World War 2 History: The Goodyear Blimp Goes to War
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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