Blimps Return To The War

by R G Picinich, Jr

Work of Naval lighter-than-air craft on submarine patrol presages renaissance of nearly-forgotten weapon.

The nearly forgotten blimp is staging a comeback, a comeback which has been largely unheralded. behind a veil of censorship.

The Battle of the Atlantic, brought within sight of our East Coast by Nazi submarines, has inaugurated a renaissance of lighter-than—air craft which advocates hope may prove what they, as a minority, have contended through years of struggle: that the airship has as much place in the air as has the airplane.

And from now on, lighter-than-air men say, blimps of the Navy Coastal Patrol will give a better account of themselves. Not that they haven't done a good job thus far, it's simply that not enough have been available. This was indicated when the House of Representatives boosted its Naval Affairs Committee recommendation for 72 airships to 200, and eliminated the words "non-rigid" so that the Navy might have authority to build rigid ships as well as blimps.

Since the first World War,blimps have been improved greatly in speed, carrying capacity and cruising radius. Nonflammable helium has replaced hydrogen gas. The 1918 wartime blimps were little more than pointed gas bags with airplane fuselages suspended below by long cables to keep gasoline sparks away from the hydrogen. The modern Navy blimp is sleek and streamlined, has space for radio and navigation departments, galley and sleeping quarters. It carries a crew of eight, can reach speeds of more than 76 mph, cruise for over 2,000 mi, and can base in the open on mooring masts for days or weeks at a time. Ships of the K type have a capacity of 416,000 cu ft of helium, nearly three times that of the average World War I type. A number of this class are now being delivered to the Navy for the coastal patrol.

There has been nothing developed since World War I to detract from the value of today's blimp. In the specialized field of inner coastal patrol and convoy, it can still take off in low-ceiling weather inoperable to other aircraft, it can fly slowly, or, if necessary, hover over a spot. Today's blimps can land on the water, anchor there — or take on fuel, supplies and personnel from a passing ship, in flight, and pick up water as ballast from the ocean.

In the present conflict the slower speed of the blimp gives it advantage over the swifter airplane in submarine and mine defense, and in the convoying of ships. Its speed can be throttled down to that of a convoy; its crew can see deep below the surface of the water — as far as 90 ft — and are better able to pick out the telltale oil smear or line of bubbles which indicate the presence of an undersea boat.

American blimps during the last war were based at shore stations at 150-mi intervals along the Atlantic Coast. They covered some 400,000 mi of patrol and on several occasions discovered suspicious barges and other craft along the steamship lanes into New York which were carrying mine paraphernalia. They also spent much of their time scouting for enemy submarines which were far fewer in number than in the present conflict.

Today's lighter-than-air patrols along the Atlantic Coast have ultramodern bases with both hangars and mooring masts, mobile and fixed. Their patrol area is generally the stretch of water lying within the so-called "100 fathom curve," that area Where coastal shipping is concentrated and where submarines might be expected to lurk.

The latest type airship destined for patrol use is constructed for duty in close cooperation with the fleet. The crew of eight — two pilots, radio men, riggers and mechanics — all act as observers. Upon sighting a U-boat the blimp can attack with depth bombs or machine gun fire. If the sub gets away destroyers can be summoned promptly to the location to aid in locating and destroying the undersea boat.

In another phase of the lighter-than-air field, official Washington now apparently takes the same view regarding the wartime usefulness of the rigid airship of the Macon and Akron type as do proponents who have been clamoring for the construction of such vehicles for some time.

The long cruising range of the Macon-type airship, despite the tragic history of such large, rigid craft, would be extremely useful for reconnaissance in the great distances of the South Atlantic and the Pacific, its adherents maintain. They further claim that the large dirigible can also be used as a flying aircraft carrier to transport as many as six small bombing planes to points near the scene of an attack. Other duties might be to carry large numbers of parachute troops, munitions and armament. The great range and speed of the rigid ship would enable it to operate in areas impossible to planes, and at speeds impossible to surface ships.

Indications are that some further action will be taken in the near future to build one or more of these dirigibles for adequate protection of our shipping in the vast ocean reaches. Meanwhile the blimps we have continue the grind of daily patrol, working with airplanes of the Army, Navy and CAP and the growing number of surface ships which are inevitably turning the tide against what has been one of the most effective offensive weapons in the sea, the U-boat.

This article was originally published in the October, 1942, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 41, no 10, pp 207, 306.
The original article includes 3 photos.
Photos are not credited.

Photo caption: