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.
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.
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.
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.
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