Remember What Happened to the Hindenburg

How We Got Ankle-Deep in Gasoline!

November 18, 1954.
Our flight crew was busy loading everything needed for a routine 24 hour training flight in this cool Fall New Jersey morning. The winds were calm and the sky clear, but everyone had their flight jackets on and zipped up as the sun had not yet crept above the horizon to bring its warming rays.

We were scheduled for 0700 hours takeoff in our ZPG-2N airship 126716. A few extra pilots and riggers were waiting to board so they could get their required monthly flying hours. We had to load more food and supplies than usual for this crew of 23 rather than the usual 18. After the crewmen had finished their loading duties, they signaled everyone to come aboard and get to their assigned stations for takeoff.

As the ladder was pulled up, the tractor towed the mast and our loaded airship from the circle to the mat for takeoff. With efficiency developed over the years, our huge airship was positioned heading into the slight wind, the mast was released from the nose cup and speedily towed back to the hangar while the ground handlers held the nose steady. The engine throttles opened up to full takeoff speed, and the two huge 18-foot propellers clawed for more air as we started rolling for takeoff. The three wheels rolled less distance than a football field length then lifted off the mat as our flying machine climbed into the morning sky.

After the engines had been throttled back for cruising at our flying altitude, our mechanic Hobson came from the pilots' compartment back through the airship checking for fumes. I always waited for him to let me know that it was "all clear" before I turned on the ship's electric alternators for full electrical power to everything. We operated only on batteries during takeoff. This time, instead of an "all clear", Hobson told me to wait until he tightened a pipe on the overhead auxiliary fuel tank just aft of the radar. There were a couple drops of gasoline under the tank pipe.

Airship equipment layout

This tank contained 400 gallons of gasoline and was suspended inside the car about 2 meters aft of where I sat at the radar position. When Hobson put the wrench on the pipe, the metal flange that was supposed to be bonded to the fiberglass tank dropped off! A solid stream of gasoline shot out the bottom of the tank on the deck at his feet. He yelled at me to turn off the battery power as he grabbed some rags and tried to plug the hole.

Hobson's efforts were useless to try to stop the gasoline from pouring out on the deck. It didn't take long until the 400 gallons of gasoline was ankle deep all the way into the pilots' compartment. Not that it made this situation any more dangerous for us, there were 1,100 more gallons of gasoline aboard in other tanks.

All Electrical Power Off to Prevent Sparks

With no battery power or alternators, everything electrical in the airship was inoperative. That minimized the danger of explosion, but now we had no radios to call for the ground handlers to return for an immediate landing. No way to call emergency fire and crash crews. No way to tell the control tower we had a big problem!

Immediately, the crew started trying to get the gasoline out of the car. One crewman was sweeping it out a side door with a broom. Several officers were using coffee cups to pour gasoline out windows in the pilots' compartment. One crewman was trying his best to scoop gasoline up with a waterproof paper bag that we used in our toilets. In the stern, riggers manually cranked opened the doors where the winch was. The open windows in the pilots' compartment allowed some of the vapor to move the full 80 feet through the car and exit out the stern. That little fresh air coming in the windows probably saved many of us from getting asphyxiated.

Although all efforts were honest attempts, not much helped remove all the gasoline at our feet. Eventually, most of the 400 gallons ran down into the bilge below the floorboards. However, the fumes were still intense and more dangerous than the liquid gasoline under the deck. [Since then I've had very little sense of smell and taste.]

More Than a Gasoline Problem

In the meantime, our crew commander and pilot, Lt. Moore, returned us to the base and flew around the control tower so close they recognized something was wrong. The tower operator notified the squadron Duty Officer that they had no radio contact with us, and it appeared we had smoke coming out from our car. Unfortunately after our takeoff, the duty section went to breakfast. It was clear that immediate help and landing were not forthcoming.

Another Problem Becomes Apparent

Additionally, we had another serious problem. The angle of pitch on the two 18-foot propellers was electrically operated. After takeoff, the prop pitch was set for normal full speed flight. With all power off now, the propellers remained in that position, biting out huge chunks of air and propelling us maximum forward with each revolution. Later this became a major problem in landing, along with our problem of possible explosion from gasoline fumes!

After an agonizing long time for us in the fumes filled car, most of the duty section had been rounded up and was out on the landing mat formed in the traditional "V" to land us. As we made our normal landing approach, things were beginning to look a little more under control. At least the gasoline had stopped sloshing around in the compartments, and the crew was calmed down back at their stations. Everything seemed to be a lot better, as long as nothing made a spark! Ironically, we were attempting to land exactly where the German giant zeppelin Hindenburg exploded in spectacular hydrogen flames on May 6, 1937.

Landing Too Fast, So Aborted

We made our landing approach toward the ground handlers as usual. However, with the props set for maximum flying efficiency we were coming in much faster than normally. There was no way to decrease the prop pitch or put the props in reverse pitch to stop our airship! Lt. Moore knew that even when the two 800 horsepower engines were idling with the props set as they were, our speed would be 20 - 25 knots (23 - 28.8 mph). So he shutdown the starboard engine and hoped the ground handlers would grab the bow and stern lines and somehow drag us to a stop.

We touched down and rolled toward the ground handlers much faster than usually. As we bore down on the ground handlers, a few fast runners ran for the dangling bow lines. However, we were rolling so fast they were nearly jerked off their feet. A few ground handlers were hanging on to the lines and dragging on the asphalt, but they were not slowing us down at all!

Quickly they let go of the lines and everyone scattered as fast as they could to avoid being run down and chopped up in the huge propeller. The Duty Officer was not aware of the seriousness of our situation and gave us a wave-off to take off and fly around to try again for more favorable conditions.

How disappointing and maddening that was! Lt. Moore and everyone aboard was more than disappointed that the Duty Officer and ground handlers hadn't tried harder and succeeded in stopping us. However, as we rolled through the ground handlers we left a trail of gasoline fumes so strong that everyone recognized the seriousness of our problem: We were a gasoline ticking time bomb and maybe there would not be a second chance to land!

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Single Engine Takeoff

As we left the ground handlers behind on this failed attempt to land, a new problem suddenly became evident. The port engine and prop set for flight speed had pulled us toward the corner of the mat where Hangar 1 and base buildings met. It became immediately clear to Lt. Moore that he was going to have to take off on one engine while maneuvering around Hangar 1, over the base main street and above base houses across the street! Our airship was at least 800 pounds heavy, and there was no electrical power to start the starboard engine. These conditions were now the immediate serious problems facing Lt Moore! It was his job now to get all of us, and this wounded flying machine back up and flying.

Using the only thing he had to work with, he pushed the port engine throttle forward all the way to the over-speed stop bar, lifted it up over the stop bar, and shoved it all the way forward possible. The port engine RPM meter needle rapidly climbed into the RPM over-speed red zone and on to the end of meter dial. The engine still kept increasing in speed and roared like never before! It now was racing way beyond its allowable maximum RPM limit! Those 800+ stampeding horses, all on one side of the car, were pulling us sideways fast past Hangar 1 toward the base main street and base housing! We were gaining speed rapidly but not climbing enough to clear the houses. Lt Moore yelled back from the pilot's compartment to release the gasoline drop-tank from under the car. Ensign Garner was stationed in the aft fuel and ballast compartment and manually released #3 slip tank with several hundred gallons of gasoline in it. The heavy gas tank dropped from under the car and broke without igniting in front of Hangar 1.

With the airship considerably lighter, Lt. Moore pulled the pilot's yoke all the way back until a tail fin drug on the ground. We crossed low over the base main street and miraculously cleared the chaplain's house with the long bow lines dragging across the roof! Lt. Moore said, "That was a tad close!"

We Get Serious About Landing

We had been flying over 2 and a half hours as we circled the landing mat hopefully for the last time. Lt. Moore told our rigger, AM-2 Price, to figure out how to valve helium manually from the 2-foot wide helium valves in the main helium chamber over the car. The valves were designed to be electrically operated. They were never designed to be operated manually.

So Price with his tools, and a couple riggers aboard to get their monthly flight time, climbed above the car among the cables supporting the car to reach the huge helium valves. The riggers also had the problem of how they were going to breathe and not be suffocated by the helium. And there was even another problem. Normally when helium is valved out, air must be pumped into the ballonets to keep the pressure up inside the airship envelope to maintain the overall aerodynamic shape. (ballonets: special air chambers inside the helium chamber) Without electrical power, we could not pump air into the ballonets. That meant we would be losing our total airship envelope pressure and the airship would get "limp". That meant there would be no takeoff this time no matter what happened. And we might lose our riggers due to oxygen deprivation.

As we started making our final approach, the riggers started manually valving helium out the huge valves. The trick was not to drop too fast and end up in the pine trees outside the base. The guess work on how much helium to release was up to Lt. Moore. He shouted instructions periodically to the riggers when to open and close the valves as he flew our giant wounded airship toward the landing mat for the last time, we hoped.

The lone engine was idling and laboring under the load of the huge 18 foot propeller in full flight pitch as we approached the mat slowly and dropping fast. We carved an erratic flight path in the sky as Lt. Moore struggled to fly our failing flying machine toward the waiting ground handlers. Now nearly all the squadron personnel including clerks and supply personnel were amassed on the landing mat. Along the landing mat were all types of red, yellow, and blue base emergency vehicles. It was unnaturally quiet with all radios off, the port engine idling, and everyone concentrating on Lt. Moore fighting the controls to keep our failing flying machine from dropping into the pines before reaching the mat.

We dropped down hard at the very edge of the mat and rolled toward the ground handlers fast. I thought how strange it seemed that on the ground we appeared to be going much faster than in the air.

We were now on the ground and charging rapidly toward the ground handlers hopefully for the last time. The riggers were told to valve out all the helium possible so our added weight would help slow us down. Somehow they managed to hold their breath and push their full weight on the huge valves to let helium escape as fast as possible.

As we rolled across the black rough asphalt mat, the wheel struts collapsed completely under the increasing weight of the airship's giant mass. The final trusted engine was shut down and allowed to rest after its magnificent performance.

We continued to roll across the mat toward the many squadron personnel waiting silently to see what was going to happen this time. The wheels started shimmying like broken casters on a grocery cart as the fully compressed struts pushed the tires into the mat asphalt. The port tire blew from the many tons of airship mass settling down. The entire airship was vibrating noisily protesting the unnatural weight as we continued rolling across the mat, grinding up the port flat tire.

Approximately halfway across the mat our heavy, noisily vibrating airship finally gave up and stopped on its own in a slightly nose down attitude, like a theater bow at the end of a great performance. There was a deadly silence, and everyone breathed a big sigh of relief.

Home Safely

The danger wasn't over yet. We quickly lowered the ladder down the wheel well and hurriedly left the airship filled with explosive aviation gasoline fumes and over 1000 gallons of gasoline. I gratefully breathed in the fresh air. As I speedily trotted away from our "gasoline bomb", I looked back at the wounded airship. I could see the tail and nose were drooping on our once magnificent flying machine. There were wrinkles that looked like giant ribs on the sides. It looked more like a starved dead whale than a flying machine, but it had brought us back home safely one more time.

That night my buddies, Bob Kelly, Dave Hatloy and I went to the Airship Tavern a half-mile outside the base main gate. We hardly ever went there. We each retold our part of the drama a hundred times. We toasted Lt. Moore and the many others who helped save us. And we got drunk. We didn't often drink, but this was a special occasion to celebrate.

Airship #716 enlisted crewmen

To the best of my recollections here are the names and ranks of those enlisted crew members shown above.

#1. AD1 Hobson, Aviation Machinist Mate (mechanic)
#2. AT1 Deitz, Electronics Technician
#3. AM2 Paul Price, Structural Mechanic (rigger)
#4. Structural Mechanic
#5. AM? Wilbur Lahann, Structural Mechanic (rigger)
#6. CPO Sylvester, Electronics Technician
#7. AT2. Dave Hatloy, Electronics Technician
#8. AT2 Larry Rodrigues, Electronics Technician (me)
#9. AT2 Mervosh, Structural Mechanic (rigger)
#10. Aviation Machinist Mate (mechanic)

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© Copyright 2002, revised 2014 by Lawrence Rodrigues
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