USS Akron’s maiden flight in Ohio was uplifting experience in 1931
AKRON, Ohio (Tribune News Service) Motorists jammed the streets and parked wherever they could as tens of thousands of automobiles converged on Akron Municipal Airport. More than 150,000 people scrambled for vantage points on the surrounding hillsides.
Community pride swelled to capacity as the USS Akron prepared to take its maiden voyage Wednesday, Sept. 23, 1931.
Excited children waited in the crowd. Schools had closed in Akron, Cuyahoga Falls and Wadsworth so students could watch the U.S. Navy airship take off.
"The historic significance of the flight is such that I feel the children can learn more there than they could in their classrooms for the same length of time," Akron Superintendent Thomas W. Gosling announced.
Guided by a ground crew of 250 men, the silver dirigible emerged from the cavernous Goodyear-Zeppelin Airdock into the sunlight.
Akron had waited nearly two years for that triumphant moment.
A week after the Wall Street crash that ushered in the Great Depression, construction began Nov. 7, 1929, in the new airdock on Navy dirigible ZRS-4, which would soon be named for the city in which it was built.
It took more than 6.5 million rivets to assemble the lightweight duralumin framework. Grand on every scale, the USS Akron was 785 feet long with a hull diameter of 133 feet and a volume of 6.5 million cubic feet of helium. A rubberized fabric gave the airship its silver hue.
The sky was gray on the morning of the maiden flight, but the clouds parted just in time.
Lt. Cmdr. Charles E. Rosendahl, pilot of the airship, checked the weather conditions before announcing: "We'll go as quickly as possible."
The USS Akron's first flight carried 113 passengers and crewmen. Among the dignitaries on board were U.S. Navy Secretary Charles Francis Adams, U.S. Assistant Navy Secretary David S. Ingalls, Rear Adm. William A. Moffett, Rear Adm. George C. Day, Goodyear Chief Executive Officer Paul W. Litchfield and airship designer Karl Arnstein.
"Stand by to up ship," Rosendahl announced. "Up ship."
Crowd cheers for airship
The gleaming dirigible began to climb at 3:37 p.m.
"Automobile horns, applauding hands, cheers from thousands of throats united in a bedlam of noise as the Akron rose slowly and noiselessly from her mooring mast at the beginning of the flight," the Beacon Journal reported.
Powered by eight Maybach engines, the cigar-shaped airship began its historic journey. While there was pandemonium among spectators on the ground, the atmosphere aboard the dirigible was strangely quiet.
"One of the most amazing things about it is the lack of thrill," Litchfield said. "There is scarcely any sensation except change of the scenery below. We couldn't hear the motors from the control car. There was no vibration.
"We traveled most of the trip at about 1,000 feet altitude. Leaving the airport, we went over South Akron out to the Portage Lakes district, then back across the city to Cuyahoga Falls, then over East Akron and back across the northeast corner of the airport, and on to Wingfoot Lake."
Early in the flight, the airship floated over Akron City Hospital and dropped a get-well note to Lt. Richard R. Dennett, chief watch officer, who was supposed to be aboard that day but had broken his hip during a glider crash a few weeks earlier.
Among the hospital workers watching the dirigible from the roof, credit manager MaRee Swartz caught the note and delivered it to the bedridden Dennett.
It sure beat getting flowers.
Meanwhile, U.S. first lady Lou Hoover, who had come to Akron to christen the ship in August, sent a radio dispatch to Rosendahl aboard the flight. "With all good wishes to you and the officers and crew for a successful maiden trip and years of efficient service," she wrote.
Rosendahl radioed back: "To Mrs. Hoover. Your message to Akron personnel very much appreciated. All on board this initial flight extend hearty greetings and best wishes. This is the first radio message sent from the Akron."
Journey over Lake Erie
The USS Akron turned north, passed over Assistant Secretary Ingalls' home in Chagrin Falls, continued to Cleveland, crossed the Lake Erie shoreline at Gordon Park and ventured out over the sparking water beyond the breakwalls.
Dinner was served as passengers gazed out over the Cleveland skyline. The galley crew had prepared chicken, mashed potatoes, salad, bread and butter, coffee, ice cream and cake. The guests devoured nearly 500 pounds of food.
The dirigible returned to shore over the East Ninth Street pier and circled Terminal Tower before following the Cuyahoga Valley south toward Cuyahoga Falls and back to Akron.
More than 2 million people were estimated to have viewed the airship that afternoon in Northeast Ohio.
"Wherever the Akron passed, persons rushed from homes and buildings, filling the streets and clogging traffic to get a good look at the new air queen," the Beacon Journal reported.
Tens of thousands of people returned to the hillsides around Akron Municipal Airport — or maybe they never left. As the sunlight faded, a cheer arose when the airship became visible on the northwest horizon. Its navigation lights blinked hypnotically while the vessel drew closer.
The moon shined and the stars twinkled as the USS Akron descended toward the mooring mast. The airport's floodlight switched on while the flight crew and ground crew performed a delicate ballet.
The airship moored at 7:25 p.m., concluding the nearly four-hour trip. The USS Akron eased toward the cocoon-shaped airdock for a good night's slumber. The joyful crowds broke up and returned home.
Pleased with historic flight
Officials stepped off the dirigible and delivered glowing reviews.
"America has taken an important stride forward in aviation," Navy Secretary Adams reported. "With the first flight of the new Navy dirigible, the Akron, these United States have forged into first place in the field of lighter-than-air craft and have added materially to their means for national defense.
"As I sat with my colleagues in the cabin of this great airship on its initial flight, I marveled at the sturdiness and safety of the craft, and the conveniences that have been made possible through the energetic work of our engineers and scientists."
Arnstein, who had designed more than 90 airships, was pleased with the performance of his new dirigible.
"I wish to express my admiration for the perfect way in which the airship was handled during the flight, at the start and landing," Arnstein said. "Thanks to the cooperation between the Navy and contractor's personnel, the particular aims of the first flight were successfully attained. The ship performed in every way as expected and the results were pleasing to all parties."
After piloting the dirigible, Rosendahl expressed confidence in the future.
"The operating personnel of the Akron is well satisfied with the performance of the ship as demonstrated by today's flight," he said. "There is every reason to believe this type of ship will be a fully successful one."
Rear Adm. Moffett praised "the designed superiority" of the dirigible.
"The first and successful trial flight of the Akron, the world's largest airship, marks another forward step in aviation in the United States," Moffett said. "With the completion of the Akron, the United States resumes world leadership in lighter-than-air craft.
"I feel sure she will demonstrate the great value of airships not only for the Navy but for commerce. The country, and especially the builders, can well be proud of this greatest ship of the air."
Those high hopes were dashed in the Atlantic Ocean.
In late October 1931, the USS Akron flew to New Jersey, where it was commissioned at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Lakehurst. It served proudly until it got caught in a violent electrical storm April 4, 1933.
The dirigible fought valiantly but crashed into the sea shortly after midnight about 27 miles southeast of Barnegat Light, killing all but three of the 76 men on board. Rear Adm. Moffett, so optimistic on the maiden flight, was among the dead.
What began in triumph on a sunny day in Ohio ended in tragedy on a stormy night in New Jersey.
Mark J. Price can be reached at email@example.com.
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