Sunday, February 08, 2009

A Forgotten Era

Today's "image in need of a caption"...

More at the end of the post. :)

The Problem of Detail

As I mentioned a few months ago, I'm in the middle of writing a novel. It's set largely aboard a fictional rigid airship during the early 20th century. Given the relatively obscure subject matter, it's been an interesting journey trying to get the operational and period details as correct as possible.

I've never written anything on this large a scale before. The biggest problem I've been having in writing historical fiction is not the "grand events", but the details that bind them together.

Let's say I'm writing a fictional story about the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Finding the overall information is easy. Heck, you can just grab it from Wikipedia. "On the night of 14 April 1912, during her maiden voyage, Titanic hit an iceberg and sank two hours and forty minutes later, early on 15 April 1912. The sinking resulted in the deaths of 1,517 people..." Great. Now you've got the general info.

However, what about the details? What did the passengers eat? Did the decks have names? What were period clothes made of? What kind of wood were the floors made of? What kind of music was popular at the time? How was royalty addressed? What books were being read? How were the engines operated? How many crew members would be on the bridge at any one time? What kind of slang was popular?

It's those kind of details that make a story come alive, I think. The kind of information that doesn't just tell about a place or time, but puts the reader right into the middle of it. They may seem unimportant on the surface, but I think their presence adds life to the story by creating a believable setting. That's what I'm trying to achieve.

My History's Got Gas

So, I've been trying to dig up as much stuff on rigid airships as I can.

A quick primer: a rigid airship (RA) differs from today's blimps by having their shape kept by an actual metal skeleton. On an RA, you have an exterior metal "shell" that's covered in fabric, and then inside you have individual gas cells which hold the lifting helium or hydrogen. A blimp's gas envelope keeps its shape using only gas pressure and a system of "ballonets" that inflate or deflate with regular air to keep the ship's form at different pressure altitudes. If you were to completely deflate a blimp, its envelope would collapse, where as an RA keeps its shape even if the gas is completely pumped out.

Another advantage of the RA is that any room within the hull that is not used for gas cells can be used for living quarters, storage, fuel, weapons, and more. With a blimp, you're more or less much limited to the control car gondola that hangs underneath the gas envelope, which limits your range and facilities.

There are also vessels classified as semi-rigid ships, which mix elements of both designs. In fact, the first the aircraft to overfly the North Pole was the semi-rigid airship Norge in 1926, designed by Umberto Nobile and operated by a crew of Italians and Norwegians. Heck of a story, that one. That ship's envelope had a metal keel and metal reinforcements for the nose and tail, but the remainder of the envelope's form was maintained through pressure. Nobile's subsequent ship, the Italia - also a semi-rigid - would meet its fate over the polar ice caps in 1928. What ensued was an Arctic survival story nearly as incredible as Ernest Shackleton's ordeal and escape from Antarctica over twenty years prior.

But, like I said, I've been focusing on rigid airship design. Below are some images of an RA under construction, where you can clearly see the internal skeletal structure as well as one of the internal spaces.

It's an era of aviation that not many people know about, or even really care about. Frankly, I find it fascinating. Everybody knows about the Zeppelin Hindenburg. "Oh, the humanity!" and all that. That was merely the end of the airship era, and so much came before that fateful day over Lakehurst, NJ.

My focus has been on military rigid airships. In the 1920's and 1930's, the United States Navy operated four enormous aerial vessels: the USS Shenandoah, the USS Los Angeles, the USS Macon, and the USS Akron. Of those four, only the Los Angeles survived; the rest were lost in crashes. The story of each ship and their eventual end actually reads like the Titanic's: avoidable and tragic.

One of the things I like about these vessels is that they really did operate like seagoing ships. No yoke or throttles. Instead, you had helmsmen and engine telegraphs.

The latter two - Macon and Akron - operated like flying aircraft carriers. They carried up to four or five Curtiss Sparrowhawk fighters in their hangars, and would launch them and recover them in-flight via a "flying trapeze" system. The fighters were used to increase their reconnaissance range. In operational use it was extraordinarily successful.

Doing My Homework

My research has spanned a ton of books and a few DVDs. However, when it comes to seeing real artifacts, there's only one place I can go: The Naval Aviation Museum.

I've written about it before, and here I go again: it's hands-down my favorite aviation museum.

This past Friday I went down there to get a close look at their exhibit. They have an excellent section on lighter-than-air (LTA) aircraft on the second floor, which covers both the aforementioned rigid airships, as well as the Navy's more modern blimps.

There are several display cases of artifacts from each of the RA's. The collections include such odd things as a piece of metal girder, radio antenna weight, and pieces of fabric stolen from the USS Shenandoah's crash site...

... to the skyhook from one of USS Macon's Sparrowhawk fighters, dredged up from the ocean depths...

... to the ship's helm and bell from the USS Los Angeles.

Later Airships and the Library

They also have some excellent displays on WWII and Cold War-era blimps, including the K-class which were used for anti-submarine convoy work. No blimp-escorted convoy ever had a ship sunk by an enemy submarine. These ships operated until the 1960's, when they were replaced by fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

They have an entire control car for a K-class hanging from the ceiling.

In addition, they have several parts from an N-class airship. While it was indeed a non-rigid airship, it had several metal structural components within its envelope, such as its nose cone, to provide support for load-bearing areas. They had the nose cone, ruddervator, and outrigger engine, amongst other things.

After I was done with the physical exhibits, I headed down to the Emil Buehler Library on the first floor. It's basically a single room with three walls covered in ceiling-height shelves of books.

I had poked around in there a few months ago, but it was long before I had any specific research interests. At the time, the only things that struck me were a 16th century samurai sword presented surrendered by a Japanese officer on Okinawa (freaking beautiful sword) and a sextant belonging to Amelia Earhart's navigator.

This time, however, I had a mission. I searched the shelves, and finally came across the airship section. It was small, but backed with goodness. A lot of their books appear to be donated by museum patrons. I found some real jewels in there, including several 1st editions dating back to the 1940's.

As I mentioned earlier, the reason for my research is that I'm trying to achieve both a proper "feel" for my novel, as well as technical accuracy.

Within these rare books, I found things like:
  • How the Sparrowhawk fighters airplanes were able to perform their reconnaissance and eventually locate to their mothership. In other words, how do you get your airplane back to an "airport" that's constantly moving laterally and vertically.
  • First hand accounts from the captain of the famous Graf Zeppelin (the first airship to circumnavigate the globe).
  • Proper ground handling techniques for airships.
I'm sure you guys must be going, "And that's interesting how?"

Think about The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy. How much of that book revolves around the concept of sonar? Does he go into great detail about every button, every knob, and every display in the USS Dallas' sonar room as it tracks Ramius' submarine? Of course not. He didn't set out to write a manual for a Los Angeles class SSN's sonar system. But the detail he does provide is as accurate as possible. He did a lot of research and learned a lot of things which may or may not have been applicable. Then he streamlined it and used only the parts that were relevant to the story.

That's what I'm intending to do: pick and choose from the research I've done and apply it where it's necessary to add to my story. That one hour sitting there in that small library filled so many gaps in the technical knowledge I've been seeking. I've also been able to track down several newer copies of the books I found via

One last thing: I spoke with the librarian, and he mentioned that they also offer free research services. You simply e-mail them a question and they'll do your homework for you. He mentioned some of the queries people had sent in. Very obscure stuff, and these fine folks at the museum gave them the answers they were seeking.

An Added Bonus

You never know what you're going to find when you go to this museum.

As I walked outside to check out the outdoor displays, I saw a crowd gathering by the aircraft restoration annex. As I approached, I saw a huge crane, and one of the most beautiful P-38 specimens I've ever seen. What an amazing machine.

Turns out it was Lefty Gardner's old CAF bird White Lightning, bought and rebuilt by Red Bull after its 2001 crash in a field. They flew it in to Pensacola NAS and brought in a big-ass crane. They spent nearly an hour getting it over a fence and down a road so it could be loaded onto a barge and shipped to Germany. From Germany, it would be flown to Red Bull's HQ in Austria.

I shot some video of the plane-lift and cut it together. I'd never uploaded a widescreen HD clip to YouTube before, so I decided to use it as a test case.

So anyways - that was my Friday morning. Saw some neat artifacts, learned some useful shit, and saw a beautiful Air Force warbird at a Navy museum. A good start to a good day. :)

P.S. If you're interested in reading more about the airships, I highly recommend picking up The Great Dirigibles by John Toland. It's a reprint of a mid-20th century book that is packed full of first-person accounts from the survivors and crew of these vessels. It's extremely well written and really puts you in the middle of the action. It really allowed me to see what it would be like inside an 800 foot airship, a mile in the sky, as it's torn in half by a violent storm, coming apart and venting gas like a sieve.


Dave Starr said...

Very interesting post. I read a lot of flying-oriented blogs but they seldom have much to really do about aviation.

One minor correction regaring non-rigid construction. You can indeed use the inside of a blimps ... it is not one big bag of has, but often a number of separate "bolloonets" to hold gas and in the modern advertising air ships and large balloonet of air, compressed by the engine propellers to help the bag hold its shape at speed. The US Navy's last generation of radar pciket blimps had several rigid gramed compartments inside the 'bag' to hold radar equipment. I guess they would be classed as semi- rigids.

If you are not familiar with the author Nevil Shute I recommend him. he can not only teach you quite a bit about the craft of novel writing, but in his autobography, "Slide Rule" he gives a nice acocnt as a senior dirigible design engineer and his adventures on the flight of the R-100 across the Atlantic to Canada and back.

Some excellent info on Shute and his airship work, interior passenger deck views, etc. at

daniel said...

we'll be on Hudson Street

Wicked Penguin said...

Thank you for mentioning that. I added some more information on the semi-rigid airships to keep everything rounded out.

There's just so much history surrounding these vessels that I could go on and on about them. What's sad to me is that most of them ended in tragedy due to human error.

Take the case of the R-100. It was a competing design with the R-101. When the R-100 returned safely from its voyage across the Atlantic, the operators of the R-101 felt they needed to top it with a flight to India, even though their ship was large untested and poorly designed. On its last flight, they left the UK on their way to Karachi, and barely made it across the English Channel to France before crashing and killing 48 people. That effectively terminated the British LTA program.

In the case of the USS Shenandoah, they were ordered to rush through the Midwest in the middle of thunderstorm season - at night. What happens? A line squall forms right on top of them and tears the ship apart. Just needless risk and loss of life.

Thank you for the Nevil Shute recommendation. I'd heard of some of his works before (such as On the Beach), but never looked into them too deeply. I've just added his autobiography to my Amazon shopping cart. I'm looking forward to it.

Anonymous said...

Just a minor point of interest.

You will know who this is from the comment.

When I was young and living in Karachi, Pakistan in the 1950's, there was still the large hangar built for that British airship R101, which never arrived.

Also, in Miami, at Opa Locka airport, there was a large hangar that had been used for Navy airships.

Dave Starr said...

Yes it is sad that especially for aviation buffs, On the Beach is virtually the only Shute work known in the US. It was written just years before his death and is in some ways his worst, most depressing novel ... it becmae amajor motion picture which is depressing too.

As an active engineer Shute (real name Norway) not only worked on the R100, he went on to form a successful prewar aircraft company and during the war worked on a number of what today would be "black world" engineering projects. He can spin a good yarn.

I wish you success with your writing project, I've never seen a decent novel that incorporates these great ships.

Regarding former hangars, there's a huge Zeppelin hangar in Berlin that is not serving as a high-end eco-resort (featured a while back on Discovery Channel), a great example at Lakehurst Naval Air Staion, NJ, and two great examples at Moffett Federal Airport in Sunnyvale, CA, within sight of the Googleplex ... where Google parks their famous 767 "Party Plane" ... talk about juxtapositions of history ;-)

Anonymous said...

A chance to see the USS Macon in flight! National Geographic Channel has just aired "Flying Aircraft Carrier" about the history of the USS Macon and her subsequent re-discovery off the Big Sur coast in California.

Wicked Penguin said...

Oh, wow! That's awesome - thank you for that tip! I'll definitely be recording that this Sunday, the 15th.
Here's the link for anyone else that's interested.

BadTux said...

Funny thing about the Hunt for Red October. A friend was a sonar operator on a U.S. destroyer at the time it came out. The first time someone in his chain of command read the book, said friend found himself yanked out of his chair and in a bright room with a couple of Navy investigators who were absolutely convinced that he had leaked classified details of U.S. sonar operation and anti-submarine operations to Tom Clancy. Even some of the same stunts he'd pulled in the past, such as blaring music out of the sonar dome, were replicated in the book. He was on the hot seat for several weeks, until finally Tom Clancy himself was called in and testified that, uhm, no, Tom had gotten all the details from unclassified sources and had modelled his sonar operator, personality-wise, on other fictional hot-shot military types. But that's just how realistic Clancy's research was in that novel -- realistic enough that the U.S. Navy itself was convinced that they had a classified data leak and put some poor squid on the hot seat for it.

Good luck on your own research. Hopefully you can be as successful as Clancy in getting things right -- but given that all the squids involved are long gone, hopefully no squid ends up in the hot seat this time :-).


Anonymous said...

I saw Lefty fly his P-38 many times. He had it hangared in Santa Maria, ca. in the 80's when i was a controller there. Always a great show.