The USS Los Angeles — by far the most successful of the United States Navy’s rigid airships — was built in Germany by the Zeppelin Company. Designated ZR-3 (Zeppelin Rigid number 3) by the United States Navy, the ship was constructed as the LZ-126 (Luftschiff Zeppelin number 126; the 126th design produced by the Zeppelin Company.)
The Origins of the USS Los Angeles
While the Los Angeles achieved its fame as an American naval vessel, the story of its construction is also the story of the rebirth of the German airship industry in the aftermath of World War I.
Appalled by Germany’s use of airships to bomb civilians during the war, the Allies were determined to destroy the German airship industry. Under the leadership of Hugo Eckener, the Zeppelin Company convinced the Allies to allow them to build a large, intercontinental airship — the LZ-126 — to satisfy Germany’s requirement to make reparations for the loss of several German zeppelins which had been destroyed by their own crews to prevent them from being handed over to the Allies.
While the American’s were anxious to receive a new ship built by the experts at the Zeppelin Company (especially after the loss of the British R-38, which would have joined the United States Navy as the ZR-2), the British, who had been bombed by German zeppelins during the war, were opposed to the construction of a new zeppelin. Ultimately, a compromise was reached, under which the Zeppelin Company was allowed to build a new ship for the Ameicans on the condition that it be designed and used solely for civil, and not military, purposes.
The construction of LZ-126 kept the German airship industry alive, maintaining not only the Zeppelin Company’s plant and equipment, but also its workforce of its highly skilled employees. The construction and operation of the world’s first truly intercontinental airship also provided Eckener and his colleagues with the knowledge that would enable them to build and fly future passenger zeppelins.
Flight Across the Atlantic
On October 12, 1924, under the command of Dr. Eckener, LZ-126 (already known by its American naval designation ZR-3) lifted off from Friedrichshafen, Germany to begin its flight across the Atlantic for delivery to the United States Navy.
After a successful crossing of the Atlantic ocean, LZ-126 landed at the United States naval base at Lakehurst, New Jersey at 9:56 AM on the morning of October 15, 1924. The Atlantic would not be crossed nonstop by air again until Charles Lindbergh’s flight in the Spirit of St. Louis in May, 1927.
The transatlantic was considered an aviation triumph, and Captain Eckener and his crew were given a parade up Broadway in New York City, and were greeted at the White House by U.S. President Calvin Coolidge.
The USS Los Angeles
The first flight of the ZR-3 under American command had to await the return of USS Shenandoah, which was still on its cross country flight.
The United States did not have a sufficient supply of helium to inflate two large airships, and so the ZR-3 — which had arrived from Germany inflated with hydrogen — could not be flown until the helium in Shenandoah’s gas cells could be transfered to the new ship.
The still un-named ZR-3 made its first American flight on November 25, 1924. The ship was flown to Naval Air Station Anacostia, near Washington, DC, where it was Los Angeles by the wife of President Calvin Coolidge and placed in commission as a vessel of the United States Navy.
Since Los Angeles had been designed under an agreement limiting the ship to civilian use, it had been built with accommodations appropriate to a long-distance commercial airliner, including a large passenger cabin featuring sleeping compartments and a first-class galley for the preparation of hot meals.
Consistent with its agreement to use the ship for civilian purposes, the Navy operated Los Angeles primarily as a training ship. Los Angeles frequently moored to a surface support ship, U.S.S. Patoka (a Navy oil tanker converted to act as an airship tender) for underway replenishment, and even landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Saratoga.
The ship also conducted experiments with the launch and retrieval of fixed-wing aircraft from trapeze fitted to the bottom of its hull, a technology that would later be used on U.S.S Akron and U.S.S. Macon. Los Angeles made several impressive long distance flights, including trips around the United States and to the Panama Canal Zone and Cuba, and made frequent goodwill and publicity flights in addition to its training operations.
In 1932, with U.S.S. Akron already in service and U.S.S. Macon under construction, the Navy decommissioned Los Angeles. The ship never flew again, and in October, 1939, the ship was stricken from the Navy List and dismantled.
USS Los Angeles statistics:
- Length: 656.2 feet
- Diameter: 90.68 feet
- Gas capacity: 2,599,110 cubic feet
- Useful lift: 66,970 lbs
- Maximum speed: 79 MPH
- Cruising speed: 50 knotw
- Original Powerplant: 5 Maybach VL-1 12-cylinder engines (400 HP at 1,4000 RPM)
- Flight Crew: 10 officers and 33 men
- First flight: August 27, 1924
- Final flight: June 24-25, 1932
- Total flight hours: 4,181:28
- Total flights: 331
For a list of crew members who served aboard U.S.S. Los Angeles during 1931-1932, see: U.S.S. Los Angeles: Officers and Crew