Anyone Can Fly a Blimp (Jul, 1931)

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Anyone Can Fly a Blimp

This first-hand account of a novice at the controls of an airship is so graphic and thrilling that you cannot fail to be delighted with it You will find it all the more interesting because, while airplanes have become commonplace, comparatively few have ridden these gas bags.


SMITHY stuck his head out of the port window. “Give us a weigh-off,” he shouted, raising his voice to get it past the roar of the two engines.

The ground crew, stepping back from the car, slackened all ropes. Instantly the Volunteer began to rise from the Goodyear air dock. And as suddenly all hands grabbed the ropes and the rail running around the bottom of the car.

Across the field came one of the more distant crew members, a canvas bag, heavy with sand, clutched in each hand. Through the starboard door he swung them onto the floor of the car.

“Now we’re in equilibrium,” Smithy explained. “With this wind (it was blowing eight miles an hour from the southwest) we can fly her off.” The blimp held steady, neither rising nor settling down on its lone air wheel. She had just enough positive buoyancy to help her up when the motors began to roar.

“Ready?” asked Smithy.


His gloved hand waved to the ground crew. Two of them ran in with the long ropes and coiled them in two-dump boxes near the nose of the car; four on the car shoved upward. The motors roared and up we shot, at an angle no pilot would be silly enough to try with an airplane.

Five degrees, ten, fifteen. I was fascinated. It had been thirteen years since I had been aloft in a blimp, the Navy’s old B-18, an open-cockpit hydrogen-filled ship. In the B-18 I had my first trip aloft. As I climbed into the cockpit one of the officers standing on the ground pointed to a rope that trailed down alongside the cockpit.

“Grab it and jump if anything happens,” he shouted.

On the top end of the rope was a parachute. Untrustworthy as it may have been, it was better to clutch the three- quarter-inch manila than to ride a burning hydrogen bag down. In these modern blimps, however, there is no fire hazard. Helium will not burn and for that property blimp owners pay $60 for each thousand cubic feet. It costs $4,500 to fill her with 76,000 cubic feet of helium, and nearly $100 a month to replace in the envelope the helium that seeps through the rubberized fabric.

Here we were, comfortable in upholstered chairs, looking out from an inclosed five-passenger cabin, suspended beneath a gas-filled bag that, barring some nearly-impossible accident that would tear a great hole in the top, would bring us to earth under any circumstances. No parachutes here—no need for them.

WERE the blimp to become disabled, the motors to stop, Smithy would merely free-balloon her down again on some level spot, deflate the bag if necessary, and wait for help. These blimp pilots, you see, must become pilots of free balloons before they’re trusted with one of the six in the Goodyear fleet.

Eleven hours in a free balloon, including night ballooning and solo, before they can begin to qualify as blimp pilots. The Volunteer and her five sister ships are nonrigid blimps, in reality balloons shaped to give them directibility and carrying motors to give them forward movement.

WHILE flying a blimp is much more simple than flying an airplane, these boys must fly them 200 hours before being turned loose with the public. But here I was, ready to learn how to pilot a blimp in one easy lesson. After a few jerks and near-stalls I did manage to keep her on an even keel. Therefore, in all logic, I may say I can fly a blimp.

As Smithy—Verner Smith, to be more formal—rolled the elevator wheel back and the tail controls caught, our nose rose and we climbed steeply out of the field and over the high tension wires that cross every block in an industrial district. From Long Beach, twenty miles away, a fog had rolled in earlier in the morning, but now the sun was showing in patches here and there.

We were glued to our seats. The engines, while not running as fast as motors turn to pull airplanes out of small fields, forced the blimp upward at a lively clip— possibly twenty-five miles an hour. I glanced at the altimeter—300 feet. How high are we going?”

As I shouted the question into Smithy’s ear the noise suddenly stopped. Instinctively I grabbed the window sill, looking over the side for a landing place.

The Volunteer pitched gently back and forth. In a moment we were riding on an even keel. Smithy grinned. Then as the wind blew us gently toward downtown Los Angeles while the engines idled he told me of experiences with airplane pilots.

ONE day several months ago he took Ernie Smith—who, with Emory Bronte, flew across the Pacific—up for a “blimp hop” at Oakland. Smithy shoved the nose up and cut the gun when one hundred feet off the ground. Ernie took one glance at the instruments, then began looking for a landing place.

“Invariably,” Smithy explained, “people accustomed to airplanes expect the blimp to nose down and spin when the engines are idled. But you can’t spin one of these ducks. And you can’t loop-the-loop or stall them.”

HE PROCEEDED to show me. Backward the elevator wheel turned. Up climbed the green column of liquid that measures the angle of climb. Ten, twenty, thirty degrees—and the column hit top. An airplane, climbing at that sharp angle, would have fallen off on one wing and spun earthward. But the blimp merely continued to climb at the rate of 1,200 feet a minute, until Smithy throttled the engines and the ship leveled off in easy flight. “But,” I said, “if you nose dive this cigar and pull her up sharply, why can’t you come close to looping the loop?”

For reply he put the Volunteer in a steep dive; steep, that is, for a blimp. The controls lifted the tail just so far and no farther, for the weight of the car, hanging amidships, prevented the tail going higher. After sliding down a couple of hundred feet, he rolled the wheel back again and we swung forward like a big pendulum as she lumbered upward. Again the green column passed the thirty-degree mark, but we did not go on over. In fact, it’s impossible to turn these “flying cows” on their back. And therein lies one of their greatest factors of safety.

AFTER Smithy had throtled the engines down to idling speed he told me how so much strength has been built into these bags. It was interesting, especially because the bags keep their shape by the pressure of the gas. There are no cross members to strengthen them, as in the Graf Zeppelin and the giant blimps being built for the Navy.

“The Volunteer” he explained, “carries 96,000cubic feet of helium and air. In the bottom of the bag is a smaller, oval cell we call a balloonet. It contains about 20,000 cubic feet of air. When we go up into thinner air, the helium’s pressure rises. Then it presses against the balloonet and forces air out through a valve. In this way the pressure on the bag does not increase and we keep all our helium. One of the air scoops, which faces into the propeller blast, remains open to keep a little pressure in the balloonet, and when I come down for a landing I open the other. That increases pressure in the balloonet, which presses upward against the helium compartment and keeps the entire bag rounded out.

“Of course, when we’re flying fifty miles an hour, which is near our top speed, the bag would Jv.

collapse were it not for the twelve balsa wood braces that radiate from the nose backward. In fact, the bag does wrinkle a bit at the rear end of the braces when we’re flying fast.”

Except in the dive we did not move faster than thirty-six miles an hour, just cruising around so I could get the “feel” of the ship. We passed through little wisps of fog, driven away from the large fog bank by the mounting sun. It occurred to me we were sitting in a car that might rip off. I craned my head out and looked up at the bag. Apparently the car was merely glued on to the fabric.

Smithy laughed at my fears when I asked him about that.

“TF THIS car falls, the whole thing will 1 go boom,” he said. “The car hangs from sixteen steel cables passing from the top down through two sleeves in the bal-loonet. So we really are suspended from the top and not from the bottom of the blimp.

“And,” he added, “you needn’t worry about this bag leaking and plopping us down on one of these factories. There’s about a mile and a quarter of fabric in it, but these panels are put together in two thicknesses. The outer fabric, which resembles in weight and texture the cloth that goes into a fine broadcloth shirt, is impregnated with rubber, forced in under high pressure. The inner fabric, of the same material, is painted with a paraffin solution that will not crack. After the two are sewed together and the bag tailored, the outer surface is painted with aluminum.”

“Did you say the bag is tailored?”

“Yes, sir! These ships are tailored to order, custom made. We never have to stretch them into shape. When the panels are put together and the bag ‘blown up’ it looks just as it always will appear.”

The balloonet, Smithy explained, provides a cushion on which the helium rides. When the gas expands an enormous pressure is built up. It is then the balloonet flattens out as air passes out through an automatic eighteen-inch valve. When the blimp reaches its ceiling, about 9,000 feet, and ceases to climb the balloonet lies flat on the bottom of the bag.

Here’s how it works out practically. One day, early in the winter, when up about 1,500 feet Smithy stopped the engines to clean out a gas line. During that time the blimp settled about 100 feet. Naturally, as the helium contracted in volume, the bag lost its tautness and became flabby. Under those conditions a pilot cannot control the blimp’s elevation and direction. It was then sandbags proved their value. Overboard poured the sand from a single sack, and slowly the “rubber duck” rose until expanding gas filled out the bag again. Then Smithy started the engines and flew on. Had he attempted to fly with the bag flabby and in folds the sudden blast from the propellers might have torn the fabric.

FFORTUNATELY for the novice there are no involved controls in the blimps. You can kick hard left rudder or roll the wheel back sharply with hardly even a thrill resulting. Several times Smithy has turned into a wind while flying fifty miles an hour. The Volunteer would “skid” possibly three city blocks, to the enjoyment of her passengers, but the cabin would swing very little out from a vertical line.

After I had observed the operation of the ship for half an hour, I decided I could fly the thing.

” ‘Speed’ Holman was wise, too,” Smithy observed. Holman, who has flown every type airplane that boasts a landing gear, went up with him one day. Smithy offered him the controls as soon as they had ascended 200 feet. Holman declined, though, and waited twenty minutes while Smithy put the blimp through various maneuvers. When, at last, he took over the controls he flew the ship as though he had been flying blimps all his life.

“Any advice?” I asked.

“Just forget you ever were in an airplane,” Smithy said. “Don’t pick out some object on the horizon and try to fly the ship by that. Try to ‘feel’ the blimp for an even keel.”

That constituted my only verbal instructions. Smithy took his feet off the rudder pedals and removed his hand from the elevator wheel. He settled back in his seat to enjoy the scenery as it bobbed up and down and swung away from the blimp. Or was it the Volunteer that was doing the bobbing?

I glanced at the twenty instruments, gages, clocks, and whatnot, and decided they would be of no help. All I needed to do was to close my eyes, “feel” the ship riding on an even keel, and keep her headed south. Easy. Hardly had I taken the wheel when I felt a tremor that seemed to originate in the nose and slide down the bag to the cabin.

Smithy looked at me, grinning, and soon I understood. We had hit a bump, an up-current of air, and instead of riding through it as a fast plane would have done, the current took us by the nose and pointed the blimp upward at an angle of about fifteen degrees. I rolled the wheel forward to correct the movement, and in a trice we were sliding downgrade at the same angle. Then I understood.

In a blimp you anticipate movements from those slight tremors. You roll the wheel back to climb, and almost before the ship’s vertical angle is changed, you roll the flippers back into neutral again. You don’t need training to be a blimp pilot; you must be psychic. And after a few attempts I got it, roughly speaking.

Having conquered the up-thrusts and down-drafts, I put my mind to straightaway flight. Toward the southern limits of Los Angeles we flew. I glanced at the altimeter. Eleven hundred feet. Along we sailed. After a few minutes my glance again rose to the altimeter. Thirteen hundred feet.

“What’s wrong?” I asked Smithy.

“Common mistake for beginners,” he shouted. “Look at the rate of climb indicator.”

I had the nose of the ship pointed upward at an angle of five degrees.

“Everybody does that,” he said.

CONSCIOUSLY, then, I began to fly the ship at what seemed to be a slight angle of descent. I watched the rate of climb indicator and the altimeter closely and after waggling the wheel back and forth a few times finally achieved an even keel!

Having “mastered” this fundamental I decided it would be great sport to turn the blimp suddenly. In the B-i8, I recalled, when we turned suddenly into the wind while flying out over the Pacific, the gondola had swung far out to the side. Too far for the comfort of mind of a novice. But the Volunteer did not act so.

True, I was flying her only thirty-five miles an hour, but in airplanes when pilots with whom I have flown have “kicked her hayl over,” pressed the rudder pedal far forward, a violent maneuver has followed. In the blimp there was no “stick” to press over in the direction of the rudder movement, and soon after I had “kicked” left rudder, as the airplane boys have it, we turned gracefully, fairly slowly, skidded possibly 200 feet, and went on in the reverse direction. Nothing to it.

I continued at the controls for half an hour. I nosed the Volunteer up, nosed her down, turned left and right, and called it a day. Easy up to this point, but from my experience I realize that blimp pilots need to know much before taking out these $60,-000 bags and accepting responsibility for four passengers. They must be weather experts, free balloon pilots, blimp pilots, and they should have the experience of flying heavier-than-air machines as well. The last for comparison, at least.

PLANES and blimps are two entirely different kinds of birds. A heavier-than-air ship must achieve considerable forward speed, from fifty to sixty-five miles an hour, before it will be lifted off the ground. A blimp can go off without any forward speed. The rubber ducks are supposed to so balance the pull of gravity that the pointing of the nose up or down when moving forward will change the altitude.

Airplane pilots wait until one wing sinks lower than the other or the nose tilts upward before correcting the fault. Blimp pilots work ahead of the movements, by feel and a considerable amount of intuition. The car and engines on the Volunteer weigh a little more than a ton, enough to keep the bag always right side up. The center of buoyancy is directly above the car.

A vast difference between flying in an airplane 150 miles an hour and enjoying cool thirty-five-mile-an-hour breezes from a blimp. After I had finished my “lesson” Smithy took the controls again and we started in a circle south and east from the field, to swing into the wind and drop down over the wires for a landing. At 500 feet we ran into gusty currents. The Volunteer bobbed like a cork on a mill pond. Smithy reached for the second air scoop release. Pressure rose in the bag.

Like an airplane pilot coming in for a landing, Smithy nosed the duck down and slowed the motors. We swayed gently in cross currents. Three city blocks from the field he leveled off at 200 feet. Air speed thirty miles an hour, wind about ten miles an hour from the southwest. That made our ground speed twenty miles.

On the ground the crew of seven had arranged themselves in a big V, nose into the wind, with Walter Massic, the co-pilot, standing at the apex holding a wind sock. Our speed dropped to twenty-five, to twenty. We crossed the power lines. Smithy rolled the wheel forward. Down tilted the nose. Again he leveled off, the car possibly fifteen feet above the ground.

“Say when, Smithy.”

“Kick ’em!”

I kicked the plunger, the trapdoors opened, and the two nose handling lines that had been coiled ready to drop into eager hands fell from their places. The crew pulled us down and soon the car settled on the lone air wheel, ready for its great steel dock.

  1. Rick Auricchio says: April 9, 200810:20 am

    The Fuji blimp usually moors in the Oakland/San Francisco area. An acquaintance was able to arrange a birthday flight for his wife a couple years back. I forget whether they were allowed at the controls for a brief period.

  2. Michael Patrick says: April 9, 200810:51 am

    Anyone can Fly a Blimp–

    Well apparently Max Pruss couldn’t.

  3. Charlie says: April 9, 200811:01 am

    MP: Technically that was a Zeppelin.

  4. Alana says: April 13, 200810:35 am

    I WANNA FLY A BLIMP 😀 New goal for ALANA 😀

  5. Luis Clarkson says: October 13, 20109:36 am

    I need a contact with a blimp constructor for a Southamerica proyect.

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