Tuesday, September 29, 2009  
   Volume 79 - Issue 39 Website:www.passherald.ca   email: passherald@shaw.ca   $1.00   
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Quote of the Week
“It’s catching on. Whether it’s a little town or a city, arts is catching on.”
- Minister Lindsay Blackett  
- on Alberta Arts Days  


Looking Back - John KinnearA while back I heard a Calgary rock station Dee-jay jokingly use the expression “Oh, the humanity of it all” on his early morning program. I couldn’t help wondering then to myself how many people realized the significance of that statement and where it came from.
The man who uttered it said it as an exclamation of despair as he watched one of the most spectacular crashes ever filmed. He was completely overcome by emotion after that point and was unable as a news commentator to continue his broadcast. The crash he witnessed was of a rigid airship, a marvel of transportation of its time that was preparing to dock at a specially designed tower at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The date was May 6, 1937 and that crash signalled the end of the development and construction of rigid airships worldwide. In fact, not a single rigid has flown a passenger since that date.
The reason that that airship crashed so spectacularly was because of its contents. The airship was the Hindenburg, a German craft kept aloft by 16 fabric cells that were inflated with hydrogen gas. That ship was designed to fly using helium for lift but the only supplier of helium gas, the United States, had refused to sell the Germans any. The reason for that refusal was because of Adolph Hitler and his belligerent behaviour in Europe around 1934.
So it was that on completion that the Hindenburg was filled with 7 million cubic feet of one of the most explosive and flammable gases known to man. The ship was made as safe as possible with crewmen equipped with sneakers or felt shoes to minimize static electricity and the possibility of sparks. The Hindenburg’s 4-1200 horsepower engines were crude oil driven and the claim was made that a lighted match tossed into the fuel tank would not make that oil burn. Matches and lighters were taken away from passengers on boarding yet smoking was allowed on board in a fully fire proofed room with cigarette lighters chained down to prevent accidental removal. Isn’t it amazing to what lengths and at what risk people would go to accommodate smokers back then?
The Hindenburg, at 804 feet long, was the biggest dirigible ever built. That’s the equivalent of 2 football fields plus 2 tennis courts laid end to end. Before its demise the Hindenburg made 6 round trips between Germany and Rio de Janerio and 10 trips to the U.S. The ship’s staterooms were shower equipped, meals were served on porcelain china and dozens of stewards were on hand to see to the passengers every need. It had a 200 foot promenade deck that must have provided an incredible view from the air! The ride was reportedly so smooth that an hour after it took off on one 1936 voyage a young Nelson Rockefeller asked one of the stewards “When are we leaving?” The Hindenburg was advertized on posters with the saying “In 2 Tagen Uber Den Ozean” which meant two days to cross the ocean.
On that fateful day in May 1937 that dirigible was carrying 97 passengers and passed over the Empire State building at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. As it approached the Lakehurst mooring mast later that day it reversed its engines and dropped trail ropes to the ground crew 75 feet below. A plume of flame suddenly burst from the top of the ship and this magnificent flying bomb was racked with explosions and began to crumble.
In 34 seconds the Hindenburg was reduced to a smouldering ruin. Incredibly 62 of the 97 on board survived including the Captain who later claimed the ship had been sabotaged, the victim of a bomb. The official report said that hydrogen had probably escaped from a gas cell, filled the upper fin and exploded because of a static electricity discharge.
A sister ship to the Hindenburg known as the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin 2 was completed by the fall of 1939. The original Graf Zeppelin (LZ-127) was launched in 1928 and had an impressive record before it was grounded after the Hindenburg incident. It flew over a million miles, carried over 13,000 passengers and had crossed the Atlantic 51 times by 1933. The Graf Zeppelin 2, not a passenger ship, on the other hand was fitted with electronic detection equipment and flew along many Allied borders evaluating their radar defences. In May 1940 Hermann Goering ordered both Graf Zeppelins scrapped and their metal parts went towards the construction of radar towers. The Germans no doubt recognized that hydrogen filled airships were virtually defenceless and easy targets for enemy fire.
The Germans weren’t the only ones to construct rigid airships for commercial and military use. The British and the Americans also developed some interesting craft. The British built the R-100 and the R-101, rigid airships rigged for transoceanic voyages. The R-100 was the first dirigible to visit Canada in 1930 where it spent 13 days travelling to places like Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto. The R-100 sported 32 sleeping cabins, staircases, wicker chairs and white linen walls. All the goodies poured into this airship made it overweight and its passenger capacity was reduced from 100 to 30! The R-101 didn’t last long, nose-diving into a hill in Northern France in 1931 killing 48 of the 54 on board. Later that year the British scrapped both ships.
The Americans built all kinds of rigid and non-rigid (blimps) ships from 1910 on into the 1930’s. B-Series blimps were very successful military airships that on two occasions sighted and bombed enemy submarines during World War 1. In the 1920’s all manner of rigid airships were built by the U.S. Navy with names like Shenandoah, Los Angeles, Akron, Macon and ZMC-2. The ZMC-2 was known as the “tin balloon”, being made out of thin aluminum strips riveted together with 3 1/2 million rivets. 
As cumbersome as this ship sounds it lasted ten years and made 751 flights. The Akron and Macon were rigid ships built in the 1930’s and were equipped with aircraft hangars inside them! Amazingly, Sparrowhawk aircraft could be lowered, launched and retrieved as these ships cruised along. Even more amazing was the hangar that housed the Akron and Macon. At 1175 feet long, 325 feet wide and 211 feet high it was said that 10 football games could be played under its roof at once. Still in use today for manufacturing, it is so huge that it generates its own weather and sometimes clouds form inside and it rains!
Of these 5 airships, 4 crashed with loss of life and with the loss of the Macon with all 76 on board the Navy ended its experiment with rigids.
It occurred to me after reviewing the disastrous history of airships that a more appropriate exclamation for that broadcaster that day would have been “Oh, the insanity of it all.”
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John Kinnear Archives

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