A Helium Leak Did Not Stop Us

A Helium Leak Discovered

We were flying out of Weeksville, NC, on temporary duty for about a week from Lakehurst, NJ. We were demonstrating how we could find and intercept a submarine attacking a group of surface ships. The ships and submarine were out of Norfolk, Virginia on operations off the coast. It was a very good week, and we were doing outstandingly in our hunter/killer operations with the fleet. There were no equipment problems on the airship except we somehow tore what looked like a 4 to 6 inch rip at a seam over the starboard propeller. Probably the prop threw a rock into the bag during take off or landing. The hole was too high to reach with any of the ladders or equipment at Weeksville.

Our riggers and the pilots did some calculations to estimate how serious it was. They calculated we could stay the remaining two days of the exercises before going back to Lakehurst for repairs. There were a lot of politics involved for the LTA people and we dared not leave! This was a very important mission because we were proving to the surface fleet how great of an antisubmarine weapon our new nan-ship was. So we continued to fly with the hole constantly seeping helium out of the huge helium chamber.

On the morning we were leaving Weeksville to return to Lakehurst, a weather cold front moved into the area. This caused the helium to contract more than expected. The ballonets (ballonets: air chambers inside the main helium chamber) were now filled with air to near capacity trying to keep the overall pressure up to maintain the airship's proper shape. However, we had lost so much helium through the rip that we could only hold the pressure near the minimum value. At least, the good news was that the lower pressure also reduced the helium loss rate.

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That morning the weather was closing in fast, so we had to leave immediately. We were going to try to make it home with minimum pressure and maximum engine power to the two 18 foot tri-bladed propellers and fly it as a heavier-than-air airship.

We started our takeoff roll at the absolute far edge of the mat and with nose into the wind, the pilot and mechanic opened the engine throttles for maximum safe power available.

The wheel struts were compressed, and the tires pressed hard into the asphalt mat as we slowly gained speed. We crossed the mat to the opposite edge and went out across the swamp land. The ground dropped away from the tires, and the struts dropped down as we left the base real estate. We continued out over the swampland, climbing gradually into the cold morning sky. The nose was up high, the engines were roaring and it appeared that we were going to fly this thing and not drop back into the swamp.

After a short time we were well above the swamp and trees, and headed back to Lakehurst flying with the airship nose up at a high angle, flying more like a flat rock skipping across the water than a lighter-than-air airship.

When we landed at Lakehurst, we were so heavy that we literally 'dropped in' and blew a tire. Our normally beautiful streamlined airship was now drooping a bit at the bow and stern, but it got us home again.

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© Copyright 2002, revised 2014 by Lawrence Rodrigues
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