USS Shenandoah, first rigid airship to make a transcontinental flight, visits Camp Lewis on October 18, 1924.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 12/08/2012
  • Essay 10246
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On October 18, 1924, the USS Shenandoah, the first rigid, lighter-than-air craft to make a transcontinental flight, arrives at Camp Lewis. On its cross-country flight, the Shenandoah will stop at three military bases: Fort Worth, Texas; North Island, San Diego; and Camp Lewis, Washington. At each stop a mooring mast is constructed that the airship can tether to, an arrangement that demonstrates that giant hangars were not needed for the dirigibles. While in the Puget Sound region, the Shenandoah also will fly over Tacoma, Seattle, and Bremerton. It will attract large crowds of spectators wherever it appears. The Shenandoah will crash the following year. In 1937, with the disastrous explosion of the Hindenburg, the era of rigid, lighter-than-air dirigibles will come to an end.

USS Shenandoah, ZR-1

The USS Shenandoah was the U.S. Navy's first rigid airship, essentially a metal frame covered with a fabric skin and filled with helium. The craft's design was based on a captured World War I German dirigible, improved upon by American engineers. It was intended for fleet reconnaissance and could spend long hours in flight seeking out enemy ships. Given the designation ZR-1, the Shenandoah was 680 feet long with a 78-foot hull diameter. Six Packard water-cooled engines drove the ship to a cruising speed of 40 knots. It was the first rigid airship to use non-flammable helium rather than flammable hydrogen, making it safer against explosion than other airships.

The ZR-1 took its maiden flight on September 4, 1923, when it flew for 55 minutes in the vicinity of its home base, Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. By September 24 it had been named the Shenandoah, after the river in Virginia. The Indian word Shenandoah was said to mean "Daughter of the Stars." On October 10, 1923, the Shenandoah was christened by Mrs. Marion Thurber Denby (1885-1973), wife of the U.S. secretary of the navy. Several flights followed during the fall of 1923, the longest of which was to St. Louis.

On January 16, 1924, the Shenandoah had her first mishap when 70-miles- per-hour winds ripped her fabric covering and  broke the airship free from her mooring mast at Lakehurst. The crew of 24 aboard the drifting airship brought it under control and landed the next morning.

On October 13, 1923, in preparation for the transcontinental flight, the construction of mooring masts was ordered for Fort Worth, Texas; North Island, San Diego; and Camp Lewis. Along with each mast a building was erected to house generators, winches for the tie-down cables, and tools. The mooring masts, 165- to 175-foot steel towers that the dirigibles could tether to, were designed as an alternative to large dirigible hangars.

USS Shenandoah Comes to Washington State

To demonstrate the airship's flight capability, the Shenandoah would be the first dirigible to fly across the continent. On October 7, 1924, it left its home station at Lakehurst, New Jersey, and headed to Fort Worth, Texas. This leg of the journey took 37 hours. The airship refueled at Fort Worth and departed for San Diego, its next stop. She had trouble along the route and was almost blown into an Arizona mountain. While the craft was crossing into California a snowstorm created another anxious time, but the Shenandoah arrived safely at the North Island Naval Air Station on October 10, 1924. Once there, she was damaged while tying up to the mooring mast, requiring repairs that took six days.

Following  these repairs, the Shenandoah departed for Camp Lewis. A crew of 27 enlisted men and 14 officers operated the airship. The ballast officer was Lieutenant Roland George Mayer (1892-1976), a 1915 mechanical-engineering graduate of the University of Washington. He had long involvement with the airship, having helped design it. On the flight to Camp Lewis he was in charge of distributing the ballast to keep the craft on an even keel.

After leaving San Diego, the dirigible flew up the West Coast to Point Cabrillo, California, where a lighthouse attendant recorded its inland turn. It would continue north to Florence, Oregon, to the Willamette Valley, then over Corvallis and Portland. The Shenandoah  continued on to Puget Sound, its Pacific Northwest stop. Fierce head winds were encountered along the way and the flight from San Diego required 48 hours to complete.

At Camp Lewis, spectators started to arrive the night before the Shenadoah's scheduled visit. When it first appeared at about 7.00 a.m. on October 18, 1924, a crowd of about 10,000 was there to greet it, sitting in automobiles and standing around the mooring mast. Among those present were Lieutenant Mayer’s wife and mother. But morning fog caused visibility issues and delayed the craft's descent to the mooring mast.

The fog soon broke into a sunny sky, and this heated and expanded the helium, causing the dirigible to ascend. To avoid having to release precious helium, the Shenandoah delayed its landing, and instead circled over Camp Lewis and Tacoma. For Tacoma this became a spontaneous holiday, with businesses closing so people could catch a glimpse of the large airship. The Superior Court adjourned, and judges and jurors joined the many spectators standing on city sidewalks.

The Shenandoah circled over the area all day until the temperatures dropped. Finally, at 6:35 p.m., it was cool enough for a landing. The craft was tethered to the 165-foot-tall, semi-portable mooring mast at 7:10 p.m. The crew, anxious to get off the airship, climbed down to the ground. Many of them rushed to a safe area to light up their cigarettes, having gone 60 hours without a smoke. The airship crew would stay at Camp Lewis that night, while ground crews prepared the Shenandoah for the next morning's flight.

At about 8:00 a.m. on October 19 the dirigible was released from the mooring mast and headed toward Seattle. She climbed to 2,000 feet and was seen over Des Moines and then Georgetown. Continuing northward, the Shenandoah cruised over Seattle’s Smith Tower and downtown, flying routes that allowed a maximum number of Seattle residents to see the majestic ship. This included a flight over Capitol Hill’s Volunteer Park, where a large crowd had gathered to watch. The Shenandoah then turned south to the Navy yard at Bremerton and on to San Diego and Fort Worth. She arrived at back at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on October 25.   

Lighter-Than-Air No Longer

On September 3, 1925, during its 57th flight, the Shenandoah crashed during a storm. She had been sent on a publicly tour to the Midwest when she encountered a violent storm over southern Ohio and broke up in flight. Fourteen crew members were killed as the Shenandoah plummeted to the ground in sections. Among the killed was the commanding officer, Commander Zachary Lansdowne (1869-1925). Thirty-nine of the crew survived, riding the wreckage to the ground.

Among those survivors was Lieutenant Mayer who, despite the crash, stayed with airships. In April 1933 he was assigned to the dirigible USS Akron. While he was on leave that month, the Akron also crashed, taking the life of Admiral William A. Moffett (1869-1933) and 72 others and leaving only three survivors. Mayer continued in the airship field and in 1937, now a lieutenant commander, he served on a board that studied the disastrous Hindenburg explosion, which had occurred at Lakehurst on May 5 of that year. Mayer retired from the Navy in 1942 and went on to a second career in corporate management.

When the Shenandoah had arrived at Camp Lewis in 1924, Rear Admiral Moffett, then chief of the Naval Bureau of Aeronautics, was aboard. He left the airship to conduct an inspection of Sand Point Field in Seattle. Following his inspection, he praised the base and indicated that improvements would come as money became available. Admiral Moffett asserted that Sand Point was the logical choice for a base for heavier-than-air craft and Camp Lewis the logical choice for dirigibles. The Seattle Daily Times and the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce took up the proposal, urging a permanent lighter-than-air base at Camp Lewis. A lack of funding and other U.S. Navy commitments stalled these proposals. Despite the loss of the Shenandoah, in December 1928 U.S. Representative Albert Johnson (1869-1957) of Washington state introduced a bill to construct a dirigible hangar and support facilities at Fort Lewis. It failed to pass.

The Shenandoah Remembered

The second dirigible to visit the Puget Sound and Seattle area, on May 24, 1932, was the USS Akron, which would crash less than a year later. A third dirigible, the USS Macon, tested its aircraft-carrying capabilities during an August 22, 1934, stop in the Northwest. The Macon carried five small planes on a trapeze system, which she launched while over Vashon Island. After flying over Bremerton and Seattle, the airship went on to Tacoma, where thousands watched it make a wide circle over the city.

Neither the Akron nor Macon were successful in demonstrating the value of making Camp Lewis (which had been renamed Fort Lewis in 1927) a dirigible base. With such lack of interest,  the mooring mast at Fort Lewis was removed in November 1936. The rigid airship era ended with the crash of the Hindenburg in 1937. The former mooring-mast site at Fort Lewis became part of McChord Field. In 1938, a balloon hangar was constructed at the fort's Gray Army Airfield, and the Third Barrage Balloon Squadron and its semi-rigid balloons were assigned to the field.

There are no monuments in the Northwest marking the visit of the Shenandoah or the other dirigibles. At the Shenandoah's crash site in southern Ohio, looters quickly arrived and carried away surviving artifacts. A monument to the craft and its crew has been erected at the nearby town of Ava.

Sources: Rick Archbold, Hindenburg: Reliving The Era Of The Great Airships. (New York: Warner/Madison Press Books, 1994); “Mooring Mast at Lewis Ready for Shenandoah,” The Seattle Daily Times, September 14, 1924, p. 14; “Shenandoah: Graceful Cruiser of the Air Commands the Admiration of the Puget Sound Country,” The Seattle Daily Times, October 18, 1924, p. 6; "Big Airship Moored At Lewis Mast," The Seattle Daily Times, October 19, 1924, p. 1; “Shenandoah Rides Out Gale Off California,” The Seattle Daily Times, October 20, 1924, p. 1; “Sand Point Praised,” The Seattle Daily Times, October 20, 1924, p. 3; “Shenandoah Reaches San Diego: Fog Delays Mooring for Hours,” The Seattle Daily Times, October 21, 1924, p. 2; “Seattle Man on Shenandoah: Lieut. Mayer Escapes Death,” The Seattle Daily Times, September 3, 1925, p. 9; “Big Hangar For Airship Is Proposed By Johnson,” The Seattle Daily Times, December 18, 1928, p. 1; “Portland Sees Macon,” The Oregonian, August 23, 1934, p 1; Tony Long, "Sept. 3, 1925: Shenandoah Crash a Harbinger of Grim Future," Wired magazine website accessed November 12, 2012 (

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