USS Shenandoah | Airship Disaster 1925

By 3 am on September 3, 1925, the control car crew spotted lightning to the northwest in the skies of southeast Ohio. Winds started to buffet the airship. Captain Zachary Lansdowne was awakened from his quarters. He ordered the airship to turn south. Quickly, the skies grew stormy again. Strong headwinds slowed their progress. There was no escape from the storm. They would have to ride it out and hope the airship was durable enough to survive.

Click any image to embiggen

A long squall line of thunderstorms engulfed the airship. It was caught in a rapidly rising column of warm air. The crew was ordered to release helium to slow the ascent. At about one mile altitude the ship escaped the rising air column and started to descend. Too much helium had been released. The crew released ballast in the form of water and managed to stabilize. All around them were storms and more rising columns of warm air. The airship was soon caught in another column with even more strength than before. The bow was pulled upward and the 680 foot long airship went nearly vertical.

This time, the ascending column was rotating. The crew feared the craft would not survive the great forces and twisting. They held fast to the structure at their stations. They watched the steel latticework that supported the helium bags as it started to fail. The silvery skin bulged and buckled in the winds and tore open. The bow and stern sections pulled apart as the airship broke in the middle. Cables from the stern pulled on the control car, separating it from the bow. The car fell to the earth killing the captain and several crewmen.

Twenty two crewmen were still inside the stern section as it descended quickly to the ground. It crashed hard in the open countryside and was blown hundreds of yards by the wind. Four crewmen were knocked to the ground. They survived. The stern finally came to rest in a shallow valley and settled in a heap. The remaining eighteen crewmen were alive and greeted by local farmers as they emerged.

Naval History & Heritage Command

The bow section was still buoyant with helium gas. It ascended with seven crewmen into the top part of the storm. It circled for about an hour as the storm raged below. The crewmen were able to reach the valves and started to released helium to begin a controlled descent. The huge ragged broken balloon came down through the cloud deck. Crewmen shouted to farmers below. One grabbed a rope line and secured it to to some trees. The crewmen started jumping down to the ground as other ropes were secured. They took turns with the farmers shooting pistols and rifles at the helium bags to make them deflate more quickly.

Naval History & Heritage Command

Naval History & Heritage Command

Fourteen members of the crew died in the disaster. Blame for the disaster was placed on the Weather Bureau for failure to predict the thunderstorms. Others blamed the captain for believing the bureau. It was generally agreed that the bureau was not able to give reliable forecasts. That is a story in itself worthy of a separate post.

References

Loss of USS Shenandoah (ZR-1), 3 September 1925 (pdf)

A Dirigible and Zeppelin History Site – ZR-1 U.S.S. Shenandoah

NavSource Online: Rigid Airships Photo Archive – Shenandoah construction, service, and crash images

Storm Kings America’s First Tornado Chasers – Lee Sandlin

 

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19 thoughts on “USS Shenandoah | Airship Disaster 1925

  1. Great set of images Jim. How unusual were these flying vessels running on helium gas? I don’t know much about them, but would a hot air balloon be somewhat similar in principle? Or are those with just hot air? I know these were much more sophisticated with steering mechanisms.

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  2. “Blame the weatherman” has its own long and storied history. I suppose one of the best-known examples of a weatherman who needed some blame was Isaac Cline, although there certainly were others deserving of blame in the 1900 Galveston disaster.

    I see you referenced Sandlin’s book. When I was tracking Oklahoma wx night before last, I discovered there’s a Twitter hashtag for #chaserconvergence. I hadn’t realized that technology now tracks the trackers. You not only can track tornadoes, you can track the storm chasers. More than a few weather geeks have begun declining chases they might have taken on only a year or two ago, simply because of the traffic jams.

    Too many take too many risks, not in the service of science or public safety, but simply to get their videos noticed. Despite even high-profile deaths, like that of Tim Samaras, their numbers keep increasing. I suppose part of it’s youth, and part of it’s adrenalin. On the other hand, I got taken out on a Houston freeway years ago, and I still drive.

    Interesting post — I really enjoyed it.

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    • Thank you. I was unaware of this disaster before reading Sandlin’s book. He did some interesting research on the history of tornadoes and severe storms.

      You are right about the roads being dangerously crowded with chasers. I used to have a website that used Google Maps to track chasers near severe storms. They should take care to track each other.

      Have a great weekend. Thanks for your comments.

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  3. I really enjoyed this dramatic story and it caused me to recall a rather notorious U.S. Navy training film, circa 1950’s or ’60’s, about its history with dirigibles. It was basically one disaster after another and left one feeling that any duty would preferable to flying in one of those things. I note that the National Balloon Museum’s history ends with a sanguine comment about their bright future. Considering global warming and the state of the weather lately, I am unconvinced. Terrific post, Jim.

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    • Thank you. When I read the accounts, my imagination lit up vividly thinking of the terrible situation they faced as it broke up and drifted apart.

      I would not want to be up in one of these during a storm.

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  4. Aye, it’s a terrifying account. I wouldn’t want to have been in that crew, even among the members who survived.

    Of course we don’t have to go up in the air to live with danger. I remember noticing during my visit to Iowa in 2008 how many signs for underground storm shelters I saw.

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