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USS Shenandoah

On August 20, 1923, the US Navy’s first rigid airship, the USS Shenandoah, was launched at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey. The airship was the first of four rigid dirigibles commissioned by the Navy. The airship weighed over 77,000 pounds, was 680 feet long and 93 feet 2 inches high. The Shenandoah began its maiden flight on September 4, 1923 and was christened by Mrs. Edwin Denby, wife of the Secretary of the Navy, on October 10. The ship’s design was based on German dirigibles of the time and its main mission was the same as its German counterparts: fleet reconnaissance.

Plans to use the dirigible for scientific exploration were developed not long after the Shenandoah was launched. The Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, Rear Admiral William Moffett, believed the airship could be used for arctic exploration to learn about weather patterns and collect data in cold climates. While Moffett’s plan was approved by President Coolidge, damages sustained by the Shenandoah during a storm in January 1924 ended the hopes of any arctic mission.

While designed for fleet reconnaissance, the airship found it hard to communicate with ground bases, especially in bad weather. However the ship could also successfully locate enemy bases during tactical training. Improvements to the Shenandoah’s power plant and radio equipment improved communication with the ground. Even with the many difficulties the airship faced during naval training, the Shenandoah’s presence emphasized the importance of good ground to air communication.

On September 2, 1925, the airship began a nationwide promotional campaign. The ship was to visit dozens of cities and be an attraction at state fairs across the country. However, on September 3, the Shenandoah was caught in an updraft, which proved disastrous for the helium gas bags, which were torn apart from the pressure. Fourteen people on board the airship were killed, while twenty-nine survived. The crash of the Shenandoah led to better construction of airships and improved weather forecasting, which made future air ships used in World War II and the Cold War safer and more reliable. 

Items in Our Collection:

Military, naval and civil airships since 1783 : the history and development of the dirigible airship in peace and war by Daniel George Ridley-Kitts

Airships : yesterday, today, and tomorrow by Henry Beaubois; Carlo Demand; Michael Kelly; Angela Kelly