They Sailed the Skies: U.S. Navy Balloons and the Airship Program
They Sailed the Skies: U.S. Navy Balloons and the Airship Program, J. Gordon Vaeth, 2005, ISBN 1-59114-914-2, 156 pp.
This book is much more than it appears, especially since the author is a retired Lt.of the U.S. Naval Lighter-Than-Air Division and former head of the Naval Airship Museum. Lt. Vaeth’s story is almost as incredible as the gripping history he describes of the Navy’s balloon and airship programs as well as the almost forgotten Gordon Bennett International Balloon Races (which drew hundreds of thousands of race onlookers).
Vaeth’s telling of ballooning in the early 1900s is illuminating as well as surprising. Balloonists often found themselves in trouble, had to learn the subtle physics of flying balloons in the vertical to get the best wind direction, and often found themselves stranded in wildernesses after hundreds of miles of flight. Toilet paper shreds were used since variometers hadn’t been invented.
The Navy soon began experimenting with “blimps” (Vaeth tells how the name interestingly came to be) and airships. The description of what may have been the first parasitic aircraft is a great surprise to most with his insight of the O-ship C-1 carrying a Curtiss J-4 aloft. Also noted is the first use of helium which was in the C-7 blimp during December of 1921. Also the end of the Roma in February 1921 marking the Navy’s last use of hydrogen for airships.
Vaeth’s well of knowledge does not cease with airships as he relates the facts and context of the Navy’s airship disasters as well as the Hindenburg’s which occurred at a Naval Station Lakehurst. He notes significant though often neglected facts by other authors. One example is his observation is how the United States lacked duralumin manufacturing, making itself reliant on European production as a result—leading to an airship disaster. The most complete description of the fantastic Los Angeles nose stand—how it started through how it ended—is recalled in all of its amazing happenstance.
They Sailed the Skies has remembered people who should not be forgotten to history, as well. Joy Bright Little Hancock who lost not one but two husbands to U.S. Navy airship disasters, balloon jumpers, “Tex” Settle and “Doc” Wiley are examples.
The description of the Sparrowhawk hangar bays of the Akron and Macon states their five aircraft capacity and 75′ x 60′ dimensions in lively recollection as well as many of the succesful Sparrowhawk flights. The finding of President Roosevelt while 1600 miles out to sea was a spectacular success and, alone perhaps, demonstrated the capability of the airship as a strategic asset of the time—which winged aircraft could not hope to match.
The heyday of the blimp was World War II and Veath does not disappoint describing blimp missions throughout the Atlantic, Caribbean and Pacific from land bases as well as aircraft carriers. 200 blimps flew convoy escort and U-boat patrols along the Atlantic seaboard south to Brazil and east to Trinidad—all but forgotten except in They Sailed the Skies. Vaeth ends not with the Navy’s airship and balloon 45 year proud service record but with the Navy’s high altitude balloon program, Strato-Lab, which was eclipsed only by the flight of John Glenn in Freindship 7. This is the book to understand balloon as well as airship flying.
Understandably, though with a bit if regret, the days of “Up ship!” and “Let go!” are gone.
This is also the book to learn and recall the Gordon Bennett International Balloon Races. This is especially the book to recall, in detail and context, the distinguished Lighter-Than-Air service of the U.S. Navy.