In 1933, the USS Akron floated along the New Jersey coast, gliding on what it hoped would be warm, gentle eddies.
But, and we can all relate to this I feel, when it passed Barnegat, it encountered a bit of an unexpected storm. Actually, it flew directly into the path of the ‘most violent stormfronts to sweep the North Atlantic States’.
Throughout the active, passenger-conveying life of the airship, stormy skies have prevailed, which is why we have none in the air above us now.
But, that could all change soon, as Hybrid Air Vehicles get ready to launch (or fling, maybe) their Airlander airship into service.
The Airlander will hope it doesn’t become encased in the kind of fog that entrapped the Akron, although one hopes the new craft will be equipped with better (or, any) radar equipment to help navigate through such difficulties.
Not so for the Akron unfortunately, as rain battered the cabin in thunderous torrents, and made the situation increasingly worse for the huge aluminum-framed monster.
Eighty-eight years later, the airship is being reborn, via the Airlander, whose helium-filled balloon will carry around one-hundred passengers, who will hope for more success than some of their predecessors at reaching their destination in the same condition they left in.
Becoming increasingly unstable and shaking and rocking violently, the Akron, also helium-filled by the way, dumped ballast as quickly as it could, while the passengers gripped the cabin sides in understandable panic and terror.
The Goodyear Tire rubberised cotton gasbags of the Akron wobbled, and shuddered, and the engines struggled to keep the ship aloft, and it dipped several times, dangerously close to the ocean surface, before climbing painstakingly slowly upwards in an effort to shake off the tempest.
Stability aboard the Airlander is said to be very much improved from the days of the Akron, though, and it has been built to withstand strong winds, with guaranteed ‘low vibration [and] very little in the way of any turbulence’.
With ninety-percent fewer emissions than an aeroplane, the craft promises a solution to the climate challenge, and will accommodate passengers in ‘big, spacious, accessible cabins’, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, so they can watch the absolutely impotent storms around them.
Passengers in the Akron didn't have that luxury, as every labored climb followed each rocky descent, amid the howling screams of the storm and the passengers, as the ship fought to stay in the air, with the incredible winds that buffered the cabin with unrecorded but unprecedented ferocity.
The Airlander, they say, has been built to cope with lightning strikes, but the Akron wasn’t, and as each storm-forced descent was closer to the dark water below, lightning striking the aluminium frame electrified the craft, lighting the desperation of their impending doom.
The Akron wasn’t the first or last airship to get into difficulty.
There have been eighty-six disasters since the first airship went aloft, including the epic endings of most of the Zeppelins from 1913 onwards, as well as the Schutte-Lanz in 1915, the Roma in 1922, the Dixmude in 1923, and the R101 in 1930, which collectively accounted for more than three-hundred deaths.
The makers of the Airlander rather dismissively note that when people hear the word airship, they often ‘think of the famous Hindenberg disaster in 1937, when 36 people were killed in New Jersey when an airship went up in flames and crashed’.
That is true, but it was the Akron that suffered more, and it’s helium didn’t help.
The storm forced the Akron down further, and unable to maintain buoyancy, it dipped into the ocean, just enough to allow the rear section to be engulfed with water that flooded the engines, stalling them, and causing the two-hundred-and-thirty-nine metre behemoth to plunge backwards, and be dragged under the turbulent waters, into the crushing abyss below.
Seventy-three of the seventy-six passengers on-board perished.
Hybrid Air Vehicles would probably do better to compare their safety with that of the Akron, which is the worst airship disaster on record, and put all of our minds at rest as we glide into a steampunk future of dirigible travel, aboard the Airlander, whose structure, motive power, navigation, and buoyancy, have, we are assured, received far more detailed attention than those crafts of the past.
They could also spell Hindenburg correctly.
photo by Ekaterina Belinskaya