THE 1925 CRASH OF THE USS SHENANDOAH
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THE 1925 CRASH OF THE USS SHENANDOAH
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 3 September, 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. Fourteen of Shenandoah's crew—including her commanding officer, Commander Zachary Lansdowne were killed. This included every member of the crew of the control cabin, with the exception of 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. There were twenty-nine survivors, who succeeded in riding three sections of the airship to earth. The largest group was eighteen men who made it out of the stern after it rolled into a valley. Four others survived a crash landing of the central section. The remaining seven were in the bow section which Commander (later Vice Admiral) Charles E. Rosendahl navigated as a free balloon. In this group was Anderson who—until he was roped in by the others—straddled the catwalk over a hole. A number of those crew who survived would later be killed in the loss of the Akron.
The Shenandoah Crash Sites are located in the hillsides of Noble County. Site No. 1, in Buffalo Township, surrounded the Gamary farmhouse, which lay beneath the initial break-up. An early fieldstone and a second, recent granite marker identify where Zachary Lansdowne's body was found. Site No. 2 (where the stern came to rest) is a half-mile southwest of Site No. 1 across Interstate 77 in Noble Township. The rough outline of the stern is marked with a series of concrete blocks, and a sign marking the site is visible from the freeway. Site No. 3 is approximately six miles southwest in Sharon Township at the northern edge of State Route 78 on the part of the old Nichols farm where the nose of the Shenandoah's bow was secured to trees. Although the trees have been cut down, a semi-circular gravel drive surrounds their stumps and a small granite marker commemorates the crash. The Nichols house was later destroyed by fire.
Two schools of thought developed about the cause of the crash. One theory is that the gas cells over-expanded as the ship rose, due to Lansdowne’s decision to remove the 10 automatic release valves, and that the expanding cells damaged the framework of the airship and led to its structural failure.
Thousands of people flocked to the wreckage which was then heavily looted, with the logbooks and most of the ship's fabric stolen. Official inquiry brought to public attention the fact that the fatal flight had been made under protest by Commander Lansdowne a native of Greenville Ohio, who warned of the violent weather conditions which were prevalent in the area and common to Ohio in late summer. His pleas for a cancellation of the flight only led to a postponement. His superiors were keen to publicize airship technology, and justify the huge cost of the airship to the taxpayers. So, as Lansdowne's widow consistently maintained at the inquiry, publicity rather than prudence won the day. This event was the trigger for Army Colonel Billy Mitchell to heavily criticize the leadership of both the Army and the Navy, leading directly to his Court Martial for insubordination and the end of his military career. Heinen, according to the Daily Telegraph put the blame on the removal of safety valves, saying he would not have flown on her "for a million dollars".
Ultimately a positive result of the disaster was that future airships were better built. Hulls were strengthened, control cabins were built into the keels rather than suspended from cables, and engine power was increased. More attention was also paid to weather forecasting. When the U.S. used blimps in World War II and the Cold War, these improvements may have prevented other crashes.
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