Saturday, September 3, 2011

OH the humanity! - Ohio's Airship Disaster

Greenville honors its native son
The 1937 Hindenburg disaster in New Jersey was pretty dramatic with the "oh, the humanity!" and the fancy newsreel coverage but did you know Ohio was home to another airship disaster that predated the Hindenburg by 12 years on this date in 1925? It's true!
The first US airship was called the 1923 USS Shenandoah (ZR-1) built by the Navy for the purpose of being a scout ship. I heard you thinking, "Shenandoah...that sounds sort of Indian..." well you are correct! This is, in fact, an Algonquin word that means Daughter of the Stars.
The Daughter of the Stars was 600' long and traveled at 60MPH. The Americans decided to use helium instead of flammable hydrogen like the German airship program. Nowadays we just go the party store and fill our kid's balloons with it but not in 1923. Helium was hard to come by and expensive to produce in those days. In fact, it cost $235,000 to fill the Shenandoah in 1923 which equals about $3 million in 2011 money.
She crossed North America several times and went on one military scouting mission but spent a lot of time grounded because of that darn helium shortage. 
The Shenandoah was piloted by Lt Commander Zachary Lansdowne who was born in 1888 in Greenville, OH. Yes as in Treaty of Greenville Greenville! You are catching on! Anyway, Zach was in the Navy and had become an accomplished airship pilot, received the Navy Cross due to his mad dirigible skills and was awarded the command of the USS Shenandoah in February 1924.
On September 3rd, 1925, while on one of her goodwill trips that started from Lakehurst NJ (sound familiar?) the USS Shenandoah encountered a violent storm after reaching Ohio and broke up over the skies of Noble County OH while cruising at 1700'. A wind from the storm swept the Shenandoah up to 6000' and down again several times which tore the control car free killing Lansdowne and 13 others as it fell from the sky. A stern section glided safely to the ground with 22 men aboard. By safely I mean no one was killed but I'm sure it was several terror-filled moments of grown men screaming for their mommies. The bow of the ship with 7 others glided on low to the ground for 8 more miles. A local farmer named Ernest Nichols intervened and was able to secure a cable to stop it and then the crew members exited the ship and shot it with shotguns to release the helium.

Supposedly 2 civilians witnessed the event unfold and said (now say this in the Pepperidge Farm commercial voice) “It looks like it’s breaking in two!” The other then said, “My God, it is!” but they weren't on the radio sobbing like Herbert Morrison did for the Hindenburg coverage so they aren't famous.
The wreckage site became a tourist attraction for a few days while 10,000 people visited and took pieces for souvenirs. The Garst Museum in Greenville OH has a nice display for Lansdowne and the Shenandoah with a memorial marker outside to honor Lt. Zach who is interred at Arlington National Cemetery. The crash landed him the cover of Time magazine in September 1925 and the WWII destroyer USS Lansdowne (DD-486), was named in his honor. 

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