The Beginning of the End of Anti-Submarine Blimps

Submarine on surface.

The Nan-ship and our airship crews were very effective at locating and intercepting the diesel/electric submarines of that period. We trained and practiced with our Navy ships and submarines off the east coast of the US. Unless we had an equipment failure, we nearly always intercepted the sub before it "sunk" a ship. The signal for sinking a ship was a flare and a big bubble of water within torpedo range of the ship.

Sub periscope.

I think the beginning of the end of LTA happened when the first nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus SSN 571, came out on exercises with us. I began to worry when we were briefed that the only thing we could expect to see on the radar was the periscope. That is a very small target 15 or so miles away. So I spent a day testing vacuum tubes and checking everything we would use to find that sub. I personally and carefully fine-tuned every piece of electronic equipment aboard our airship. Each pulse of radar energy was over 1 million watts of power. We were going to be ready! We were going out confident of our crew and the Nan-ship. We knew what they could do. But we were concerned about how effective the electronics equipment would be against the new unknown type of "enemy" - the atomic powered Nautilus submarine.

Loading supplies before takeoff in ZPG-2N.

We were scheduled for a flying time of 100 hours in the air. That meant we had to have plenty of everything we might need hundreds of miles out at sea. We loaded extra gasoline, oil, food, water, snacks, coffee, first aid stuff, toilet paper, blankets, tools, and electronic parts.

Notice here that there is an 18-foot propeller whirling away only a few yards behind these men as they load last minute food supplies.

Winching up a power unit.

My close buddies called me "Packrat" or "Packy". I never threw anything away good that I might need again. I was always stocking up on things I might need on a mission hundreds of miles out at sea. Our success or failure in finding and intercepting the sub could depend on a vacuum tube or a capacitor. I learned to plan and prepare for the worst possible situations, a habit I still have today.

Shown above is an auxiliary power unit (APU) being loaded on the external weapons rack. This APU was a new jet turbine type. It was much smaller and lighter than the older units. Unfortunately, it burned about 80 gallons of fuel an hour. It was not used in flight. We used it on the ground for A.C. and D.C. power to the ship equipment when the engines were not running.

ZPG-2N taking off from Lakehurst NJ.

So on this important 100-hour mission our airship took off very, very heavy. Frequently we took off approximately 1,000 pounds heavier than air with no problems. But this time we were REALLY heavy. We were something closer to a flying rock. I had a lot of anxiety about how all that flimsy mechanical structure was going to hold together under the added weight and takeoff stress. The struts were nearly collapsed from the added weight. The wheels were not only on long struts but also they were under the long outriggers. The outriggers were additionally stressed by the huge 18-foot, three-blade propellers clawing at the air, trying to drag our massive load into the sky. Although no one said so, I think everyone feared an unexpected bump in the rollout would break off a strut or an outrigger.

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Our successful takeoff that day was undoubtedly credited to our pilot's skill at keeping the tail only inches off the mat and the nose high while our flight engineer nursed every last bit of horsepower out of the two roaring 800 horsepower engines. Nothing blew up and nothing broke off during our unusually long takeoff roll, all the way to the edge of the mat and up over the pine trees. As long as we kept the nose high and the big props churning fast, we could stay up it appeared - and I hoped.

Looking out the stern of the ZPG-2N.

It took a long time to make our way out to where the task force and Nautilus sub were operating out in the Atlantic. In such exercises, there was always a lot of pre-exercise activities, and it seemed like we were never going to get started working with the Nautilus. I wanted to turn all my electronic gear loose on that sub and get this over with fast, like we had done so many times before with the snorkel equipped subs.

Finally, the zero-hour came for the main event. Everyone on our crew was eager and ready to go to work. We had trained for years to do this job. On the radar, I could clearly see the task force steaming along and the Nautilus many miles off on the surface ready to submerge and make its deadly attack. I hoped this exercise would be much like all the others in the past. I expected that the only difference would be that I would have to find and track the smaller periscope, rather than the much larger snorkel on the old diesel-electric subs. With my super-hot radar, I hoped I could track that new atomic sub, and I was anxious to try.

This exercise started out pretty much like all the others but suddenly something was different. The Nautilus dove and went in some unknown direction deep and fast without ANYTHING showing above the water! No periscope! No snorkel! Not a sign of anything was evident once it dove below the surface. Uh oh, we were in big trouble! Everyone was leaning over a radar scope searching for some sign of a periscope - or ANYTHING! As the minutes ticked by we had less and less of an idea where to look for that mysterious new sub. Our job was to protect the ships by being the "eyes" of the task force with our high flying powerful radar. But this time we had no information for the carrier and ships below and we could not offer any help.

As the time ticked by all we saw was a very large ocean and a task force below like sitting ducks. Our sonobuoys and MAD gear were the only other search equipments we had besides the radar, and both of them were useless until we were fairly close to the sub. As every minute ticked by we had less and less of an idea where that "deadly enemy" might be in that big ocean. We were just taking up airspace now, incapable of doing anything except watch the surface ships churn up the water at high speed. The ships were maneuvering around the carrier at high speed like they were in a panic. I know I was!

Shadow of ZPG-2N beside navy ship.

Then the bad news came, much sooner than we expected. There was a bubble of air and a flare signal near the carrier. That was the Nautilus' signal that the carrier had been successfully attacked and sunk (simulated, of course). Then more signals came, indicating the same fate for other ships in the task force. Over and over. Faster than seemingly possible, the signals were coming for another and then another successful strike on the ships. First here, then there. Again and again the signals came. And we saw nothing on our radar except a big ocean and our helpless ships below. Our sonobuoys were still in their racks, and the MAD gear was still on standby. That day made history that changed sea warfare forever. And it was the beginning of the end of U.S. Navy airship antisubmarine warfare.

We "developed engine trouble" at some point after we realized that the game was over for us. We headed back to Lakehurst tired and disappointed. The only thing I can say proudly about that mission is that our crew beat our previous flying time record of 42 hours. On this mission we logged a flying time of 50.0 hours. But that was only half of the 100 hours that we had planned to fly.

The first atomic powered U.S. submarine: Nautilus.

Here is a picture of the nuclear-powered USS Nautilus SSN 571 and a Nan-ship in the background.

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© Copyright 2002, revised 2014 by Lawrence Rodrigues
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