by Kelley Stirling
Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division
March 13, 2019
The first aircraft carrier is typically considered to be a warship that launched fixed-wing aircraft, like when Eugene Ely flew a Curtiss Pusher from the makeshift flight deck of the light cruiser USS Birmingham in 1910. But if lighter-than-air craft are taken into consideration, the first “aircraft carrier” is really the George Washington Parke Custis, a barge that launched Union Army balloons during the Civil War.
Going back to the first flight of a man into the air in 1783 when the Montgolfier brothers of France launched a hot-air balloon with a person onboard, it didn’t take long for men to figure out how to use them as a weapon of war.
“In 1783, man learns how to leave the ground. And not until 1794 is it put to military use. So, if you can go up in the air, there’s got to be some way you can defeat your fellow man with it,” said James Harrison, director for the Expeditionary Warfare Ships Division at Naval Sea Systems Command, during another one of his lectures at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division in West Bethesda, Maryland, on Nov. 28.
The French Aerostatic Corps was formed in 1794, during the French Revolutionary War, and in practically every war since and until the 1950s, lighter-than-air craft have been used on some level.
During the Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the American Civil War, Thaddeus Lowe flew over the battlefield and landed behind Confederate lines. He escaped and brought back a map of the battlefield. Although too late to use for that particular battle, Lowe was named the chief aeronaut and the Union Army Balloon Corps was formed in 1861, and the Union began using them for reconnaissance.
A few years later, after the Franco-Prussian War, when France had used balloons to escape Paris and send messages out, France was highly interested in developing a steerable airship, especially since the balloons that left Paris ended up just wherever the wind took them. So, in 1884, the French built the first navigable airship, which is basically a blimp.
This is where the Zeppelin comes in. Already famous for his role in the Franco-Prussian War, Ferdinand von Zeppelin became eager to build a rigid structure airship after he heard about France’s recent development of a blimp. He retired in 1890 to solely focus on this goal and build his dream using aluminum as his building material. He flew it in 1900.
“He’s three years ahead of the Wright brothers, but he is behind the other airships,” Harrison said.
LZ-1 crashes after three flights, and even though his investors lost confidence, Zeppelin was determined to continue his quest, creating more “Zeppelins,” as now the name is synonymous with the rigid-structure airship, no matter the builder.
In comparing Zeppelins to the fixed-wing aircraft that were just coming about, the airship could go 25 knots to the plane’s 35 knots, but the range for the Zeppelin is 680 miles compared to the plane’s 25 miles. And the Zeppelin is able to go up to 2,500 feet compared to the plane’s 100 feet, and lifting capacity is 25,000 pounds, versus 200 pounds. This ration continues until planes become considerably more sophisticated a few decades later.
As the U.S. entered World War I, airships were used on both sides for reconnaissance. The Germans had the Zeppelin, of course, but the U.S. was also using their blimps, mostly for maritime patrol, as well as strategic bombing.
By 1917, the heavier-than-air craft were still faster and could go higher in altitude than a Zeppelin, but the range and lifting capacity of the airships still far exceeded that of an airplane, with a range of 4,600 miles versus the 300 miles of the Sopwith Camel fighter aircraft, and 68,000 pounds of lifting capacity versus the fighter’s 500 pounds.
“But the Zeppelins are proving to be pretty vulnerable in combat compared to the now, substantially faster fighter aircraft,” Harrison said.
The U.S. Navy got into the rigid-structure airship business with the building of USS Shenandoah. During Harrison’s lecture, Dana Wegner, Carderock’s curator of ship models, noted that it was Carderock’s founding father, Rear Adm. David Taylor (1864-1940), who began the airship program for the Navy, laying the groundwork for Shenandoah during his time as the chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Construction and Repair. Wegner also said it was Taylor who discovered that the Germans were using a duralumin product, rather than the standard aluminum the Americans had. He was able to get a company started, which is now Aluminum Company of America, or ALCOA, to create the stronger duralumin for use in airships, as well as the skin of aircraft.
“Shenandoah is going to do a number of operations, doing basically scouting, which is seen as the most obvious role because of its ability to cover long distances,” Harrison said. “Although it only goes 70 knots, which is very slow for aircraft, it’s very fast for a ship.”
Shenandoah crashes in 1925, but the next one, USS Los Angeles, never crashes and is retired in 1932 after funding ceases.
The Navy contracted the Goodyear company to build a couple of rigid-structure airships, USS Akron and USS Macon, which they did in their factory in Ohio.
Something that set Macon and Akron apart was they operated with fighter aircraft. The Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk would travel attached to the bottom of the airship, launching and recovering to a trapeze.
“They actually quickly got really good at this. By the time the Macon went out for its last few successful missions, they were competent enough that they were operating without landing gear,” Harrison said. “This made the aircraft about 20 to 25 knots faster and also extended its range by about a quarter by not having to drag the wheels around.”
Unfortunately, just as the Navy was getting to understand how to use this airships, both the Akron and Macon were lost in storms, in 1933 and 1935, respectively. The airships still struggled with dealing with heavy weather. Rear Adm. William Moffett, who was really the big proponent for the Navy for lighter-than-air aircraft, was onboard the Akron.
“So, the loss of the Akron, was not only the loss of the ship, but also the loss of his voice and his enthusiasm within the Navy,” Harrison said.
Once the U.S. entered World War II, the Navy was using blimps as anti-submarine warfare (ASW) convoy escorts. The Navy had ended its blimp program in the 1920s, but with the onset of World War II, it built 134 K-class blimps, which were helium filled and did not have a rigid structure like the Zeppelins.
“Just like everything else in World War II, it was built in huge numbers,” Harrison said.
Even though blimps had an ASW mission, they never “killed” a U-boat. However, they flew nearly 60,000 flights in over 500,000 flight hours, basically 12 hours per operational flight. They escorted about 80,000 ships, and only one ship in either war was ever torpedoed when a blimp was escorting the convoy and that was in World War I.
“We often think of warfare in terms of hard kill, but there is also sometimes a soft kill, just in the area of dominance by intelligence,” Harrison said.
The Navy continued to operate blimps after the war, with the program being terminated in the 1950s.
“Going all the way back to 1783 when man first flew, militaries have looked for roles for lighter-than-air craft. They really have fallen into niche roles, not always well received by military forces,” Harrison said. “I think it’s fair to say they’ve never been so compelling as a tool that they’ve managed to persist.”