Day 69: FDR Rides a Dirigible, 1918
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first sitting president to ride in an airplane, an occasion marked by a very long overseas flight to attend the 1943 Casablanca conference. FDR’s distant cousin, Theodore, was the first president ever to fly, a trip that took place back in 1910 shortly after he had left the presidency.
FDR may have set an additional aviation first – we think he may have been the first president to fly on-board a dirigible airship (also known as a blimp or zeppelin)!
During World War I, serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, FDR traveled to Europe to inspect US Navy facilities. Several weeks into his trip, on August 17th, 1918 he visited a base in Paimboeuf, Western France where he was offered a ride aboard a French-built airship.
Considered too vulnerable for use on the front, airships were primarily used for scouting missions and mine clearance throughout Western Europe during the war. The use of airships later declined as airplane technology advanced and after several high profile accidents. FDR was serving his second term as president when the infamous Hindenburg crashed in New Jersey in 1937.
FDR writes about the flying experience in his log of the trip saying:
I tried my hand at running the lateral stearing[sic] gear and also the elevating and depressing gear. The sensation is distinctly curious, less noise than an areo.[sic] and far more feeling of drifting at the mercy of the wind.
So You Want to be a Naval Pilot in 1919?
Only applicants of “unquestionable high moral character’ and under thirty years of age may apply.
Circular Letter Number 238-19 Training of Enlisted and Warrant Aviation Pilots, 10/25/1919
Lost in a storm on February 12, 1935, the airship USS Macon emerges from the clouds in this stock Navy footage.
RIGID AIRSHIP GROUND OPERATIONS, SUNNYVALE, CALIFORNIA, 1934 - 1935
Macon’s sister airship the USS Akron shared the same fate and was lost in the Atlantic 2 years earlier. However lessons learned from the Akron disaster enabled the rescue of nearly the entire crew of the Macon.
Both were among the largest airships ever built, and included their own complement of Sparrowhawk “parasite fighters” that could be launched while in flight.
USS Akron in Flight
The ill-fated airship USS Akron (ZRS-4) was launched on August 8, 1931. Designed as a potential flying aircraft carrier, this reel of stock Navy footage includes scenes of the Akron launching and retrieving its complement of Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk “parasite fighters.”
June 23, 1919. Subject: Carrier Pigeons
Did you get the memo?
Today is national memo day, the day where we Americans celebrate (or maybe the better verb is recognize) the ever circulating, sometimes useful memo!
Here is one of our favorite memos. It is part of a series of General Correspondence Files created by the Army Air Forces at Ross Field between 1918-1929. The memo details the potential uses for carrier pigeons in the operations of the air field.
If nothing else, “The use of carrier pigeons might save a pilot and passengers from possible starvation in the mountains in case of forced landings…”
Patent Drawing for a Flying Machine, 04/15/1913
On April 15, 1913, The Patent Office granted David Hamilton Coles a patent for an improvement in airships. In his application, Coles meticulously described his new designs for various parts of the airship, such as, the valves, propellers, and engine.
[note: image rotated 90° for the full airship effect]
Congress in the Archives will feature monthly staff posts on our blog. Today’s post comes from Center archivist Kris Wilhelm.
It was a dark and stormy night off the coast of New Jersey on April 3, 1933. The captain of the Navy’s dirigible, USS Akron, had altered course several times to avoid ominous weather. By 12:30 am, the Akron was being buffeted by violent updrafts and downdrafts that tore away control cables and forced her into surf that ripped off her lower fin. Without adequate means to navigate the enormous vessel, she was doomed. Only 3 of the airship’s 77 officers and men survived the crash.
The loss of the USS Akron prompted Congress to create the Joint Committee to Investigate Dirigible Disasters. The 10-member panel studied the causes of this and other wrecks as well as the utility and viability of dirigibles for military purposes. Although the dearth of survivors among the Akron’s crew made it difficult for the committee to assess contradictory eyewitness accounts; nevertheless, the records of the disaster tell a chilling tale of the tragic end to a mighty airship.
Surreal Detail of the Week: Senator Hamilton Kean (R-NJ) was a member of the Joint Committee to Investigate Dirigible Disasters. His grandson, Tom Kean, co-chaired the 9/11 Commission with Lee Hamilton.
Photograph of the USS Akron “Nose section being attached to nearly completed framework,” 1933, Records of the Joint Committees of Congress
Photograph of the USS Akron “Ready to walk USS Akron out of Goodyear-Zeppelin dock,” 1933, Records of the Joint Committees of Congress
Photograph of the USS Akron “Crew bunks,” 1933, Records of the Joint Committees of Congress