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When Giants Ruled the Sky

5 July 2022

When Giants Ruled the Sky: the Brief Reign and Tragic Demise of the American Rigid Airship, John J. Geoghegan, 2021, ISBN 978 0 7509 8783 7, 436 pp.

USS Los Angeles, USS Shenandoah, USS Akron and the USS Macon were the giant airships flown by the U.S. Navy back in the day—but, surprisingly, that is not the why of this book’s title. No, Geoghegan is clever, a bit sarcastic and has a wonderful depth of knowledge regarding the history of the American rigid airship, so his title is a subtle double entendre. His title reflects the four main persons who affected America’s airship history. To be sure, Geoghegan informs the reader of these airships, as well as others, but also brings the human facet of this history to the forefront. When Giants Ruled the Sky tells of the dedication and the lives of Rear Admiral William Moffett, Paul Litchfield, Dr. Karl Arnstein and Lt Cdr Herbert Wiley to the Navy’s lighter-than-air aviation development. Naturally, dozens more people are mentioned such as other service members, family members and politicians. 

Throughout this book’s 374 pages of text there is excitement, drama, tragedy and revelation. In other words—history. I quickly found myself making time between errands as well as staying up late to read just a bit more of When Giants Ruled the Sky before my day ended. Soon this book was highly difficult to put down though always easy to read. Geoghegan has a talent for explaining the complex as well as laying bare the humanity of this era. And what an era it was! The author shows it was the day’s “Moon Shot” with three countries as major players instrumental in rigid airship designing (Germany, Great Britain and the USA) with other countries closely following (Italy, Japan and France).

But why? Why did so many countries, and at least two enterprises, invest so much capital and engineering expertise? As the author expertly shows it was the potential of the technology in the early aviation days when airplanes crashes were reported almost daily. Compared to ocean liners, airships were over four times faster. Compared to airplanes, cars and trains of the day airships were much safer and substantially more reliable. Admiral Moffett in particular saw that an airship, with its days of flying endurance, could scout tens of thousands of miles of ocean in a single mission and do it less expensively than a navy cruiser while being much quicker about it. The author notes that at the time the cost to build the USS Macon was $4,000,000 as compared to a light cruiser’s (6 or 8 x 6-inch caliber guns) cost to build of $20,000,000. Admiral Moffett, an ardent supporter as well as father of aviation in the U.S. Navy, thought large rigid airships could not only replace some light cruisers economically but provide a much earlier warning against an attack from Japan. At the time the Macon could transit the United States in slightly over two days while the day’s airliners required nine legs with at least two overnight stays. More impressively to the civilian market, German commercial airships were routinely crossing the Atlantic Ocean in two days, beating the best of ocean liner times by nearly one week. Litchfield had his eye on this transoceanic market, especially the Pacific Ocean which had teasingly eluded scheduled airline service. These airships were truly a sight behold as well. The Macon was about half a football field longer than the battleship USS West Virginia (which was herself a bit over two football fields in length) but weighed 200 tons compared to the “Wee Vee’s” 33,000+ tons. Massive airships floating at ease and traveling gracefully captured the public’s awe (traffic would stop as these airships flew overhead and thousands would attend their landings) as Geoghegan vicariously has readers experience.

The drive of Moffett and Litchfield has to be read to be believed as they sought to bring the rigid airship to full maturity. Admiral Moffett for defense and Litchfield (CEO of Goodyear) to revolutionize—and capitalize on—ultra long distance travel travel. Litchfield headhunted Dr. Arnstein from the Zeppelin company to design airships for the Navy which would, hopefully, springboard into commercial sales of passenger revenue collecting large airships. Geoghegan brilliantly details why this was such a far reaching move by Litchfield with the good doctor’s engineering experience at Zeppelin, his development of the new (at the time) field of stress analysis for engineering structures as well as his ethics (especially for safety). The author also captures Lt Cdr Wiley’s life and contribution to the Navy’s airship program with incredible detail as well as empathy. Wiley experienced both the disastrous catastrophic crash of the Akron as well as saving over 90% of the Macon’s crew during its crash landing off the California coast.

Arnstein was the chief designer of the Akron as well as the Macon but all specifications as well as change orders had to be approved by the U.S. Navy which meant Cdr Garland Fulton. Though much less qualified as an engineer than Arnstein, Fulton seems to be a bad player in this epic era as the author describes using a paper trial of memos and messages as proof. Readers will learn of Arnstein’s a years long battle with Fulton to strengthen these airships—especially around the now infamous Frame 17.5—frames were numbered by the distance in meters from the stern they were positioned. The author’s description of Arnstein’s evolving girder geometry as well as the “deep ring” basic design is fascinating. Morbidly so, is Fulton’s continued bashing of Arnstein’s proposed design enhancements for safety to the later whitewashing of his own actions. Fulton’s naval career did not seem to suffer much, as Geoghegan also relates.

There were other players of course and they are not left out—addressed in less thorough but equally poignant detail. Cdr Rosendahl who managed to land the bow portion of the USS Shenandoah (flying it as a free balloon) and saving seven of the tweny-nine survivors after she was torn to pieces in a storm. Rear Admiral King who would later become the Navy’s second highest officer during World War II. There are many others but who especially should not go unmentioned is Radioman First Class Ernest Dailey. Dailey kept to his radio station telegraphing, even after the abandon ship order was given, the entire time the Macon was crashing (which took about twenty minutes) off the California coast. He kept transmitting their position to the fleet to better ensure rescue of the crew that fateful evening—and became one of the two killed in the crash, likely going down with the ship. Geoghegan has remembered these persons, and more, in all their service and humanity—and it is stirring. In fact, the author’s telling of the crashes of the Akron and the Macon is riveting for the exactingly constructed timelines as well as the actions of individual crew members.

Geoghegan has much insight and context of the times throughout his book and they are a joy to come across—like finding that dollar bill you had forgotten about in your pocket. For example, informative items such as learning of the miracle alloy back in the day of duralumin (age hardened aluminum alloy) or about the Navy’s metal clad airship, the ZMC-2, and its unique fabrication process. What is especially charming is how the day one of the Macon’s officers let his young daughter run along the Macon’s catwalks led to the discovery of the Macon’s decades lost wreck.

Both the Akron and the Macon were flying aircraft carriers (the world’s only flying aircraft carriers) which were famously complimented with the trapeze equipped Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawks—though it was Wiley who best employed them as scouts for the Macon and demonstrated the full potential of the scouting system. Wiley went rogue in one particularly spectacular mission when he cruised 1500 miles over the featureless Pacific Ocean to find the President’s convoy, which had departed Hawaii, and was sailing an unannounced course. In the days before radar this accomplishment was only a wild dream. Amazingly, find it he did, using the Macon and her Sparrowhawks to their best abilities. This did not endear him to the battleship gang who were the rulers in the Navy and they charged him with insubordination rather than recognize that Wiley had clearly shown a new paradigm. The level of detail and undressing Wiley experienced, which Geoghegan marvelously writes of, has the reader intuitively understand the underdog existence the lighter-than-air unit had in the big gun dominated U.S. Navy at the time. 

Geoghegan does not fail to describe details of flying Sparrowhawks from and to the Macon. As with the rest of When Giants Ruled the Sky the author relates information and understandings which are not seen elsewhere except in personal accounts or publications of specific distribution.  It is absolutely fascinating to learn how pilots mastered their “carrier landings” as well as developing skills returning to the Macon without radio navigation aids over the open ocean.

Obviously, this book is for those interested in aviation’s history, especially the Airship Era. Readers will not be disappointed or find themselves reading rehashed details or an endless delivery of dates and names—instead they will enjoy the rich tapestry of that history the author has put down in his book. Geoghegan’s research and writing or not to be missed as they are deep with the understanding of the engineering and events as well as the humanity of the individuals involved, along with their decisions. When Giants Ruled the Sky is also chock full of notes, citations, a detailed index as well as a listing of the dozens of pertinent people involved. 

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