Wreck of the USS Shenandoah

The first rigid airship to be designed and built by the United States Navy, Shenandoah was designed by the Bureau of Aeronautics; fabricated at the Naval Aircraft Factory, Philadelphia; and assembled at the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, N.J. Her first frame was erected by 24 June 1922; and, on 20 August 1923, the completed airship was floated free of the ground. Shenandoah was christened on 10 October 1923; sponsored by Mrs. Edwin Denby, wife of the Secretary of the Navy; and commissioned on the same day, Comdr. Frank R. McCrary in command.

On 2 September, Shenandoah departed Lakehurst on a flight to the Middle West for training and to test a new mooring mast at Dearborn, Michigan. While passing through an area of thunderstorms and turbulence over Ohio early in the morning of the 3d, the airship was torn apart and crashed near Marietta. Shenandoah's commanding officer, Comdr. Zachary Lansdowne, and 13 other officers and men were killed. Twenty-nine survivors succeeded in riding three sections of the airship to earth.

Even before the survivors’ train reached Lakehurst it became evident that the disaster was to be a cause célèbre. In bold headlines Mrs. Lansdowne was quoted as accusing Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur of forcing her husband to take the flight for political purposes.

On September 4, a second sensational charge came from Captain Anton Keinen, a German airship expert who had taught many of the Shenandoah’s men to fly. “I tell you it was murder to take that ship out,” he said to a reporter from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. The original eighteen helium safety valves, he explained, had been reduced to eight. The ship had broken in two because the expanding gas, with insufficient outlets for escape, had crushed the frame. The victims, he declared, “gave their lives to save precious helium.”

America had four zeppelins of its own in the 1920s and 1930s. One -- the Los Angeles -- was built by the Germans, flew successfully for a decade, and retired with dignity. The other three -- the Shenandoah, Akron, and Macon -- were built by Americans, and each crashed less than two years after its first flight.

The first, and the only one to crash on land (and thus be suitable as a tourist attraction) was the Shenandoah. In September 1925 it was ordered to conduct an ill-advised publicity tour of midwestern state fairs. Less than 24 hours into its flight "the strongest airship in the world" was caught in a thunderstorm, torn to pieces, and scattered across the rolling hills of Noble County in southeastern Ohio. Amazingly, 29 of its crew of 43 survived.

On 2 September 1925, Shenandoah departed Lakehurst on a promotional flight to the Midwest which would include flyovers of 40 cities and visits to state fairs. Testing of a new mooring mast at Dearborn, Michigan was included in the schedule. While passing through an area of thunderstorms and turbulence over Ohio early in the morning of September 3, during its 57th flight, the airship was caught in a violent updraft that carried it beyond the pressure limits of its helium gas bags. It was torn apart in the turbulence and crashed in several pieces near Caldwell, Ohio. Shenandoah's commanding officer, Commander Zachary Lansdowne, and 13 other officers and men were killed. This included the entire crew of the control cabin (except for Lieutenant Anderson, who barely escaped before it detached from the ship), two men who went through holes in the hull, and several mechanics who fell with the engines.