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World War 2 History: The Goodyear Blimp Goes to War

Updated on June 15, 2016
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

US Navy airships over Moffet Field, California during World II
US Navy airships over Moffet Field, California during World II | Source

Like a Warhorse Pulling a Plow

The Goodyear Blimp lazily hovering high above a crowded football stadium on a beautiful Sunday afternoon is an American icon. Used for advertising and capturing bird's eye views of sporting events, there are actually several Goodyear Blimps in the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company's fleet. They are the descendants of larger, more lethal airships that Goodyear built for the Navy during the Second World War.

The Rise and Fall of the Airships

By the time World War 2 started, almost every country had scrapped their airship fleets. Airships were huge lighter-than-air, powered aircraft classified as rigid (dirigibles) or non-rigid (blimps). Their heyday had been in World War 1 when they could fly higher than the fighters of the day and carry enormous payloads of bombs. Their effectiveness diminished significantly as fighter and anti-aircraft technology improved.

After the war, dirigibles carried passengers long distances in relative luxury. Their Achilles heel, of course, was the tens of thousands of cubic meters of explosive hydrogen gas providing their buoyancy. There had been several peacetime airship disasters, but the final straw was when the German dirigible Hindenburg burst into flames attempting to land in New Jersey in 1937. The disaster was caught on camera and the airship industry was destroyed practically overnight.

K-class gondola (control car) at the New England Air Museum. Note the 50 caliber machine gun up in the top front blister.
K-class gondola (control car) at the New England Air Museum. Note the 50 caliber machine gun up in the top front blister. | Source

Why Only the US? One word: Helium

During the war, only the US Navy maintained and operated airships in a combat role (the Soviet Union had one, but it was used for training and transporting equipment). When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, America had six blimps that were immediately used to spot submarines, patrolling the east and west coasts. They soon proved their effectiveness and the Navy ordered Goodyear, the tire maker in Akron, Ohio, to build more-- a lot more.

One reason only the US used airships during the war was because it had a virtual monopoly on helium gas-- a safer, non-explosive alternative to hydrogen. Most of the airships produced were variants of K-class blimps. While dirigibles had rigid, covered metal skeletons containing many individual gas bags, blimps had a single envelope (gas bag) that derived its shape when inflated.

K-class Blimps

K-class blimps were generally 250 feet long with a control car (gondola) slung underneath and powered by two engines attached to the gondola. Inside the car, up to 10 crew members flew the blimp and ran the anti-submarine equipment. They had a top speed of just under 80 miles per hour (130 kilometers per hour), could cruise at nearly 60 mph (95 kmh) and were armed with one or two 50 caliber machine guns and four 350 pound depth charges. Late in the war, some also carried 7.2 inch anti-submarine rocket bombs. US airships were effective at submarine- and mine-spotting, search and rescue, mine-laying and even cargo-hauling.

WW2: US Navy K-class airship on convoy duty.
WW2: US Navy K-class airship on convoy duty. | Source

Airships Excelled at Escorting Convoys

Their biggest contribution, however, was escorting convoys. They had a range of nearly 2,000 miles (3,200 km) and could stay aloft for almost 40 hours. Sometimes airships extended their range and flight time by landing on aircraft carriers for refueling and resupplying. They carried radar equipment that could see out to 90 miles (140 km) and magnetic anomaly detection equipment that could detect submerged submarines. Once detected, the airships normally called in destroyers or fixed-wing aircraft to attack the subs, but they occasionally used their depth charges on the enemy vessels. Even just being spotted would be enough to allow the convoy to escape, since a submerged submarine could easily be outrun by a surface ship.

US Navy K-class airship at Gibraltar, 1944. 1400-foot Rock of Gibraltar in background.
US Navy K-class airship at Gibraltar, 1944. 1400-foot Rock of Gibraltar in background. | Source

Expanding Across the Atlantic

When the threats to US coasts from Japan and Germany eased in 1944, some US airships were sent to the Mediterranean where they swept the Gibraltar Straits and other ports for mines and continued hunting submarines and escorting convoys. They also protected the convoy carrying Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to the Yalta Conference in 1945.

One Tanker Lost

Enemy submarines sank 532 ships in US coastal waters during the war. Of the roughly 89,000 ships escorted by airships, only one, the Panamanian oil tanker Persephone, was lost to enemy action when the German U-boat U-593 torpedoed her off the coast of New Jersey on May 25, 1942.

Massive Hanger No. 2 near Tustin, California with six airships. Each airship is nearly 250 feet long.
Massive Hanger No. 2 near Tustin, California with six airships. Each airship is nearly 250 feet long. | Source

One Airship Lost

Likewise, only one airship was shot down. Airship K-74 detected the German U-boat U-134 off the coast of Florida the night of July 18, 1943 and proceeded to attack the surfaced sub. Unfortunately, something went wrong with her depth-charge release mechanism and K-74 could only attack with her 50 caliber machine gun. The U-boat opened up with her anti-aircraft gun and deck cannon. Struck by more than 100 20-mm rounds and three 88-mm shells (airships were a lot harder to bring down than people thought), K-74 lost pressure and one engine and crash-landed on the water. The entire crew survived the landing but, by the time they were picked up the following morning, one of them was attacked by a shark and drowned.

Exterior of Hanger 2 near Tustin, CA. Built 1942. One of the largest free-standing wooden structures in the world.
Exterior of Hanger 2 near Tustin, CA. Built 1942. One of the largest free-standing wooden structures in the world. | Source

Airships Participated in One of the Last Sub Hunts

Two days before Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, the frigate USS Moberly and the destroyer USS Atherton were engaged with the German U-boat U-853 off the coast Rhode Island. Two K-class airships, K-16 and K-58, aided the search by locating debris, laying down dye markers and attacking with anti-submarine rockets. Finally, the U-853 succumbed and was one of the last submarines sunk in the war.

Some Numbers

By the time the war ended, 167 blimps (mostly K-class) had been built and served in five airship “wings”. They had made 56,000 operational flights and logged 550,000 flight hours. Despite being nearly completely overlooked in the history books, almost 17,000 military personnel served in the airship wings, including 1,400 pilots. Seventeen wooden hangers, each 1,100 feet (335 meters) long, 300 feet (92 m) wide and 171 feet high were built in coastal areas. Each hanger could house six airships at a time.

US Navy K-class ZSG-3 airship collapsed from the shockwave more than five miles from ground zero. Nevada August 7, 1957
US Navy K-class ZSG-3 airship collapsed from the shockwave more than five miles from ground zero. Nevada August 7, 1957 | Source

After the War

After the war, Goodyear incorporated K-28 “Puritan” in its commercial advertising fleet, but such peacetime use wasn't cost-effective and “Puritan” was retired a year later.

Four airships were used in a series of nuclear tests in 1957 to determine whether airships could be used to deliver nuclear anti-submarine weapons and survive. The results were not encouraging.

Finally, the last airship K-43 was retired in March 1959. It was the end of an era.

Airship Landing on Aircraft Carrier

© 2016 David Hunt

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    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 11 months ago from England

      Hi, interesting stuff, and I didn't realise that they were used in the second world war. I love history, but have a bit of a gap for the 20th, so this was great!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 11 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks, Nell. Before I stumbled across the picture of eleven airships advancing in a line, I didn't realize it either. I knew there were tens of thousands of (non-powered) barrage balloons, but had no idea airships were used in combat, so I knew I had to write about it.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan Robert Lancaster 11 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Here's something else not covered in the documentaries, David. Not something I'd ever come across along the way.

      I think probably the RAF was put off dirigibles after R-101 went up in flames on her way to France in 1930 on her maiden flight. The secretary of state for air was aboard and she went down off Beauvais. The only inflatables we kept were the barrage balloons, although their effectiveness against air raids was a bit 'iffy'.

      Any more from the magic UH keyboard?

      Footnote: if they'd come up with a safer fuel maybe the Hindenburg, R-101 etc might have lasted a bit longer. The Germans are known to have used dirigibles for intelligence gathering over eastern England immediately before the outbreak of WWII, so they can't have had too many reservations about their use - albeit not for passenger transport. Enlisted men don't pay fares.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 11 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Good to hear from you, Alan. Your comments always add content! Yes, I believe the German dirigible Graf Zeppelin II made several military surveillance flights around Europe in 1938-1939, but was grounded before the war started. It was designed to use either helium or hydrogen, but, as helium was not available to Germany, it used hydrogen. Helium is a by-product of mining natural gas and the only country to have the quantities necessary was the US. The export of helium was absolutely controlled by the six-member board of the National Munitions Control Board. President Roosevelt actually authorized the sale of 10,000,000 cubic feet to Germany in 1938, but was overridden by the board.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 11 months ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Great history, David. I often wondered about the difference between dirigibles and blimps. I had no idea that they played an important role in WW II. Thanks for this.

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 11 months ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi David. Another cracker here from you. The early years were frightening. it must have taken very brave men/women to be involved in both flight and as ground crew.

      Graham.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 11 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for commenting, William. Military airships are still being researched by various countries and commercial enterprises are applying their capability to stay aloft and carry heavy payloads for various tasks like hauling cargo and exploration. There are even remote-controlled (unmanned) airships.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 11 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi, Graham. Very true-- although it would seem that the odds of surviving a downed airship might be better than a regular airliner. Always good to hear from you.

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