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National Affairs: Hopeful Experiment

3 minute read

Most citizens have supposed that dirigible construction in the U. S. was as dead as the 89 good men who went down with the Shenandoah in 1925, the Akron in 1933, the Macon in 1935. Last week, Franklin Roosevelt corrected this impression. He ordered the construction of a new rigid airship for the U. S. Navy.

That the lighter-than-air idea lives is due in part to a tanned, square-cut naval officer who believes in airships. Having served on or commanded two big dirigibles built for and lost by the U. S. Navy, Commander Charles E. Rosendahl continues to preach in interviews, books, Congressional testimony that helium-filled airships are safe, efficient transports, scouting craft, airplane carriers.

“It is my opinion,” he told a Senate committee last April, “that the large rigid airship can serve very effectively. . . . Further blue-print and theoretical studies are useless unless we build and experiment—learn by trial and error, as has every other new arm.”

Lately transferred to sea duty, he left behind at Lakehurst, N. J. Naval Air Station 17 lighter-than-air officers who putter about the sky in seven small blimps and one metalclad ship. Still inflated but confined to its mast or hangar at Lakehurst is the aging Los Angeles, available for ground training but banned from the air by the skeptical Navy high command. (The Army has given up even observation balloons, turned to autogyros.)

Faith alone does not move mountains in Washington. Commander Rosendahl and disciples have had assistance from three companies interested in building more dirigibles. These are Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., whose Goodyear-Zeppelin Corp. built the Akron and Macon, Carl B. Fritsche’s Metalclad Airship Corp. in Detroit, and Interocean Dirigible Corp., recently organized at Richmond to develop a new “tunnel ship” (with propellers mounted tandem in a tunnel through the ship’s centre).

Biggest is Goodyear, whose President Paul W. Litchfield plugged for dirigibles at a closed Congressional hearing last year. Public pleading for dirigibles is left to Congressman Dow Harter of Ohio. Congressman John Dingell of Detroit and William Sutphin of New Jersey (whose district includes Lakehurst) are also dutiful airship boosters.

Last spring the fight for and against more big dirigibles reached a showdown. Admiral William D. Leahy, Chief of Naval Operations, and Rear Admiral Arthur B. Cook, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, coolly declared that airships had no demonstrable military value, flying qualities aside. Congressman Harter pleaded for re-employment at Goodyear-Zeppelin factory in Akron, Mr. Dingell for Detroit’s metal-clads, Mr. Sutphin for adequate training at Lakehurst. Congress casually passed the buck to Mr. Roosevelt: if he wished, he could spend up to $3,000,000 for a ship about half the size of the Akron and Macon. Having consulted Thomas Edison’s son, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Charles Edison, the President last week authorized bids for one about half the size and cost authorized by Congress. Limited in length to 325 feet, in gas capacity to 1,000,000 cubic feet, the new ship will in fact be little more than an experiment helpful to future commercial development and perhaps useful for coast patrol.

When Secretary Edison testified before a Congressional committee last year, he observed that the back yard of every industrial laboratory was piled high with discarded specimens. Said he of airships: “I don’t think our scrapheap is big enough yet.”

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