Up in the Air

A couple of weeks ago, just before heading to California to visit family, a friend’s tweet alerted me to something I should have known long in advance. The Airship Ventures Zeppelin NT “Eureka” was headed in to town for a two week stint out of Everett’s Paine Field.

A bit of online legwork, and I had left a message with their ticketing department, seeking to arrange a hop for myself and Viv.

The next morning, there was significant media coverage in the region, and their ticketing staff was flattened by the call volume. I started speed-dialing them, realizing what was going on, and in the process managed to fumblefinger the note one, but two callbacks they kindly provided. Eventually, I got through, and we booked a flight for September 5, the weekend after our return to Seattle.

After we were back in town, I realized that one of the flight-education tenants at Paine, the Historic Flight Foundation, was sponsoring an event that coincided with our visit, the Vintage Aircraft Weekend. I had long known of and intended to visit the Flying Heritage Collection as well, so I told Viv we would be making a day of it.

Ages ago, I tracked down Kent Leech, an illustrator who (with his father) created a striking cutaway illustration for National Geographic of the USS Macon, one of the pre-World War II dirigibles that served as a part of the US Navy’s lighter-than-air fleet. In June, Kent contacted me with some more information about the image, and I wrote about it here. “Hm,” I thought, “I wonder if he’d like a copy of that flown on the Eureka?”

I dropped him a line, and the answer was yes, so while in California I ran a couple of giclee prints to bring along.

On checking in, the Airship Ventures staff were all curious about the folder I was carrying. Above their work area was propped a large print of the Macon partially in Hangar One at Moffat Field in the Bay Area. The Eureka is based next to that hangar in Hangar Two.

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Several of them immediately recognized the ship in the illustration, and Brian Hall, the company’s leader, said that he’dlove to be able to display it in their check-in area at Moffat. Unfortunately, the illustration’s rights are 100% resident with National Geographic, so licensing it for other uses involves more than a phone call and a handshake, and I explained this as best I could.

Brian took a picture of me holding the prints and blogged it himself:

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A few minutes later, we were getting a safety briefing (the same stuff you hear once seated on a conventional commercial aircraft) and it was time to trundle out to the landing area to await the return of the ship.

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We lined up in two rows, six each, and were waved forward in pairs, two folks climbing aboard while two folks debarked, in order to permit the ship to maintain it’s relative weight.

One thing that struck me was the fact that the ship’s pivoting propellors permitted the nose-line ground crew to consist of this:

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The boarding process was over quite quickly. Viv and I were the last to board and consequently were seated directly behind the control area, in two rear-facing seats. This was fine with me, as I wanted to be sure to buttonhole our pilot, Katharine Board, as soon as possible in order to get her signature on the Macon prints.

I’ll pick this up later!

The Sun that Burns

On Saturday, I spent the whole day sitting on the beach near the San Onofre nuclear plant, reading. The whole day was cool, and the morning, from 10 to 1 or so, was grey and misty, quite pleasant.

Just as the clouds pushed back offshore, the Goodyear blimp mosied on by, headed south at about 800 feet. I friended it on Facebook and said “hi” on its’ wall as it passed.

I was finishing Harold Dick’s memoir of his time working in Freidrichshafen on behalf of Goodyear-Zeppelin during the rise of the Nazis and had just finished the book when the ship flew by.

I then picked up Gary Shteyngart’s recent and widely-praised “Super Sad True Love Story” and read it through at one sitting. Much of the novel’s intended amusement factor stems from the author’s satirical visualization of virtualized socialization and workflow in the context of an apocalyptically dysfunctional state. I had heard the author in a couple of interviews during his book tour and he was incredibly funny, as were his readings from the book, so I cracked the book with high hopes.

Instead, although I have no specific grounds to critique the experience on, I was sort of disappointed. I did, it must be noted, read the whole thing in one sitting, without even tottering across the burning sands to take a potty break, so it is empirically inarguable that I found the book engaging. I even feel a sort of bemused guilt that I didn’t like it more.

I mean, come ON, highfalutin’ litt’ry dystopian satirical SF? Christ, it’s the genre I should be praying for, if I were to take religious precepts with any kind of seriousness at all. And I will say this: while Shteyngart leaves a couple plot points dangling, and acknowldges them as such in the context of the book, taken as SF, it’s pretty good.

But I guess I had formed the idea that I would bust a gut reading the book. I still feel like I should have – Shteyngart is merciless, showing little sympathy for his characters or their (our) culture, and this is my favorite style of comedy, the Coen Brothers at their most contemptuous or Dan Clowes in high, self-indulgent dudgeon.

So I don’t quite get it. Shteyngart should be my new BFF. But my strongest reaction to the book was a kind of bemusement; I couldn’t figure out why wasn’t really digging it. it was, um, OK. It was alright.

I mean, it’s tight, it’s fluent, it’s clearly the work of a really gifted writer, someone hitting on all cylinders, from command and craft of language to plotting and subtheme. But instead of getting excited, and laughing or yelling or crying or wanting to talk about the book once I finished reading it, I was sort of puzzled by my lukewarm reaction to it.

However, I will likely long remember reading it, because my traveling companions at the beach that day did not bring any sunscreen, and I was too absorbed in reading to think about it. The net result? Full-on second-degree burns on my legs, from above my knees to the middle of my feet. I’m learning a lot about burn care.



The Airship Ventures Zeppelin NT is in town or thereabouts until September 8 or 9. I booked us in on a morning flight, September 5. Longtime blog readers will understand my insane levels of excitement.

I drove up to Paine Field and back this afternoon on a scouting expedition. You can’t see it in this picture, but the cabin was open on both sides and there was a person inside doing something.

The Macon

Back in 2002, I started running posts here focused on lighter-than-air aviation. Originally, I had intended to run a post a day on the topic for a week, so I called it Blimp Week.

The topic overfilled the week, and while I haven’t been posting tons on the topic of late, every now and then something comes into my email that merits a new post.

When I started posting on the topic, I tracked down illustrator Kent Leech, who (with his father) created a magnificent cutaway illustration of the US Navy dirigible the USS Macon for the National Geographic Society. The image can be purchased within the National Geographic volume Inside Out, as the frontispiece. I had looked and looked for the picture online but simply had no luck.

Mr. Leech kindly responded to my questions about the image, but was not able to come up with a link to the drawing either. Years later, in May 2010, he followed up with a link to the drawing, hosted on his own site. Instead of embedding the image here, I’ll just pass that link along, and urge you to go check it out. He has some other interesting drawings on the site, too, such as the Turtle, the MG-TC (attention Eric!) and a vacuum tube.

Here’s some of what he had to say about the image creation process for the Macon illo back in 2002:

My father and I did that illustration back in late 1991. It took appx 6 weeks from start to finish.

I am afraid I have no posters of our illustration, and at present there is no image available on-line.

It was great project to work on! We went to moss landing and saw the parts they caught in the fishing nets (small chunks of the structure). Mark Holms was the art director at Nat Geo at the time. He was able to find old photos of the Macon (in a dumpster!!) that helped us do the illo. We even built a model to photograph (for the perspective). It is pretty crude, but it did the job.

Right after I hit post on this, I found a promo site for a National Geographic documentary on the Macon, which includes a very simple, but kind of amusing, in-browser interactive Sparrowhawk skyhook landing sim!

Further poking about revealed the raison d’etre for the documentary: in 2005 and 2006, the Macon’s resting place, 1500 feet down within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, was exhaustively surveyed and documented by an archeological team. On February 11, 2010, the 75th anniversary of the wreck, the site was added to the National Register.

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Above is an image found on the NOAA press release site. It shows the wing of one of the Sparrowhawks lost when the ship went down; the planes were in place inside the dirigible when she went down.

Near Ava, Ohio – 1926

Several years ago, casting about for a subject of interest to me on which I felt I might be able to contribute in some small way, I wrote a blog post concerning the wreck of the United States Naval airship Shenandoah. Happy with the result, I had no idea that the piece would become a destination for readers from all corners of the internet, many of whom shared a personal connection either to the great ship herself or to the wreck.

Over the years, I’ve received first-hand accounts from people who watched the ship break up on the stormy fall morning of September 2-3, 1926. I’ve been sent photos, song recordings and lyrics, and family anecdotes. I have always taken care to highlight these contributions and to update the various posts treating of the event.

Early this month, I was contacted by Gregg Frisby, who kindly forwarded some scans of a family heirloom: a series of photos taken in the wake of the ship’s loss. Gregg thinks the pictures were taken early in the morning of September 3. They are of the tail section, and show a different and more intimate view of the section than this prior submission, which shows the port side of the tail section from quite a distance.

Interestingly, in reviewing my Shenandoah-related posts, I noticed a comment on the original:

My great-aunt Maude Phillips Harrison, and her husband John Harrison, lived in Caldwell, OH. We have several family pictures of the wreck of the Shenandoah, including a man in Navy uniform who may have been a survivor. Although Aunt Maude and Uncle John’s involvement in the wreck has been lost over time, the pictures are quite real and diffent than any “official photos” I have ever seen. I can only speculate that the Harrison’s (or someone they knew) took them very soon after the crash.

Posted by: Kim Frisby at February 28, 2003 7:12 AM

The pictures that Gregg has so generously shared are clearly these photos.

Gregg and I had an interesting correspondence over the images, which I’ll excerpt inline with the images.

Here’s most of Gregg’s initial note (interspersed with the images for effect):

My great-aunt Maude Phillips Harrison, and her husband John Harrison, lived in Caldwell, OH.

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Attached are family pictures of the wreck of the Shenandoah, including a man in Navy uniform who may have been a survivor (see this photo).

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They are not digitally enhanced in any way, but are in remarkably good condition for being over 80 years old.

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Although Aunt Maude and Uncle John’s involvement in the wreck [remains unknown] they may have been in the photos, but they are not clear enough to tell and no one surviving in the family knew Aunt Maude when she was younger.

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We can only speculate that the Harrisons (or someone they knew) took them very soon after the crash.

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They were obviously taken before the Navy or War Department was able to come in and secure the site, or begin clearing away the wreck.

I looked at the picture of the man with the bandaged arm, and realized I might be able to propose an identity, if the man was indeed a survivor of the wreck. Here’s what I wrote back to Gregg with (my correspondence is blockquoted and italic):

The guy with the middy hat may very well be a survivor, given his bandaged hand. It’s been a while since I did my research, but my recollection is that until marines reached the site the survivors tried to secure the site from souvenir seekers, but were overwhelmed.

I found a site with some 1926 news clippings about the wreck, and under a section headed “Survivors” found this:

J. Cole, Philadelphia: “I had just got out of my berth and gone forward when I felt the upward lift of the bag. I heard the noise of the twisting framework as the ship buckled. As the center of the bag dropped I slid down a rope ladder. Burned my hands, but laded safely.” ‘

It was the only reference to minor hand injuries I could find online.

A countervailing point here: Mr. Cole’s narrative would tend to place him in the nose of the ship, and it seems most likely that any survivors photographed in these images early on the morning of the wreck would have been among those that came to earth with the tail section, eighteen of the total twenty-nine who survived. She had 41 (I have also seen 43 cited) in her complement at the New Jersey initiation of the voyage.

I have never seen pictures of the tail section which included the ship name similar to these; while I’m sure the photographer probably regretted the low shutter speed I quite like it. I also really like the wear and tear on the prints you scanned: thank you for not cleaning them up.

Finally, while I’m sure you know this, I thought I’d expound a bit. The longer-frame shot that’s quite blurry with at least 13 people visible is a longitudinal view down the spine of the tail section from the rear on the starboard side of the ship. The three horizontal bands are the colors of the starboard elevator, the large flap used to set the pitch or climb/descent angle of the ship in the air.

The structure that appears to rest on the elevator, connected by three vertical lines in the image, the largest of which is directly above a man in a white longsleeved shirt with his hand in his pocket, is the starboard trim-tab, a smaller elevator used to make finer adjustments to the ship’s angle of attack.

Gregg responded with a brief note.

The story from J .Cole does seem to match the injuries shown in the photo. If it is not him, it most certainly must be one of the other survivors. I am wondering if the fellow next to him isn’t also a survivor. He isn’t dressed like the other townpeople shown, and he looks a little grimy and shell-shocked. Since the ship didn’t go down until 5:30 AM, these pictures must have been taken at first light. It is amazing the craft was able to survive almost 2 hours in such bad conditions.

Thanks for the article. I never realized the crash site was so close to Caldwell, (great-Aunt Maude lived on the outskirts of town), where the uninjured survivors were taken. What a strange coincidence that one of the survivors was from Logan, and took the opportunity to take a few days leave to go home.

I will never cease to be amazed at the way that the internet has provided an opportunity for people to come together and share information like this. I’m deeply honored to simply fulfill my role as catalyst and cataloger for this stuff. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.

UPDATE: In reviewing links and so forth, I came across the terrific USS Shenandoah’s Last Flight, by Wilbur Cross, which was originally published in 2006. It’s better researched and edited than my contributions; based on the details of crew interactions presented in the piece, I would venture to guess that Mr. Cross worked directly from the proceedings of the naval inquest board that reviewed the events of the ship’s loss. Sadly, he doesn’t help us ID the man with the bandaged hand.

The Weight and Lightness of History

Ages ago I put together a post on the loss of the USS Shenandoah, a rigid airship of the US Navy, over Ohio in the 1920s. I did so simply because dirigibles fascinate me and the end of the Shenandoah’s career is a whale of a yarn. After I crafted that original post, the wisdom of the internets began to produce a truly amazing stream of Shenandoah-related information, from remarkable first-person anecdotes of the ship in flight and/or the wreck to photos taken on the day of the ship’s end by curious locals to songs, sheet music, and lyrics.

Today, out of the, um, clear blue sky, a correspondent forwarded a cache of family pictures showing the tail section of the ship on the ground. The pictures are tremendous, in my opinion, and I need to do some research to do justice to them. I am so interested in how this sort of thing happens. I post about something I’m intrigued by, and from nowhere, from everywhere, people with direct first hand knowledge and amazing family heirlooms share them with me, and by extension, with you.

The nation, and the world, is filled with striking events which generated news and passed into history. Each one of these events affected countless lives and families directly. I’m deeply affected by the multiple opportunities I have been afforded to act as a catalyst for the gathering of such histories. Every time a new contribution bubbles up, I’m overjoyed and amazed.

Blimp Week For a Day!

Newer readers may have noted an occasional tendency on my part to blog upon topics associated with lighter than air aviation. The faithful correspondent and expert medievalist behind Hollyism dropped some blimpy science upon me this morning:

“I saw Dynalifter, which is apparently two guys in a “plastic-sheeted hut” with an expensive 150-foot prototype. The ship’s big idea is to combine airfoil lifting surfaces with an LTA central hull. The story notes that the principals do not have an aeronautics background and met while working in the IT department of Mount Union College. The operation’s website includes decent pictures of the prototype, which is a full-fledged beam-and-girder dirigible.

That, my friends, is living the dream. Airship flights daily from Lake Union to Mount Rainier, in season!