On September 3, 1925, the U.S. Navy airship U.S.S. Shenandoah (ZR-1), crashed in Ohio, killing fourteen members of the crew.


Wreckage of USS Shenandoah

Shenandoah: A specialized but weak design

U.S.S. Shenandoah was based on the design of a World War I German Zeppelin, L-49, that had been forced down in France in October, 1917.

L-49 was one of the “height climbers” designed by Germany late in the war; the strength of the ship’s aluminum framework had been dramatically reduced to allow it to reach the high altitudes necessary to escape Allied fighters and anti-aircraft artillery.  This decrease in strength was accepted as a wartime necessity but copying the design for an American airship may have had tragic consequences.

USS Shenandoah at Lakehurst mast

A recipe for disaster: Politics over technology, state fairs over safety 

In the mid-1920s, members of congress and other politicians put pressure on the Navy Department to send Shenandoah and her companion, U.S.S. Los Angeles, on publicity flights around the country.  Midwestern politicians were especially anxious for the airships to visit their part of the country and pressed the Navy to schedule a midwestern flight.

Shenandoah’s commanding officer, Lt. Cdr. Zachary Lansdowne, was well aware of his ship’s structure limitations, and as an Ohio native he was also familiar with the severe summer thunderstorms that occur in the midwest.  On June 15, 1925, Lansdowne wrote to Admiral Edward Walter Eberle, Chief of Naval Operations, suggesting that the midwestern flight be postponed until the thunderstorm season had passed.  Eberle was unmoved, and Lansdowne’s appeal to Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, achieved nothing but a slight delay; the midwestern flight would proceed in late August or early September.

USS Shenandoah, with (l to r) Zachary Lansdowne, William Moffett, Maurice Pierce, J. H. Dee, Chalmers Hall

U.S.S. Shenandoah with Zachary Lansdowne, William Moffett, Maurice Pierce, J. H. Dee, Chalmers Hall

Lansdowne made another attempt to postpone the midwestern flight but was again rebuffed; on August 12, 1925, Admiral Eberle wrote to Lansdowne, “Your recommendation to make the flight the second week in September has not been approved.”  Lansdowne was ordered to begin the flight on September 2 so the ship could fly over the State Fair in Columbus, Ohio on September 3, and then appear over the state fairs in Des Moines, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Detroit.  As the flight approached, the Navy Department added more towns to the list of places the airship was expected to appear to satisfy political interests; Lansdowne was ultimately ordered to fly his ship over 40 cities and towns in the midwest.

Disaster over Ohio

Shenandoah was over Ohio, as ordered, on September 3, 1925, when the ship was caught in the type of storm Lansdowne had been warning about.  The ship rose rapidly in convective updrafts, at a rate eventually exceeding 1,000 feet per minute, until it reached an altitude over 6,000 feet.  Shenandoah rose, fell, and was twisted by the storm, finally suffering a catastrophic structural failure.  The ship broke in two at frame 125, approximately 220 feet from the bow.

The aft section sank rapidly, with two of the engine cars breaking away and falling to the ground, killing their mechanics.

Control car of USS Shenandoah

Control car of U.S.S. Shenandoah

The control car, attached to the bow section, separated from the ship and crashed to the ground, killing the six men still aboard, including Lansdowne.

Without the weight of the control car, the remaining bow section, with seven men aboard, including navigator Charles Rosendahl, ascended rapidly.  Under Rosendahl’s leadership, the men in the bow valved helium from the cells and free-ballooned the bow to a relatively gentle landing.

In all, fourteen members of the crew were killed in the crash.  [See: U.S.S. Shenandoah Crash: List of Officers and Crew]

The cause of the crash 

Two schools of thought developed about the cause of the crash.

Rear section of USS Shenandoah

Rear section of USS Shenandoah

One theory is that the gas cells over-expanded as the shop rose, due to Lansdowne’s earlier decision to remove 10 of the ship’s 18 automatic gas valves to limit the loss of helium by leakage and eliminate several hundred pounds of weight.  These valves automatically released helium as the ship climbed to avoid over-expansion of the cells at higher altitude, and Lansdowne’s modification limited the amount of gas that could be valved in a given time. With the elimination of these 10 devices, Shenandoah’s remaining valves could not keep up with a climb greater than 400 feet per minute, and as the cells over-expanded they damaged the ships rigid framework.

Aerial view of Shenandoah's wreckage

Aerial view of Shenandoah’s wreckage

But Karl Arnstein, the stress engineer who designed the L-49 from which Shenandoah was copied, blamed the crash on the decision to operate a ship of that design in adverse weather. The German height-climbers were never intended to operate in difficult weather conditions, Arnstein explained, or over large land masses with their potentially violent updrafts and downdrafts. World War I zeppelins were operated infrequently, when the weather was good, and in the relatively calm atmosphere over the open ocean.  And the very shape of Shenandoah — its thin, pencil-like hull — reduced its ability to withstand bending forces.  The next zeppelins designed by Arnstein, the U.S.S. Akron and U.S.S. Macon, would have a very different profile.

Ultimately,  a ship designed for calm nights over the North Sea should never have been operated in thunderstorms over the American midwest.

It may fairly be said that Shenandoah was destroyed by politics as much as the weather.



Werner Franz, the last surviving crew member of the airship LZ-129 Hindenburg, died on August 13, 2014, at the age of 92.  

The sole living survivor of the Hindenburg crash is now Werner Doehner, who was an 8 year old passenger traveling with his family.

franz-crew-cropWerner Franz was born in Frankfurt-Bonames on May 22, 1922, and he was only 14 years old when he joined the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei as cabin boy on Hindenburg, serving the ship’s officers and crew by shining shoes, making beds, setting tables, washing dishes, bringing coffee, and doing other chores.

Young Werner was clearing dishes in the officers’ mess when the Hindenburg caught fire while landing at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station on May 6, 1937.  Franz heard a thud, and he felt the ship shake and point sharply upward as the burning tail crashed to the ground.  Hydrogen flames roared above and behind him as the ship titled more steeply, and then a ballast tank ruptured, dousing Franz with water.

With his water-soaked clothes offering some protection from the heat and flame, Franz made his way to a nearby hatch that was used to bring provisions aboard the zeppelin.  Franz kicked the hatch open and watched the ground approach as the airship sank toward the field, and dropped to the ground when it seemed close enough. Hindenburg’s bow rose up momentarily, as seen in films of the crash, allowing Franz to run from the flaming wreckage before it settled to the ground. He emerged from the crash almost completely unharmed.

The next day Franz went to the wreck site with a U.S. Navy airship officer, Lieutenant George F. Watson, to search for his pocket watch, a gift from his grandfather.  He knew exactly where to look and found the watch. 

franz-bookFranz recounted his story in a book published in Germany in 1938, Kabinenjunge Werner Franz vom Luftschiff Hindenburg by W.E. von Medem

Franz returned to Germany with other surviving members of the crew and began an apprenticeship as a precision mechanic. Franz served as a radio operator and instructor in the Luftwaffe during World War II and worked as a technician for the German Federal Post Office after the war. He also served as a professional roller and ice skating coach whose students included Olympic figure skating partners Marika Kilius and Franz Ningel.

Franz is survived by his wife of 52 years, Annerose, and their children and grandchildren.  

News of Franz’s death was shared by family friend and noted airship historian Dr. John Provan.  The family requested that news of his death not be made public until after the funeral for reasons of privacy.

As Dr. Provan commented, “Werner Franz – das letzte Zeppelin Besatzungsmitglied ging von Bord.”  Werner Franz, the last zeppelin crew member has disembarked.


Werner Franz, 2003. (Photo: Dr. John Provan)


I am very grateful to Lynne Kirste of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for passing along this restored high-definition footage of LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin taken at Los Angeles 85 years ago today, August 26, 1929.

This might easily have been one of the last films ever made of LZ-127: The ship was very nearly destroyed on its departure from Los Angeles the next day.

Near Disaster at Mines Field

Graf Zeppelin arrived at Los Angeles on August 26, 1929, after a 79 hour flight from Tokyo during the airship’s famous Round-the-World flight in 1929.


When the ship arrived at Mines Field at 5:00 in the morning it descended through a typical Los Angeles temperature inversion – the same phenomenon that causes smog to stick to the ground. The temperature was 77 degrees Fahrenheit at 1,500 feet over the field but only 66 degrees at ground level; as the ship descended into the colder air it became more buoyant and a large volume of hydrogen had to be valved to make the ship heavy enough to reach the ground.


Captain Hugo Eckener and his officers feared they could experience the same phenomenon on departure; their ship might be trapped on the ground like Los Angeles smog, buoyant in the cold air at ground level but without enough lift to climb through the warmer layer above.

To make things worse, the hydrogen tanks at Mines Field did not have enough gas to replenish all the hydrogen that had been valved to land.  Eckener ordered drastic measures to lighten the ship: Fuel and water ballast were reduced to minimum levels; anything that could be left behind was offloaded; and Eckener sent six crewmen ahead to Lakehurst, the next stop, by train.  But even that did not lighten the ship enough for it to rise into the warm air over the field.  Eckener decided to use aerodynamic lift to force the heavy ship to climb, and with four of the engines at maximum power the ship raced down the field with its elevators pointed up to lower the tail and raise the nose.  But even at sixty miles per hour the ship would not climb.  Raising the elevators further would cause the tail to hit the ground, but as the ship approached the high-tension lines at the edge of the field Eckener knew he had no choice; if the ship hit the electrical wires it would be destroyed in a blaze of flaming hydrogen.  Eckener ordered the elevators full up; the tail fin was driven into the ground and it dug a furrow almost 200 feet long as the ship scraped along.  Finally the nose lifted upward, and the gondola cleared the wires by a matter of feet.


But the danger was far from over.  While the ship’s nose was now clear, its tail was still below the fast-approaching wires. Choosing his moment carefully, Eckener ordered his son Knut, who was handling the elevator wheel, to apply full down elevator; the ship’s nose pivoted down, the tail raised up, and the tail fin cleared the wires, just barely.  Graf Zeppelin had come within a few feet of destruction.

The Film

The film, made by amateur filmmaker Newcomb Condee, was restored and made public by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive.

According to the Academy:

Enthusiastic amateur filmmaker Newcomb Condee joined over 100,000 people who flocked to see the Graf Zeppelin while it was moored for refueling at Mines Field in Los Angeles, now the site of Los Angeles International Airport. While most of the spectators had to content themselves with distant views of the airship, Mr. Condee managed to obtain a press badge, which allowed him to walk right up to the zeppelin and film this impressive silent footage with his 16mm home movie camera. Mr. Condee, a lawyer who would eventually become a judge in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, can first be seen in the footage joking with armed National Guardsmen patrolling the airfield.

The Newcomb Condee Collection at the Academy Film Archive comprises 95 home movies, shot between 1926 and 1974. The films document the Condee family, their travels, and the changing landscape of Southern California, where they made their home. This footage of the Graf Zeppelin was preserved by the Academy Film Archive in 2012.

Graf Zeppelin and the Los Angeles Landscape

Graf Zeppelin’s visit to Los Angeles left a notable but temporary landmark; the Zep Diner at 515 W. Florence Avenue, near the intersection with S. Figueroa.  It is now a McDonald’s parking lot.

Zep Diner, Los Angeles

The Zep Diner, Los Angeles

Thanks again to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for restoring and sharing this historic footage, and to Lynne Kirste, Special Collections Curator of their Film Archive, for passing it along. 


New Airship Novel: “Wings of Fury”

by Dan Grossman on August 20, 2014

Wings of Fury is a newly-published suspense novel set on an zeppelin-type airship. Written by R. N. Vick, a pilot and flight instructor from Montana, it is an enjoyable read and a good summer novel for us helium-heads.

From the publisher’s description:

It’s 1933, the golden era of aviation. The Pathfinder is an 800-foot passenger zeppelin. It is the pinnacle of human invention; the largest thing to fly. It has just been hijacked.

A band of modern-day pirates have seized control via fighter planes and poison gas. With the passengers and crew hostage, the pirates are flying the Pathfinder into the heart of South America on a deadly mission.

But among the passengers is a man to be reckoned with. He is Nathan Carter, a mercenary and ace pilot with nothing to lose. After a failed attempt to liberate the Pathfinder, Carter must flee, along with a beautiful pickpocket and a couple of determined crewmen. Escape only lands them in the middle of a South American war, in which the Pathfinder shall soon play a terrifying role. From the Iguazu Falls of Brazil, to the blood-soaked battlefields of the Chaco War, and to the thrilling climax high above the Andes Mountains, Carter and his friends must take the fight back to the pirates.

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Guest Post: The Dr. Eckener Rose

by Dagmara Lizlovs on August 13, 2014

This is a guest post by Airships.net reader Dagmara Lizlovs

Hugo Eckener Rose

Dr. Ecker Rose from the garden of Dagmara Lizlovs

While researching biographical information on Hugo Eckener I came upon a website with information on a Dr. Eckener rose.  I did some further research and found that a rose had been named after Dr. Eckener and that this rose is still available for one’s garden.

The Dr. Eckener rose was developed in 1928 by Vincent Berger.  It is the result of crossing the Golden Emblem hybrid tea with an unknown hybrid rogusa (possibly Rogusa Thunberg).

Because Berger resided in both Czechoslovakia and Germany, and probably developed the rose while living in Czechoslovakia, the Dr. Eckener rose is sometimes listed as having originated from Czechoslovakia.  The rose was introduced to the United States in 1931 by V. Teschendorf.

The Dr. Eckener rose is pink with golden tones. The pink can vary from pale to very deep and vibrant, and I think this due to availability of iron in the soil. It is very thorny, and in my opinion its characteristics tend towards the rogusa although others characterize it as a hybrid tea. Although it is called a hedge rose, one German nursery I came upon listed it as a climber. The way it can shoot long branches indicates that one might be able to grow it as a climber. The blooms are large with a delightful potent fragrance. It is considered moderately disease resistant. However, in areas where rose diseases such as black spot are very prevalent spraying and an anti-fungal systemic feed may still be needed. The US hardiness zones for this rose ranges from 4 to 9. The shrub can grow to 10 feet in height.

These websites have additional information on the Dr. Eckener Rose:

Sechzehn-Eichen-Rosenschätze: Dr. Eckener  [Deutsch.  Translate to English]

Die Namen der Rosen: Dr. Eckener [Deutsch.  Translate to English]

Rogue Valley Roses:  Dr. Eckener

Fitzbek Rose Garden:  Old German Roses

Hugo Eckener Rose

Dr. Ecker Rose from the garden of Dagmara Lizlovs

If anyone is interested in growing one, here are some places a Dr. Eckener rose can be ordered:

The Antique Rose Emporium

Rogue Valley Roses

There are other nurseries which carry it.  I strongly suggest ordering at minimum size a 2 gallon plant.

This year after starting off strong, and inspite of regular spraying, my roses got hit hard and totally defoliated by downy mildew which showed itself fungicide resistant.  They have begun recovering and on the birthday of Dr. Eckener — 10 August — my Dr. Eckener rose is showing a bud.


Happy Birthday, Hugo Eckener

August 10, 2014

Today is the birthday of the great Hugo Eckener, born on August 10, 1868, in the city of Flensburg. Happy Birthday, Dr. Eckener.

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Anniversary of Graf Zeppelin’s Around-the-World Flight

August 7, 2014

On this day in 1929, LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin left Lakehurst, New Jersey on its historic flight around the world. Lakehurst – Friedrichshafen August 7, 1929 – August 10, 1929 7,068 km / 55 hrs 22 mins Friedrichshafen – Tokyo August 15, 1929 – August 19, 1929 11,247 km / 101 hrs 49 mins Tokyo – […]

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Today in History: The crash of LZ-4 and the Miracle at Echterdingen

August 5, 2014

Today is the anniversary of the crash of LZ-4 on August 5, 1908.  The crash could have been the end of the zeppelin dream, but marked instead its beginning. LZ-4 On July 1, 1908, Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s fourth airship, LZ-4, made a record-breaking 12-hour flight over Switzerland.  The German government promised financial support if Zeppelin’s […]

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Joyeuse Fête Nationale!

July 14, 2014

In honor of le 14 juillet, here is a brief review of early French airships. Giffard Steam Powered Airship In 1852, Jules-Henri Giffard built a 144-foot hydrogen airship powered by a coke-fired steam engine.  Taking off from the Paris Hippodrome on 24 September 1852, the dirigible was able to fly several kilometers downwind but was not powerful […]

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Anniversary of the First Round-Trip Flight Across the Atlantic

July 13, 2014

On this day in 1919, the British airship R34 completed the first round-trip crossing of the Atlantic ocean by air. Westbound Crossing R34′s flight from Scotland to New York was the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic from East to West, against the prevailing westerly winds; a feat that would not be accomplished by airplane […]

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Today is the Birthday of Graf Zeppelin the Man & Graf Zeppelin the Airship

July 8, 2014

Today is the birthday of both Graf Zeppelin the man and Graf Zeppelin the airship. Ferdinand Adolf August Heinrich Graf von Zeppelin – better known in English as Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin — was born on July 8, 1838. The first airship to bear his name — LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin — was christened by his daughter, Countess Helene […]

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Today in History: The First Westbound Flight Across the Atlantic

July 6, 2014

On this day in 1919, the British airship R34 completed the first westbound fight across the Atlantic in history. Because of the prevailing westerly winds, this feat would not be matched by an airplane for almost a decade.

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Happy Independence Day, America

July 4, 2014
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Today is the Birthday of the Zeppelin

July 2, 2014

The first zeppelin airship to take to the skies made its maiden flight on this day in 1900. On July 2, 1900, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s first airship, LZ-1, left its floating hangar for an 18 minute flight over the Bodensee (Lake Constance) in southern Germany. (You can read more about the first zeppelins, and the […]

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Happy Canada Day!

July 1, 2014

To all my friends up north… Happy Canada Day!

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Small Blimp Used to Protest Illegal NSA Spying

June 28, 2014

A small blimp flew over the NSA’s data center yesterday to protest the agency’s illegal spying. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation: “A coalition of grassroots groups from across the political spectrum joined forces to fly an airship over the NSA’s data center in Bluffdale, Utah on Friday, June 27, 2014, to protest the government’s […]

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Hindenburg Insurance Payout: $81 Million in Current Dollars According to Fortune Magazine

May 14, 2014

An article in the current issue of Fortune Magazine discusses the history of insurance payouts for various aviation disasters including the crash of the Hindenburg. Fortune estimates the current value of the payout at $81 million, but this is always a very tricky calculation, subject to various methodologies and interpretations, especially when it involves adjusting both for […]

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Lusitania Sinking Anniversary

May 7, 2014

Today is the anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania by the zeppelin’s undersea cousin, the German U-boat, on May 7, 1915. In honor of the anniversary here is an article I wrote about the historical background of the Anglo-German maritime rivalry in the years before WWI: Public Symbols and Private Enterprise:  Transatlantic Ocean Liners, 1897-1914 The […]

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Anniversary of the Hindenburg Disaster

May 6, 2014

Hindenburg was scheduled to land at Lakehurst, NJ at 6:00 AM on May 6, 1937, after her first North Atlantic crossing of the 1937 season.  But delayed 12 hours by headwinds, the ship was over Seal Island, Nova Scotia; when passengers were supposed to be disembarking they were gathering for breakfast instead. Just before noon […]

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The Hindenburg; 24 Hours from Disaster

May 5, 2014

At 7:25 PM EST on May 5, 1937, LZ-129 Hindenburg was approaching the coast of Nova Scotia on her 63rd flight, carrying 36 passengers and 61 crew members from Germany to the United States. Twenty-four hours later the ship was destroyed by fire at Lakehurst, New Jersey.

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