200 Plus

Hydrogen-Filled Blimps Rain Fire

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Dec 11, 2019

As the summer of 1919 began the U.S. Navy was working on plans to enlarge its lighter than airship fleet. The plan was to construct a base at Lakehurst and there to construct a rigid dirigible that would be a copy of a captured German Zeppelin. These hydrogen-filled airships had bombed London and carried a larger payload with a greater range than any known airplane.

But several events that summer would show the dangers of hydrogen and help change the course of the Navy’s plans.

On July 1, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “The big navy dirigible C-8, commanded by Lieutenant N.J. Learned, with a crew of six men and two passengers bound from Cape May, N.J., to Washington, exploded with terrific force just after landing at Camp Holabird, near this city (Baltimore) at 12:30 today to adjust rudder trouble.  …  None of the officers of the crew of C-8 was hurt, though several of them suffered severe shock. They were at work on the disabled rudder when the explosion occurred. … Lieutenant Learned was in the office of the Camp Adjutant notifying the naval authorities at Washington by phone of his rudder trouble when the shock of the explosion nearly took him off his feet.”

While none of the crew was injured, according to the Asbury Park Press others weren’t so fortunate.

“A great crowd had gathered about the big gas bag to watch the crew make repairs, and between 75 and 80 persons were more or less seriously injured. Most of these were burned by the flames that shot out from the exploding bag. … The home of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Pank, half a mile from the scene, looked as tho a cyclone had struck it. Doors and window frames were twisted, window panes were broken and the house scorched. Mrs. Pank was severely burned.”

The next day the Baltimore Sun surveyed the scene.

“Twenty minutes after the explosion nothing but the twisted and partially melted engines could be found, not a vestige of the rubberized skin of the big balloon or the framework was left. … George H. Linthicum, a civilian driver who served on three fronts during the war, was sitting directly beneath the section of the bag where the explosion occurred, but did not sustain a scratch, while several persons several hundred feet away received burns on the hands and legs from the flaming pieces.

“Ninety per cent of those burned were children, many of whom rushed home, and consequently were not admitted to the hospital for treatment until late yesterday afternoon. The accident ward of the infirmary presented an almost wartime spectacle as soldiers carried the children in .”

Fortunately, there were no fatalities at the Baltimore incident, but three weeks later The New York Times ran a story from Chicago.

“Eleven persons were killed outright and twenty-seven were injured late this afternoon when the dirigible balloon, ‘Wing Fool’ assembled for test and exhibition purposes caught fire while flying above the Loop business district and plunged 1,200 feet in a blazing mass through the glass roof of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank, at the corner of La Salle Street and Jackson Boulevard.”

The pilot of the blimp told the press, “‘We were at least 1,200 feet above the ground when I first felt the heat of the flames’ he said. ‘Looking back, I saw fire on both sides of the bag. I watched the flames for a couple of seconds before I said anything to the other fellows. Knowing that the ship was finished, I shouted, over the top everybody. As I yelled, I felt the frame buckle, but by this time they were beginning to slide over the sides. I think I was the last to jump, as I saw all the parachutes in the air when I was hanging on ready to drop. I saw that one of the parachutes was on fire. …

“‘I fell about seventy-five feet when it spread out. I began to drift a bit when the flaming ship fell by me. The worst sensation I experienced was after my parachute opened. I began sliding down rapidly, and looking up, I saw that it was beginning to burn. In an instant I began to whirl, and I went so fast I could not see around where I was falling. I kept whirling in the air until I struck the ground.”

An eyewitness on the ground watched from a nearby building.

“’I saw five men leap out. … The craft was about 200 feet higher than the point at which I stood. A man, who I presume was the pilot, suddenly stood up, waved his hands to his companions and leaped over the side of the car. He dropped about seventy-five feet, when his parachute opened and he went calmly sliding down. … Other occupants of the airship followed the first man in his leap for life. However, their momentary delay in comprehending their peril lessened their chances of saving their lives. A second after the first man had made his descent, flames enveloped the entire bag. … Three of the parachutes caught fire as they became detached from the car. They seemed to burn rapidly in the air, the men attached to them whirling round and round and descending faster and faster. One of the burning parachutes was completely consumed after it had only partly opened, and the unfortunate man holding its rope went down like a rocket and fell right through the roof of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank.’”

But it wasn’t over. The eyewitness continued.

“‘I saw another man, who was holding to the second blazing parachute, strike the ledge of our building, narrowly miss making a footing and go swinging on. … The third man with a burning parachute crashed against a window of the Western Union Building, smashed it, and swung back out again. I don’t know where he landed. … The last of the parachutes only slightly caught fire, and I saw the man hanging to it make a safe landing in the street. … As the airship fell through the skylight of the bank I distinctly saw in the midst of the smoke and fire the terror stricken face of a man. A gust of smoke blotted out his face, and then the mass disappeared from view into the interior of the bank.’”

A bank employee told his story.

“‘My office is at the extreme south section of the bank floor. I ran out and an explosion followed by flames hurled me over. I got up and some one ran into me, ‘Oh it’s raining hell.’ A series of explosions came, great sheets of fire rising before me. Between the flashes I saw the struggling of persons in the midst of the flames. I turned sick. A man – don’t know his name – staggered out of a cage carrying the body of a girl. His own face was covered with blood. I saw both men and women making a rush for the door, so I followed.’”

There weren’t any newsreels or live recordings of the crash and few people took notice, but the dangers of hydrogen were becoming apparent. Then in August, newspapers across the country began to print an article by Frederick Haskin telling his readers about another gas, called helium.

“Hydrogen burns with ease. The hydrogen gas bags were practically put out of the way by incendiary bullets. And in time of peace, there is constant danger that a hydrogen-filled envelope will catch fire from static electricity, or from an engine spark. Hence a sufficient supply of helium, which will burn no more than will water, seems to be the one thing needed to make flying safe, sure and cheap.”

Unfortunately, there was no known source outside of the laboratory. Then came the breakthrough.

“In 1907 the housewives of a certain town in Kansas began writing hot letters to the gas company. They said the gas wouldn’t burn – or at least sometimes it wouldn’t – and they wanted to know if the gas company thought it could sell them air. … This protest became so general in certain parts of Kansas that Dr. H.P. Cady, a chemist of the University of Kansas, made an investigation of the gas produced in that section. He found that this gas contained helium and sometimes there was so much helium present that the combustibility of the gas was seriously impaired.”

Dr. Sherburne Rogers from the National Geographic Society explained.

“When the United States joined the allies, the military value of helium was at once brought to the attention of the army and navy authorities, and a vigorous campaign was begun for the production of helium in quantities. … Late in 1917 two small experimental plants using different methods were erected in Fort Worth, Tex., to treat the gas of the Petrolia field; and some months later a third plant, using a still different method was erected in the field itself. … Although quantity production of helium was achieved just too late to be of value in the actual hostilities, it was in itself a great accomplishment .”

The United States held a near-monopoly on helium, but the gas did have its disadvantages. One, it was very expensive to produce; two, it didn’t have as much lifting power as hydrogen. If the Navy wanted to use helium, it would have to redesign the airship it planned to build at Lakehurst.

Next Week: The annual test.


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