Lakehurst Naval Air Station was the oldest and largest airship base in the U.S. and has a colorful history. The base is most remembered for the Hindenburg disaster when the German made giant hydrogen filled rigid zeppelin exploded and burned during landing on May 6, 1937.
Incidentally, a zeppelin has an internal frame but a blimp has none. A blimp's shape is maintained only by the helium pressure inside. That pressure is only enough to force water up a tube approximately 1.5 inches (3.75 cm).
The most impressive sight when you arrive at the main gate of the base is Hangar 1 dwarfing the nearby two-story buildings. The giant hangar is 200 feet high, 350 feet wide, and 808 feet long. It is so huge that occasionally it rained inside the hangar. This happened when the huge doors opened and the humid air flowed into the cool interior and condensed, making small droplets of "rain". Some of the old timers sometimes tried to convince new arrivals that there were even thunderstorms inside the hangar. I think they over exaggerated the point.
After passing Hangar 1, you can see two more huge hangars across the open and wide landing mat. These are Hangars 5 and 6. Each is 1088 feet long, 297 feet wide, and 183 feet high. They are each made from 2.7 million board-feet of lumber and 143 tons of bolts, washers, ring connectors and miscellaneous structural steel. They are the largest freestanding wooden structures ever built.
The six 30-ton doors on each end of the hangars were on railroad tracks and moved out to the sides like sliding 150 foot high closet doors, one in front of the other. We went to a class to be a licensed door operator. Not only were the doors big and mechanically complex, but also air flow had to be considered much like water flow when operating them. When the doors opened there was a strong air flow that could cause problems with our big airships in the hangar.
One of our never ending duties was standing "Pressure Watch". There are huge air bags (called "ballonets") inside the blimp's main helium bag. Air is pumped into or out of these ballonets to adjust the helium pressure. This pressure is the only thing keeping the tail and nose from drooping. We had to walk miles on the concrete hangar floors and climb up into every airship frequently checking the pressure in the bag. When the temperature changed suddenly, like when the hangar doors were opened, every ship would start losing or gaining pressure, depending on which way the temperature changed. If the Pressure Watch was not moving fast to pump up or valve out air, alarms would go off. Everyone nearby would run to the blimp with a problem and take control of the situation, which could be serious if not corrected immediately.
I liked the midnight to 4 A.M. Pressure Watch the best. Then the temperature was stable, everything was quiet, and I could do Navy correspondence courses at the Leading Chief's Desk. All I had to do was make sure all the hangar doors were locked, keep my eye on the thermometer and the airships, make my rounds, and do my course.
Going in and out of the hangar was always done very cautiously. Strong air currents flowed through the hangar when the doors were open. This was a very dangerous time for the other airships as well as the one we were moving in or out. Conditions were always different, and it seemed to me that it took a scientist to figure out what was going to happen when the doors opened.
I always admired (and felt sorry for) the Duty Officer who had to move a blimp in or out of the hangar. It seemed to me that the job took much planning, foresight, coordination, and a lot of good luck to get the blimp out in one piece with the tail still on. We had many close calls with disaster while moving the airships. We lost one airship when a strong cross wind pushed the mast over as the airship was half way out of the hangar. The airship completely deflated in seconds. That was a bad day for us all.
When the weather was bad we put all of our airships in the hangar. That was a big job for the duty section. The men guided the tail in with ropes while the mast held the nose and was pulled by a tractor. Everyone had to be really on their toes as it was a tight fit for all the big Nan-ships to be inside at once. Moving tons of delicate metal and fabric close to the hangar walls and among the other ships was really scary. For many years after I left the Navy I periodically had dreams about scary things happening in that hangar.
The below great picture of the ZPG-2W and the hangars 5 and 6 at Lakehurst was taken by Joel McEachen in Fairfield, Connecticut on Armed Forces Day 1959. Thanks, Joel!
NOTE: The smoke was to indicate the wind for the 2W ship making low passes with a lot of people present.
The ZPG-2W was designed for Airborne Early Warning duty. On top of the bag is the height-finder radar in a fiberglass radome about 7 feet high. Everything was supported only by the low pressure of the helium spread over the large area of the bag. The pressure was just high enough to force water up 1.5 inches (3.75 cm) in a tube, yet it supported the radome, the radar antenna, and the radar equipment. Additionally, most of the car weight is also suspended from the top of the bag by cables attached to two "catenary curtains" running parallel and on each side of the top midline. The long dimple near the top of this 2W is due to these catenary curtains.
© Copyright 2002, revised 2014 by Lawrence Rodrigues
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