Thursday, May 6, 2010

May 6

It's fun to think about what happened in aviation on any particular date, but I'm not sure it's fun enough to devote a whole blog to. So why is May 6 special? For me there are two reasons, one obviously personal and one becoming more so.

The personal reason is that I used to own Taylorcraft 9114 (N95814), which was built on this date in 1946. Taylorcraft was building 40 aircraft a day at that time, but went out of business by the end of the year. The T-cart was my vehicle for endless hours of fun, not all of them in the air. I sold it because I had to. They say that the average American family is one illness away from losing its house; in my case, I guess I was one illness away from losing my airplane. But I did sell at a substantial profit!

The emerging personal reason goes back to this post from September, 2008, when my daughter presented me with a gift of old postcards of Boston, where I grew up. One of them showed the airship LZ-129 Hindenburg over the city, and sense then I have spent a fair amount of time researching the great (and, frankly, not-so-great) airships. Someday I hope to write a book about them. The world needs an airship book that both underplays the Hindenburg accident and highlights the arrogance between the crash of the R-101.

Usually what I do is devote a day or so after the end of the semester to airship research. Sometimes this means going to libraries and studying newspaper microfilms, and sometimes it means surfing the 'net. And since I am giving my last final exam of the semester right now, I spent the usually pointless proctoring time (it's a Computer Science exam and it's open book, so really what am I protecting against?) surfing the 'net.

And May 6? May 6, 1937 is the date of the Hindenburg's crash at Lakehurst, an appropriate day to devote to its study. Especially since it is snowing here in Pocatello.

I will spare you any of the clichéd references to Herb Morrison of WLS and the iconic overused pictures of the fire. If you really want to watch what happened, see Howard Hughes' brilliant movie Hell's Angels. Not only will you get to hear Jean Harlow (a figure even more tragic than the Hindenburg) offer to change into something more comfortable, you'll see a harrowing scene of a Zeppelin fire that is eerily prescient of the Lakehurst accident.

The book I have in mind is really an engineering and transportation history of the era. I'm also very interested in the liner Queen Mary, which was formerly housed with Howard Hughes's Spruce Goose in Long Beach. It's maiden sailing bracketed the Hindenburg's "Millionaire's Flight" of October, 1936. And I suspect that, with her speed and easy access to Manhattan, the Queen Mary could beat the Hindenburg in a door-to-door race from Frankfurt to the Empire State Building. Of course neither could match the 777...

I would also discuss the decorative aspects of both ships; both featured fabulous Art Deco and International Style decor.

And of course I would also need to understand how they operate. Alas, the Queen Mary's boilers have been removed, but the bridge is intact, and I have spent enough time in the engine room to convince myself that I could get her moving. (Isn't fantasy fun?) But flying an airship is no fantasy: Airship Ventures has a Zeppelin on the West Coast of the US, and they offer training.

There are two obstacles, though: first, it's expensive, but I have been saving my pennies. (When the German government refused to support the construction of the Graf Zeppelin, lots of people made small contributions to fund the construction. Maybe I can get lots of small contributions to fund flying one of its successors?) Second: training requires a valid medical certificate. And since mine is "in line for review" according to the FAA, I am going to have to wait.

Maybe I can do it next year on May 6.

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At May 6, 2010 at 3:58 PM , Blogger Dave Starr said...

Great! Another blogger whom I like to read who is also an airship fan.

I expect you have already come across it, but just to insure you don't miss out, be sure to read "Slide Rule" by Nevil Shute (iorway). It has some interesting insights into the building and testing of the R-100 and an explanation of calculating stresses in her girders that any mathematician ought to love.

You can't beat first hand experiences from an actual engineer on the project, there is certainly a dearth of literature on the subject written by folks who understood the technology, rather than the politics.

It's a shame Shute is mostly only known in the US as the author of "On the Beach", a terrible book he must have written while in severe need of anti-depressants. He was a much more rounded and interesting man.

There's some good airship info on his fan site,

Up Ship

At May 6, 2010 at 3:58 PM , Blogger Dave Starr said...

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