Navy's Airship Program


Airships and the US Navy

The Navy's airship program started in June 1915 and lasted until August 1962. During that time, the Navy operated a multitude of lighter-than-air craft, beginning with the DN-1, crafted by the Connecticut Aircraft Company. The designation stems from D for dirigible, N for non-rigid and “1” as the Navy’s first airship. The DN-1 suffered early complications associated with new technology and developing infrastructure to support new technology. And before DN-1 was built, studies were ongoing at the Bureau of Construction and Repair for a future class of dirigibles. In April 1916, the General Board endorsed the development of zeppelins and other mobile lighter-than-air craft. At Akron, Ohio (home of the Goodyear Zeppelin Company), the Navy’s program tested non-rigid airships, free balloons, and kite balloons. During testing, the balloons were found to be an easy target for enemy aircraft and they restricted maneuverability when moored to a ship. During World War I, airships and kite balloons were used in conjunction with seaplanes and flying boats to help protect shipping. They were also used to detect submarines and warn vessels of mines. Most of the airship patrols were carried out off the U.S. east coast and in Europe where they were deemed successful because they were a deterrent to German submarines.

After the WWI was over, the development of non-rigid airships became more advanced with more capabilities. The Navy contracted Goodyear to build airships and hangers were built to accommodate them. The airship USS Shenandoah (ZR-1) was the first rigid airship to be inflated with helium and the first to fly across the United States. The most successful airship of the time was USS Los Angeles (ZR-3). The airship was built by Germany and given to the U.S. as compensation for the loss of two airships that were lost during the war. USS Los Angeles was in operation more than seven years and made more than 330 flights.

Akron under construction in the Goodyear Airdock at Akron, Ohio in November 1930. Note the three-dimensional, deep rings.
Probably the most prolific period in the Navy’s construction of rigid airships was during the era of USS Akron and USS Macon. They were viewed as an improvement from the USS Shenandoah design having the ability to house and carry other aircraft, although they ended up being the first and last flying carriers. Akron was lost in 1933 off the coast of New Jersey during a storm that killed 73, and Macon was lost off the Santa Barbara Islands killing 83.

During World War II, there were five different airship classes/types in the Navy’s inventory. Airship operations and expansion was unprecedented. The airship fleet conducted operations in the Pacific, Mediterranean, the North Atlantic, and South Atlantic. When the war was over and the military drew down, the Navy still kept two squadrons that conducted mostly training, search and rescue, observation, and photography missions.

On 21 June 1961, the Secretary of the Navy announced he was going to terminate the Navy’s lighter-than-air program. The last flight of a naval airship occurred on 31 August 1962.
31 August 1962 - The last flight of a Navy airship was made at Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, N.J.
Other interesting tidbits:
What's the difference between a blimp, a dirigible, an airship, and a zeppelin? Well, a dirigible is just another name for an airship. An airship is a lighter-than-air self-propelled/steerable craft. Blimps and zeppelins are airships. Blimps get their shape from their airtight skin and the gas pressure inflating it like a balloon. Zeppelins, or rigid-airships, get their shape from structural material that forms a skeleton. The skeleton is covered in fabric, and the interior is filled with gas bags for buoyancy.
The Dirigible/Balloon Pilot Insignia was a military decoration of the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps that was issued to those service members who received training and qualification as dirigible pilots. The badge first appeared in Navy Uniform Regulations in 1922, during which time the Navy was experimenting with lighter-than-air craft, as opposed to conventional, fixed-wing aircraft.The Dirigible/Balloon Pilot Insignia was issued well into the 1970s, with occasional awards, on a case-by-case basis, to the end of the 20th century. The 1978 U.S. Navy Uniform Regulations removed the Dirigible/Balloon Pilot Insignia from the authorized list of aviation breast insignia.

In 1916, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company purchased land near Akron, Ohio, to build a plant that could produce airships. In 1923, the main Goodyear Company created a subsidiary known as the Goodyear Zeppelin Company to manufacture airships, including airships for the United States Navy and for leisure. By the late 1920s and the early 1930s, among the firm's completed zeppelins were the Pony, Pilgrim, Puritan, Volunteer, Mayflower, Vigilant, Defender, Reliance, Resolute, Enterprise, Ranger, and Columbia. Most of these ships utilized helium to become airborne, while zeppelins originally used heated air or hydrogen. During this period, other companies, especially European ones, were constructing airships to transport passengers. Goodyear also manufactured two airships, the Akron and the Macon, for the United States military during the early 1930s. During World War II, the company manufactured 104 airships for the military at its Akron facility. Following World War II, the Goodyear Zeppelin Company continued to manufacture airships, but it also expanded into producing other types of aircraft and aircraft parts. The main thrust of the company, however, remained the airships. The company now used the airships almost exclusively for advertising purposes. In 1966, the firm created the "Skytacular," a four-color sign that could be flown from blimps and read especially at night by people on the ground. Beginning in the 1950s, the Goodyear airships commonly appeared at major sporting events. The firm manufactured over three hundred zeppelins between 1923 and 1995, but it currently only operates four airships in the United States.