Landing our 342 foot long airship was a major operation that required a large and strong crew on the ground. They were called "ground handlers". All the enlisted men (there were no women) in the squadron had to be a ground handler on their duty day and any time there was an emergency. And "emergencies" were a common occurrence. All too often the call for "ground handlers to duty!" was called over the PA system in the hangar, the barracks, and the dining hall. That meant drop whatever we were doing and head for the hangar immediately.
Landing was always done at Lakehurst on a huge square asphalt mat so we could head exactly into the wind. The Duty Officer of the Day directed the ground handlers and the landing with a lot of shouting and arm waving as our airship approached the mat. We flew the approach like most winged aircraft, only much more slowly. The slow approach caused the blimp's control surfaces to react very slowly and poorly. The pilot had less control at a time when he needed even more control of that huge airship.
We frequently landed at sunup or sundown because the wind was calmest then for about an hour. Landing at this time minimized the problem of the wind blowing us around after we came to a stop and waited for the portable mast to arrive. Also, the temperature wasn't too hot at that time of day, as the temperature was a major factor affecting how heavy or light the blimp was. Unlike a winged aircraft, we never knew how heavy or light we were after a long mission. We preferred to fly and land about 1000 pounds "heavy" because it was a smoother ride. If we needed more weight, we picked up ballast water at sea.
On one hot afternoon landing, we were so light that the ground handlers could not keep us on the hot black asphalt. After we stopped rolling, we floated straight up! We had to fly back out to sea and pick up about 2000 pounds of seawater for more ballast weight before trying to land again.
Landing was always hard and dangerous work for both the ground handlers, the pilot, and mechanic/flight engineer who monitored and nurtured the two 800 hp engines while we needed them most. Many times I saw the back of the pilot's flight suit all wet with sweat after a landing. The ground handlers got a heavy workout running, pulling on the lines, and loading/unloading sand bags. Everyone in the squadron had to be a ground handler when they were assigned to the Duty Section every fourth day for 24 hours. It was kind of fun and exciting if the weather was good -- but that was seldom. In the summer, it was usually hot and sweaty. In the winter, often it was cold and wet. And landings were always dangerous in any weather.
When landing we would approach the mat and head toward about 60 men lined up in a "V" shaped formation. In front of the point of the "V", there were two men who had to grab the two hanging bow lines, and run quickly back to the men in the "V". These runners were highly motivated to run fast because there were two 18-foot whirling propellers coming right at them!
When the ground handlers had a good grip on the lines, and we seemed to be in the right spot, the big props were put in reverse pitch, and the engines sped up to stop the airship. This point in landing was always scary to me. The engines were roaring and throwing up dust and gravel, and the pilot had no control with the tail surfaces. Also, the ground handlers were falling all over each other trying to hold the giant airship in place while it bucked around like a wild animal caught in a trap.
Shown here is our pilot (Lt. Moore, seated on the left) busy with the controls, throttles, and radio. In the center is our mechanic (Hobson) watching all the gauges. The pilot's job at that moment was adjusting the engine speed and prop pitch angle trying to keep us in one place and not run over the ground handlers or into the mast waiting off to the side.
We were just dead weight for those critical minutes, and we could do nothing but wait for the ground handlers to do their job. The slightest wind could push us in any direction even though we had approximately 60 men on the bow and half a dozen on the rear of the blimp car pulling down.
The aft ground handling duty was exceptionally miserable in the winter. The giant props were blowing subfreezing temperature wind on us while trying to hold the aft lines.
At times, the mat was covered with ice so slick we had to wear strap-on ice cleats on our shoes. Many times we would launch an airship at sundown for a 20 to 30-hour flight, only to have it come back that same night for an emergency landing before dawn's light and warmth. Everyone living in the barracks was called out to ground handle in these emergencies. What misery it was to leave a warm bunk and go out to ground handle in the dark and cold! For years after I left the Navy I would periodically wake up in the night thinking I heard someone shouting that we had to go out to ground handle. What a nightmare! I think some squadron guys got married so that they could live off base and avoid that miserable duty.
To continue our landing process: As soon as we got the huge blimp stopped, as rapidly as possible a tractor pulled a 23 ton mast on big tires to about 20 feet in front of the airship. A cable then winched the ship and mast together until the blimp nose pin was locked in the mast cup.
The critical moments when the mast and airship nose are facing each other, only yards apart, were the most dangerous. A slight wind could easily force the nose up, forward, and down over the mast-head and two men on top of the mast. It was always good news to hear "Secured!". Only then was it safe to relax a little. We still had to take care of the tail end of this 342-foot long blimp.
After the airship had been secured to the mast, the duty section ground handlers hung sandbags on the car to hold the blimp tail down. The sandbags did not completely hold it down but helped. Often when there were gusts of wind, the airship wheels would lift off the ground and then settle back down gently after the gusts subsided.
The mast and airship were towed to a circle if the weather was going to be good for a few days. A farm type of tractor pulled the mast and ship. One of our best tractor drivers was my buddy Dave Hatloy. He was a farmer from Drayton, North Dakota and liked the job of driving the tractor.
The airship's bow was locked to the mast in the center of a circle where the ship could swing around as the wind changed. A duty section man was assigned to stand "pressure watch" aboard the blimp day and night as long as the ship was outside the hangar. When I had that duty I usually tuned the navigation radio to a music AM radio station and did correspondence courses.
Once we had an airship do a nose stand on the mast. The pressure watch was just doing his normal long boring watch sitting in the pilot's seat reading. Suddenly he felt the tail rising rapidly. Unlike the often gentle rise and settle of the tail from a lazy gust of wind, this time the airship tail kept going up! He braced his feet on the pilot's instrument panel and hung on as it kept going up to nearly vertical. A tool box from the aft compartment and other loose odds and ends fell down through the blimp car's center aisle and crashed out through the huge forward Plexiglas pilot's window. The airship rotated on its nose around 180 degrees gently, and settled down to the ground on the opposite side of the mast in less than a minute. The pressure watch had a knot on his head from the flying debris and was shaken up. The ship was just fine, it appeared, except the pilot's compartment was air conditioned with no window!
Landing our giant airship was a major operation where few things were in our favor. Often it took us several tries to make a good approach, roll to a stop, and to get enough ground handlers on the lines to hold us stationary. The slightest wind could push us enough so that the ground handlers couldn't hold us in place for the mobile mast to approach and lock to the airship bow. That happened many times. When it happened, the Duty Officer on the ground would signal the ground handlers to drop the lines, run out of the way, and wave us off to get back up flying where we had some control again and space to maneuver.
These wave-offs frequently were scary for a few minutes before we got back up and flying. Often by the time the ground handlers dropped the lines we were drifting sideways or backward with absolutely no control. There were hangars, buildings, a water tower, other blimps on masts, and pine trees not far away so we had to do something on our own quickly! The pilot had no control with the tail surfaces until we were moving forward so he and the mechanic were really busy nursing every last bit of power out of the two roaring 800 hp engines. Unlike other aircraft, we had very slow acceleration because of our great mass and huge air displacement. We made a lot of noise and dust but not much happened very fast!
I can still remember the fantastic rush and thrill I felt as the giant 18 foot propellers, just feet away through the thin side of the car, clawed at the air to get our huge heavy mass moving forward again. The combination of the thunderous prop noise and screaming gearbox whine, plus the roaring engines was deafening. The engines were inside the car and about 10 feet (3 meters) aft of where I sat at my radar. I think the nan-ship must have been the noisiest airship ever built! I left the Navy with, and still have, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and loss of hearing.
These delayed landings were always disappointing, especially after a long tiring flight. I was usually exhausted and dirty, and anxious to get some uninterrupted quiet sleep. But often all we could do was to take off and try again to land. Sometimes the Duty Officer would call out all of the squadron members --clerks, supply people and all-- to try to help. A few times we had to give up and continue flying overnight until the wind died down the next morning. That was when we would go fly over the beaches and cities along the coast just killing time sightseeing. It was great fun to fly low and slow over the boardwalks at Atlantic City, Seaside Heights, and Asbury Park.
© Copyright 2002, revised 2014 by Lawrence Rodrigues
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