, Michigan. While passing through an area of thunderstorms and turbulence over Ohio early in the morning of the 3rd, the airship was torn apart and crashed near Marietta. Shenandoah's commanding officer, Cmdr. Zachary Lansdowne, and 13 other officers and men were killed. Twenty-nine survivors succeeded in riding three sections of the airship to earth.

Updated, Robert J. Cressman

13 May 2020 

Published: Wed May 13 16:15:45 EDT 2020