NARRATOR: In the first half of the 20th century, the dream of flight created some of the most extraordinary structures the world has ever seen Before the first airplane took off, rigid airships offered the possibility of mass air travel And a small band of visionaries was planning the construction of the biggest aircraft ever built They would form the world’s first airline, carry out the first aerial bombardment of foreign cities Germany envisaged an empire linked by a fleet of these silent giants And for a while, it seemed that the airship was poised to conquer the skies Now our investigators are going to explore this forgotten era and examine the world of the airship builders They’ll travel to the place where the first prototype flew They’ll uncover the ingenious technology which made construction on this scale possible They’ll enter the US Navy’s blimp barns, wooden building so large that they have their own microclimate Just how big is this place? NARRATOR: And they’ll reveal the vital, but little known role that airships played in World War II This is the lost world of the age of airships [music playing] In the last decade of the 19th century, few people had even dreamed of long distance air travel The airplane was not yet a practical reality The only real means of getting aloft were hot air balloons, and being unsteerable, they were little more than a novelty Still, a few visionaries believed that they did see a way to conquer the skies using the improbable giant airships called Zeppelins Still the largest aircraft ever flown, they remain one of the most striking creations in the history of flight For a brief period, they represented the cutting edge of aerospace technology It ended in spectacular disaster Now our investigators want to find out more about the world of the airships What they will reveal is a lost future, a vision that never came to pass Eleanor Herman is an author and historian She wants to use her skills to build a picture of this forgotten era To fly in something like this, it must have been as if they had suddenly sprouted wings NARRATOR: David Bradshaw is an industrial engineer with a passion for aviation history He wants to understand the evolution of these monsters of the sky, and the ingenuity that went into their construction The first thing I notice, there’s no steering wheel I feel very comfortable up here NARRATOR: The airship story starts here on Lake Constance on the German, Swiss, and Austrian border This was home to the man whose name was to become synonymous with the airship, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin Von Zeppelin risked everything to pursue his dream of lighter than air flight, creating craft that could travel the globe and win wars [music playing] Eleanor needs to find out where the count’s vision of air travel came from, and how he turned it into a reality She visits the Zeppelin museum and meets curator, Jurgen Bleibler So years before the Wright brothers launched their first airplane, Count von Zeppelin had this dream of airships, and it became an obsession for him How did it start? INTERPRETER FOR JURGEN BLEIBLER: Count Zeppelin took part in a balloon flight in 1866 It would certainly have influenced him a lot He was fascinated by all aspects of flight He recognized the potential for both military and civil aviation [music playing] NARRATOR: He plowed much of his own money into airship development, but most thought his ideas were crazy JURGEN BLEIBLER: [non-english speech] INTERPRETER FOR JURGEN BLEIBLER: You have to realize that at the end of the 19th century, the idea of worldwide civilian air travel and long distance military flights was mad [music playing] NARRATOR: But Count Zeppelin would be proved right By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Zeppelin fleet would have formed the world’s first airline and transported 40,000 people At the NT Zeppelin factory in Germany, where modern airships are still built today, Eleanor meets up with Zeppelin historian, John Provan She wants to know what a Zeppelin actually is Well, the original concept of Count Zeppelin was to build like a locomotive with wagons to make a train in the air

That idea wouldn’t have worked at all, and thank god he didn’t even try it The original shape was like a long cigar for quite a number of years During the course of the First World War, they changed over to a very aerodynamical shape, very much like the airships we have today NARRATOR: Count Zeppelin’s dream of fast, global mass transportation spawned a huge industry across Germany geared to creating parts for the airships JOHN PROVAN: Probably the most unique part of the earlier ships was the gasbags They were made of the small intestine of a cow They had in Berlin 16,000 women working in a factory doing nothing other than cleaning the small intestines of cows, because you needed approximately 500,000 cows to provide enough material for the gas cells for one airship [music playing] NARRATOR: These gas cells were filled with hydrogen, a highly inflammable lighter-than-air gas that got the ships off the ground The bigger the gas bags, the greater the lift, so airships grew in size, as did the hangars they were built and stored in The count was a rich man, but the project swallowed everything he had His hunt for ways to cut costs led to some very creative thinking This is where Count Zeppelin built his first airship and his first airship shed, out in the middle of the lake In the middle of the lake? How on earth did he do that? You have to consider that the first airship shed that the count built he paid for with his own money That first shed cost him 65,000 marks That was a lot of money But he couldn’t afford the ground, so this was for him the least expensive means of finding a piece of property NARRATOR: The count also realized that getting these vast airships out of the hangars would be difficult if the wind conditions were anything but ideal He came up with a rather elegant solution The floating shed would rotate as the wind direction changed It enabled him to take his airship in and out irregardless of the wind direction That would have been a major problem for him had he built his airship shed on the ground So they would turn the entire building around based on wind direction [music playing] NARRATOR: The floating factory turned automatically It was anchored at one end so the wind would pivot the entire shed, and the airship would always be facing the right direction for takeoff Then once the shed was facing the right way, the hangar floor would be pulled out with the airship on top It opened up like a matchbox The airship was attached to the floor, and a tugboat would pull the entire platform free, ready for takeoff It was the start of something extraordinary In the space of 20 years, Count von Zeppelin personally took the airship from an experimental concept to a practical working reality It was the pride of Germany As the age of long distance travel dawned, airships brought unparalleled luxury to the skies In 1928, the Graf Zeppelin made a nonstop flight from Germany to the United States It was the world’s first intercontinental airliner The passengers traveled in style, with private cabins, gourmet food, and a luxury dining room from which they enjoyed breathtaking views In New York City, there were even plans to dock airships to the top of the Empire State Building The rise of the Zeppelin seemed unstoppable [music playing] Eleanor visits NT Zeppelin, the successor to Count von Zeppelin’s company, where Zeppelins are still made today Here, she meets expert John Provan I think it must have been completely amazing for people 100 years ago, most of whom had never gone up in a plane, to go up in a Zeppelin It must have been as if they had suddenly sprouted wings For the first time in history, you could see the world below you It was the Concord of the day This was the fastest means of crossing the ocean It took you 2 and 1/2 days to get to North America, versus a ship that took 10 days And in a luxury that has never been compared since [music playing] NARRATOR: By 1936, the Graf Zeppelin was superseded by the Hindenburg It was 804 feet long No bigger aircraft has ever been built People were astonished to see a ship just 78 feet shorter than the Titanic floating above their heads It was the most sophisticated airship built by the Zeppelin company, and the pride of the Third Reich Where earlier models had crammed passengers into a Gondola, the Hindenburg used part of its massive balloon structure to enclose passenger cabins on two decks In a scale model of the Hindenburg accommodation

at the Zeppelin museum, Eleanor gets a sense of what travel on the airship was like A one-way ticket on the Hindenburg cost as much as a brand new car in the United States And a round trip ticket was the price of an average American house For that amount of money, wealthy passengers expected comfort and luxury It’s certainly far more comfortable even than a first class transatlantic flight today NARRATOR: Compared to other forms of transport available at the time, the Hindenburg was vastly superior A long distance flight by plane was something of an endurance test To fully appreciate the luxury of airships like the Hindenburg, I think we should compare them to the airplanes of the time Upon boarding, passengers were handed earplugs because the roar of the engines was absolutely deafening They sat in rickety wicker chairs bolted to the floor which vibrated violently And the first flight attendants were actually registered nurses on hand to hold vomit cups in front of the passengers NARRATOR: By contrast, a flight on the Hindenburg was like being in a five star hotel A luxury liner, it had a dining room and lounge, both equipped with lightweight aluminum furniture in the latest Bauhaus style Not only was this cutting edge technology, it was the height of fashion And after dining, guests could retire to the smoking room, on an airship filled with highly inflammable hydrogen Sounds crazy There was only one lighter, one electric lighter here on the side And the way they did this is there was more air pressure inside the room, so hydrogen would never be able to leak into the room It was always oxygen and air exiting the room [music playing] NARRATOR: Smoking was prohibited everywhere else Passengers were even searched for matches on boarding the vessel This made a lot of sense, considering the ship held 16 huge gas bags containing 7 million cubic feet of flammable hydrogen The skeleton of the ship was made of 12 miles of girders held together by four million rivets and braced with 120 miles of piano wire The entire ship was encased in 40 acres of fabric This giant could stay afloat because of the hydrogen within its gas bags Hydrogen becomes dangerous when it mixes with air, and elaborate safety features were designed to minimize the risk of fire They would prevent any accidental leaks Now, engineer David Bradshaw wants to find out more about how these systems worked He’s at Lakehurst Naval Base in New Jersey, an airfield where the Hindenburg docked a number of times Here, he meets up with historian Rick Zitarosa DAVID BRADSHAW: So Rick, why use hydrogen It was cheap, and it was available The Germans had been flying with it for over 35 years in peace and war They were not the least bit intimidated by its use It cost them pennies How did the captain control this massive amount of hydrogen? Each separate compartment had a separate gas cell 14 of the 16 gas cells had both manual and automatic gas valves on them To valve hydrogen to bring the ship into trim or to make it heavier, you’d pull a wire here in the control car, and that wire would go back 600, 800 feet to the valve location, and the valve would open up [music playing] NARRATOR: The hydrogen would then dissipate safely into the atmosphere It seemed to work When the Hindenburg went into service in 1936, no hydrogen related fire accident had ever occurred on a civil Zeppelin flight And in that first year of service, she flew over 300,000 miles The golden age of airship travel had arrived But on May 3, 1937, the Hindenburg left Germany on what would be her last flight It should have been a routine transatlantic crossing On May 6, she arrived in America Strong headwinds meant it had been a slow flight The Hindenburg was already late, and its arrival here at Lakehurst was delayed further by storms Nevertheless, just after 7:00 PM, the Hindenburg made its final approach [music playing] NARRATOR: As the airship approached the landing pad and dropped its mooring lines, it hovered at about 300 feet Then, disaster [flames whooshing] HERBERT MORRISON: It’s crashing terrible Oh, my, get out of the way, please It’s burning and bursting into flames and the– and it’s falling on the mooring mast and all the folks

between it This is terrible This is one of the worst catastrophes in the world Oh, it’s the flames climbing, oh, 400 or 500 feet into the sky And it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen There’s smoke and there’s flames now And the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast Oh, the humanity, and all the passengers– NARRATOR: Over 2,000 spectators and the assembled media watched in horror as the world’s most sophisticated aircraft burned At the final count, 36 passengers and crew were dead In just 32 seconds, a dream in which Zeppelins would carry thousands around the world was gone The media coverage of this event was unprecedented People in America, and indeed, around the world, saw these images and were horrified Their reactions were amazing People ran from theaters when they saw the newsreel coverage [music playing] NARRATOR: The destruction of the Hindenburg was a glimpse of catastrophe 20th century style, and it made a permanent impression on the world Many more had been killed in previous disasters, but this was the first to be captured on film, and is an enduring image [music playing] But although the accidwould n To understand why, David has returned to Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, scene of the Hindenburg disaster Here, a vast hangar, Hangar Number One, still stands, built in 1920 Inside, David meets up with Lakehurst historian, Rick Zitarosa DAVID BRADSHAW: Just how big is this place? Well, you could fit six football fields under this roof at one time As a matter of fact, when it was completed in 1921, for about 10 years time, it was the biggest open interior space anywhere in the world And when the Hindenburg was put in here, as they did twice during the 1936 season, she only fit with 15 inches clearance on each end with the doors closed [music playing] NARRATOR: It is vast, 966 feet long So big it even has its own microclimate Occasionally, it has even rained inside here But housing a hydrogen-filled ship like the Hindenburg meant putting extraordinary safety measures in place to minimize the risk of fire When the Germans came here with the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg, they were right at home This was one of the safest hangars in the world for a hydrogen airship Right from the ventilation hatches and skylights in the ceiling to vent out any spray gas, right down to the asphalt blocks that were used on the floor, 985,000 asphalt blocks designed to minimize the danger of any sparks being struck if a tool were dropped NARRATOR: Even the lighting system and electrical panels were explosion proof But examining the site, David uncovers a gas pipe It’s evidence of the reason why the US could continue working on airships while the Germans floundered in the aftermath of the Hindenburg The US had helium Rick, I’ve discovered this pipe, this helium inflation pipe, so my assumption is we use this for all our airships The first US Navy airships in 1917 flew with hydrogen All the training balloons, everything flew with hydrogen. In late 1921 and early 1922, there were two incidents that occurred which pretty much steered the course towards a national commitment towards the use of helium in American military airships [music playing] NARRATOR: In 1921, 44 British and US servicemen had been killed when the hydrogen filled R38 broke up on a test flight in Britain A year later, the Italian built Roma hit electric power lines The ensuing hydrogen explosion killed 33 of the 44 onboard Years before the Hindenburg disaster, great American airships, like the Shenandoah built in 1922, or the Los Angeles, constructed two years later, were filled with helium Like hydrogen, helium is lighter than air But unlike hydrogen, it’s inert It doesn’t burn In the early 20th century, helium was extracted from the ground in only one place in the world, Texas [music playing] And in the race to rearm between the wars, the US kept its helium to itself And there was a very, very strong feeling within the heretofore complacent element of the United States government that now began to say,

maybe it’s not such a good idea to give helium to the Germans Because there was some resentment, the Hindenburg was like a flying billboard for national socialism, parading the swastika over foreign lands, touting the greatness of Germany People were beginning to resent this by 1937 [music playing] NARRATOR: After the Hindenburg disaster, Germany could not use hydrogen again And as the US was the only country with helium reserves, it meant the States had a stranglehold on airship technology And they were to take airship design in a new direction, creating a smaller, more maneuverable form of craft, the blimp David wants to see how blimps differ from Zeppelins Their design has remained virtually unchanged since they were first developed in the early 20th century He’s traveled to Goodyear at Pompano Beach in Florida to see a blimp for himself And the first thing he does is examine it close up DAVID BRADSHAW: This is the skin of the ship It’s firm It’s stable I feel very comfortable up here But unlike the Hindenburg, this is not a rigid airship There’s no framing inside What exactly is inside of the ship? The only thing that’s inside the ship is two airbags And what it does is it maintains the shape of the airship The airship is a– it’s basically a balloon It’s not rigid It relies on the internal pressure to maintain the shape of it NARRATOR: Zeppelins have an internal skeleton Blimps don’t Instead, they rely on the pressure of gas inside them for their shape The gas bag holds the helium and ballonets, air sacks which contain normal air [music playing] The helium cancels out some of the weight of the ship, allowing it to stay aloft Propulsion is provided by air screw engines To become lighter than air, pilot Marty Chandler needs to regulate the air in the ballonets Expelling normal heavy air through the air valves makes the craft buoyant, and the blimp begins to rise As it gets higher, the air pressure falls This causes helium in the balloon to expand To maintain pressure, air is taken on, and the blimp becomes neutrally buoyant, neither rising nor falling [music playing] Using the elevator wheel, rudder control, and the engine, Marty gets the blimp off the ground DAVID BRADSHAW: The first thing I notice, there’s no steering wheel MARTY CHANDLER: No, I steer with my feet I use the rudder pedals to steer is left and right through the air, and then for up and down I use the elevator wheel on the side The one thing we don’t do is roll the aircraft We have no aileron, and there’s really no reason for them because we’re the heaviest thing attached to the balloon Therefore, we stay down at the bottom NARRATOR: Although pilot Marty is surrounded by a bank of electronic equipment, the basic controls of the blimp remain pretty much unchanged The helium-filled blimps developed by the Americans in the 1930s were controlled in an almost identical way DAVID BRADSHAW: Could a pilot from the 30s sit in the chair you’re in and fly this airship? Absolutely With most of the classes of airship that were flown back there, the adjustment time would be very minimal We really haven’t changed that very much at all [music playing] NARRATOR: These blimps would prove more versatile than their rigid framed predecessors, becoming a little known, but supremely important line of defense in World War II Our investigator, Eleanor Herman, has traveled to Richmond Naval Air Base in Florida to find out more about the US military’s plans for airships Here, she meets up with Naval historian Anthony Atwood After World War I, did the US War Department see any military applications for airships? They sure did The Kaiser’s forces during the Great War had raided and bombed London and other places, so the American War Department did see a potential for taking over the Navy [music playing] NARRATOR: In 1931, Washington funded the building of two extraordinary Naval airships, the Akron and the Macon, to the tune of $8 million That’s over $100 million in today’s money Even in the extraordinary world of lighter than air craft, these ships were to be unlike any others Not only were they the biggest airships ever produced for the US Navy, but they were also the first and only flying hangars The plan was that these enormous rigid airships would carry a squadron of aircraft onboard, and they would be the eyes of the fleet, that they would travel overhead and in advance of the fleet, scouting out, seeking to find the enemy [music playing] NARRATOR: The first of the ships to be built, the USS Akron, had a volume of 6 and 1/2 million cubic feet

That’s the capacity of 48 Olympic-sized swimming pools The balloon was 785 feet long, just 20 feet shorter than the Hindenburg It had eight engines providing a range of almost 6,000 nautical miles It could travel at over 80 miles per hour But the most impressive thing about this giant craft lay in its hull An internal room, 75 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 16 feet tall, capable of holding up to five fighter planes A trapeze was used to lower planes beneath the belly of the airship A skyhook was released, and the plane was on its own, able to carry out aerial reconnaissance As daredevil as these aerobatics sound, launching from the airship was the easy part Now, Eleanor’s going to take off in a 1940s biplane She wants to get a feel for what the pilots had to do next [music playing] Because once the pilot’s mission was over, the plane would return to the airship, and in mid-flight, dock with the craft above This was an extraordinary piece of precision flying The pilot had to match exactly the speed of the airship above him while attempting to hook his plane onto the trapeze This plane is traveling at 80 miles an hour I can’t even begin to imagine how you could possibly hook onto a trapeze dangling below an airship NARRATOR: It seemed a perfect combination The airship could transport planes great distances from their bases, and the more nimble planes could undertake surveillance at sites where the airship would be vulnerable to attack Although tests demonstrated the skills of the pilots and the theoretical advantages to these flying hangars, there was an obvious flaw Just like the ocean-going aircraft carriers they were intended to replicate, they were vulnerable to enemy aircraft But it wasn’t just enemy attack that made their ships vulnerable They had another adversary that would eventually end the dream of flying aircraft carriers, bad weather At high altitudes, they did not have the flexibility to withstand the winds, and they had a tendency to crack up and crash [music playing] NARRATOR: On April 3, 1933, the Akron was lost at sea over the Atlantic Ocean 73 men died Only two years later, the Macon too was lost off Point Sur, California The skyhook program was too ambitious, the massive balloons too fragile But they had shown the Navy that used correctly, airships could have a valuable place in warfare They developed a smaller and more flexible craft, The blimp David meets up with Richard Van Treuren, NASA engineer and historian, to uncover more about the world of blimps in World War II When the Navy lost the USS Macon, a Bureau of Aeronautics memorandum issued a request for the so-called K2 airship NARRATOR: Airplanes measure flight time in hours, but a blimp can stay aloft for days It can also hover almost silently These qualities came into play in the ensuing conflict [music playing] It meant that airships could become hunters and seek out an enemy invisible to all other craft As David finds out, it was ideal for surveillance Marty, I can see why the Navy chose blimps to patrol the ocean You can see everything from here MARTY CHANDLER: We’ve got miles and miles of clear ocean to see Not only on the surface, but down below us DAVID BRADSHAW: Fantastic NARRATOR: Over 130 of these blimps patrolled the coastal waters of the continental United States, stationed in places like Richmond, Florida Although few know of the blimp’s role, they would play a vital part in securing the national interest [music playing] Only four days after the December, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on the United States packs of U-boats set out from bases in occupied Europe Hunting beneath the surface of the Atlantic, they would wreak havoc along the eastern seaboard The Nazi sub struck with stealth and near impunity Their target, merchant ships carrying vital supplies

for the war in Europe The Allies knew that they had to beat the Nazi wolf packs or the war would be lost [music playing] The airship is really the submarine’s only natural enemy, because it works very much like a submarine in our ocean of air NARRATOR: Just like the submarine, the blimp could travel far from home It could observe from the air And thanks to the clever design of its control car, the K class became a real threat to the German subs Large, Plexiglas windows meant that the crew had a 360 degree view of the oceans below The gondola was crowded with what was then a high-tech radar, navigation, and rescue gear From their vantage point, the crew could watch for U-boats while accompanying shipping convoys Just having a blimp hovering over a convoy was enough to put the submarines off attacking The sub crews knew they would be spotted and then pursued by bombers RICHARD VAN TREUREN: We have uncovered several encounters where blimps attacked submarines We know from the German side how the U-boat men felt about blimps Basically, they didn’t mess with them NARRATOR: The U-boat crews had every reason to fear the blimps On the night of July 18, 1943, K74 spotted a U-boat off the coast of Miami Knowing a US freighter and tanker where in the area, the blimp commander decided to attack [music playing] As the K74 approached, it was spotted by the Germans The blimp released its depth charges, but it was now in range of the U-boat’s antiaircraft guns With its gas bag burst, it plummeted into the sea [music playing] All but one of the crew was rescued the following morning The men on the U-boat were not so lucky The blimp’s bombs had damaged the sub’s quick dive tanks It attempted to limp back to base on the surface, but was spotted by an RAF bomber and sunk [bombs exploding] Between 1942 and 1945, Richmond blimps were on patrol for 730 consecutive days That was a record untouched by any other airship squadron And as a result, successful German U-boat attacks on US convoys dropped from 114 in 1942, down to a mere eight the following year [music playing] NARRATOR: The blimps had a remarkable record in warfare, but no less remarkable was the enormous construction and engineering efforts that enabled them to fly in the first place Airbases needed to be able to support the blimp squadrons, and hangars had to be built that were large enough to hold a number of airships The construction project that met this need was the largest of its kind in history This site, Richmond Naval Air Station, was home to squadron ZP-21 during the war Nine other bases across the country had their own squadrons And 17 vast hangars, or blimp barns, were built to house the sub hunters At Richmond, these hangars are long gone, but Naval historian, Anthony Atwood, is able to reveal where they once stood ANTHONY ATWOOD: These blueprints were drawn up by an architectural firm in Atlanta And the hangars were over on this side Two hangars here, and a third hangar here NARRATOR: The site was commissioned on September 15, 1942 It was dominated by three main hangars, a 2,000 foot diameter landing mat, eight mooring pads, and a helium plant with its very own rail link In all, it covered over 2,500 acres ANTHONY ATWOOD: There were 3,500 sailors in the garrison And there were 21 blimps, the largest squadron in the Navy NARRATOR: All that is left of the three hangars is this, a 120 feet high concrete door post Two of these stood at the opening to each hangar They offer a clue as to the scale of the barns But in 1942, steel was required for tanks and planes, and none could be spared for buildings It meant that the barns had to be built from some other material They used wood They were supposed to have been made of girders,

but instead, they were made of Douglas fir Oregon supplied lumber for the base here, for hangars all over The size of these structures was enormous They were simply the biggest wooden structures that have ever been built NARRATOR: To make the largest structures ever made from wood, an unprecedented amount of timber would be needed, approximately 2 and 1/2 million feet for each hangar, and almost another five million for the base itself Without the hangars, there would be no blimp squadrons And the shipping convoys would be vulnerable to sub attack, so getting them up and running quickly was vital ANTHONY ATWOOD: And they used a cookie cutter approach, one blueprint would fit all sizes Recruiting officers went to the Goodyear blimp factory in Akron, they assembled the workers, and they simply told them, every male between the ages of 18 and 42, raise your right hand, and they swore them into the service [music playing] NARRATOR: Using the information our investigators have gathered, it is now possible to build a picture of how these hangars, the largest ever structures made of wood, looked during the Second World War The body of the barn was a huge arch, 157 feet high, 257 feet wide, and over 1,000 feet long These arches were then covered in tongue and groove boards, an area of 7.4 acres The massive reinforced concrete and wood doorframe was supported independently Each one cost around $2 and 1/2 million, the equivalent of around $30 million today The Richmond base was finished within a year, and operational within months Over the length of the war, the squadron logged over 100,000 hours of flying over nearly 8,000 missions Together, these barns and the men who served at them made a huge contribution to the US war effort When the war ended in 1945, demobilization began swiftly The blimps were deflated and removed from their bases Personnel were discharged But now, Eleanor wants to know what happened to the hangars She’s met up with historian Michael Hall He reveals that just two weeks after the Japanese surrendered in early September, 1945, there were warnings of a hurricane due to hit Miami Blimps, other aircraft, and vehicles needed to be placed under cover, and the hangar seemed the ideal place They knew the hurricane was coming What they did, they brought airplanes from military bases all around the area So they literally packed these three blimp hangars as tight as they could, not only with airplanes, but local citizens brought their cars, the various military bases around the area put all of their valuable items, you know, military trucks and this sort of thing in here So they were in there all filled with gasoline, so it was basically a disaster waiting to happen NARRATOR: 25 airships, around 350 airplanes, and 100 more road vehicles were stored across the three hangars The base had been built to withstand winds of 120 miles per hour But there was no defense against another hazard, fire ELEANOR HERMAN: Do they know how the fire started? Was it perhaps a lightning strike? There would have been maybe some sort of structural member in the roof that got dislodged from the wind, and it would have fallen to the floor And remember, the floor was full of all these– these airplanes and blimps, and everything was filled with gasoline It might have punctured a fuel tank, made a spark With the ferocity of the wind, as Hangar Number Three became engulfed in the fire, it spread to Hangar Number One and Two, which were side-by-side And that’s where we’re standing here, actually, on the floor of what was Hangar Number One It was a very short time all three hangars were engulfed in flames NARRATOR: The 50 sailors that were stationed on watch struggled to get out of the burning buildings 26 were injured One man lost his life By morning, only the concrete pillars of the hangars still stood It became so hot that it bubbled the moisture from the concrete below us You see here the bubbling of the concrete is actually where one of the airplanes stood, and that’s where the fires were the hardest because they were filled with this aviation gasoline NARRATOR: When the storm ended, Richmond’s hangars were reduced to ash Costing $30 million, it was the biggest peacetime loss of federal property on record Today, this door post is all that remains of a brief, but exciting period of aviation history The Richmond blimp barns are just one example of the scale of vision central to the airship story From the early days of Count von Zeppelin’s floating factories,

airships pushed the boundaries of technology The crash of the largest aircraft ever to fly, the Hindenburg, is still an iconic image And airships played a vital, but little known role in securing victory for the Allies in World War II Ultimately, these awesome vessels, despite the extraordinary innovations that went with them, were the losers in the transport revolution And yet, for a time, airships could have been the future of air travel

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