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U.S. Navy Lighter-Than-Air (LTA)

World War One and the Post-War Era

Noting American motor-balloons as early as 1904, the U.S. Army contracted its first airship in 1908 and the Navy ordered its first airship in 1915. Neither effort was repeatable, so America entered the Great War without airships of its own. Shipped to Europe in 1917, American officers and men trained to operate French airships and British “blimps” against German U-boats. Flying the single-engine British “Submarine Scout Z,” the French Zodiac “ZD” and Chalais-Meudon “T-2,” sailors learned the art of overwater flying in most any weather. British deployment bases were literally hewn out of coastal forests with airships routinely deflated and re-filled with hydrogen in the field. Eventually given European bases with hangars, Americans flying anti-submarine warfare (ASW) airships successfully escorted convoys and located crashed airplanes. Many submarine attacks were logged; one crew was credited with sinking a U-boat.


Guided by British airship’s successes with their quickly assembled “SS” types, production of effective pressure airships began in America. The first “scout dirigible,” designated model “B,” consisted of a lengthened Curtiss aeroplane fuselage suspended under hydrogen-filled envelopes made by Goodrich, Goodyear, and Connecticut Aircraft. The first ships were erected in a Chicago hangar home to early “rubber cow” showmen and airship ride operators. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company erected its own hangar near Akron, Ohio, and was contracted to train the first class of Navy airshipmen.

A series of airship bases, each equipped with a standard steel hangar and hydrogen generator, were constructed at strategic locations on the American coasts. As B-ships were delivered late in 1917 and early 1918, their patrols established duration records for safe operations envied by early seaplanes. Two B-ships and crews were thought lost in separate submarine hunts. Stranded but adrift on the water, both were recovered by passing ships. Experiments showed that the small airship could launch a torpedo as B-15 dropped one and valved off a matching amount of hydrogen lift. A “stretch” modification was introduced, allowing another crewman and more fuel to be carried. During thirteen thousand, six hundred hours of coast patrol covering four hundred thousand square miles, there were no major accidents or fatalities. Only one of the 18 B-types could claim sighting any of the five German U-boats that attacked shipping along the American seaboard.


The success of larger European airships led the Navy to order its first twin-engine airship, the “C” type, which established new records on its first flights. More European design details were copied in the “D” types ordered next, but the Armistice came before any more could be delivered. Though the war was over, the new twin-engine C-type airships began joining the fleet. Following British experiments that were not successful, in December 1918 the C-1 was used to carry an Army J N – 4 airplane, launching it in flight. In January 1919 C-1 flew from New York to participate in torpedo exercises off the Dry Tortugas. In February the C-3 demonstrated aerial refueling from surface ships in the vicinity of Cape May. Most famous of the C-types was C-5, which was flown from New York to Newfoundland intending to beat the NC-flying boats to be first across the Atlantic. The lack of mooring equipment there, high winds and a broken ripcord resulted in the ship escaping its crew.


In the 1920s, Goodyear sold the Government three one-of-a-kind single engine airships – the E-, F- and H-, which were operated briefly in utility and training roles. The ultimate evolution incorporating most previous designs was the twin-engine J-type airship. Postwar endurance flights and promising developments in ASW, as well as rescue techniques, were overshadowed by emphasis on duplicating the German Zeppelins’ success in scouting for the Fleet. When rare, expensive but fireproof Texas helium lift was mandated, only the J-type pressure airships were retained, serving in one form or another, from 1922 until J-4 was retired in 1940. In its long service J-4 tried seawater ballast pickup, stretcher patient recovery, sky-blue camouflage envelope paint, and a ballasted ladder for crew transfer from a surface craft.

ASW languished in the Depression-interwar years as the Navy struggled to obtain one pressure airship per year. Worked around Congressional funding limitations, the K-1 was a unique creation of the Naval Aircraft Factory, mated to a modified J-type envelope. K-1 was the only Navy non-rigid to demonstrate equilibrium- preserving gaseous fuel. The Navy purchased an off-the-shelf Goodyear blimp in 1935 (designated G-1) and again in 1937 (designated L-1), then re-erected the two most recent US Army airships when that funding had been cut. Finally ordering an “improved K-1,” the so called K-2 was delivered in the final weeks of 1938. Between the Army TC-13 and -14, G-1, L-1, K-1 and K-2 there were no compatible parts in the entire USN LTA inventory. The lessons of the Great War would have to be re-learned when U-boats came back to the Americas and few airships were available to oppose them.

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