Lighter-Than-Air

by Capt T C W Settle
Now senior airship officer in the Bureau of Aeronautics, Captain Settle graduated from the Naval Academy in 1918 and until 1922 served on destroyers in European and Asiatic waters. He was in the airship branch of the Navy until 1934, and was an observer on several voyages of the Graf Zeppelin. He was fhe Navy's inspector during the construction of the Macon and Akron.

Performance characteristics of Navy non-rigid airships gives them an advantage in protecting convoys and coastal shipping.

The non-rigid airship, commonly known as the blimp, is an effective member of the anti-submarine team in our coastal waters. The other members of the team are the several types of coastal surface craft, airplanes and the shore organizations which control the operations.

This is not a new role for these ships. In the last war they were used by all the major belligerents in European coastal waters and by us in American waters. The United States established airship stations on the French coast of the Bay of Biscay, on our continental coasts and in Panama. The British maintained an average of 56 blimps in service in home waters between June, 1917, and October, 1918. In that period their ships flew 60,000 ship-hours at sea, carrying out patrol and escort missions. Many submarines were sighted and either attacked by the airships or turned over to surface teammates for tracking by underwater sound equipment and attack. Many hostile mines were sighted, reported or destroyed.

The Germans, too, used their Parseval blimps similarly in the Baltic and in the Helgoland Bight. The French airship arm was active in the Bay of Biscay and in the Mediterranean, and the Italians used a few nonrigids and semirigids in their coastal waters. The American and British airship arms turned in perfect escort scores — no blimp-escorted convoy lost a vessel to enemy submarines.

But their good war record was not enough to save lighter-than-air craft in the disarmament decades after 1918. Airships all but became extinct. There was reason enough for this insofar as European waters were concerned, since the development of airplanes soon robbed the blimp of its utility in a "close-coupled" war on that continent. But why our country should have followed the European lead in this matter is inexplicable.

Soon after the present war broke upon us, we had submarines swarming along our Atlantic coast. And to oppose them we had practically no blimps, the anti-submarine weapon par excellence. We had only one airship base, Lakehurst, NJ, and a handful of personnel, many of these scattered throughout the Naval service.

Commencing early in 1942, strenuous measures were taken to obtain blimps for our sea frontier forces. Congress authorized 200, a part of which have been delivered and are in service. Bases along our coasts are under construction, and several have been completed. Our helium production plants and means of distributing it are in process of radical expansion. And the toughest problem of all, that of supplying competent crews to man the ships, has been tackled by expanding the training activities, and shortening and intensifying the courses. But the small nucleus of experienced airship personnel is being so diluted with new trainees that for months to come the general average of experience and competence of our crews will necessarily go down.

All phases of the airship program are retarded, moreover, by shortages of labor and critical materials in the industrial plants producing airships, base equipment, helium plants and tank cars.

To summarize, great effort has been expended in the past year to place blimps on the coastal "firing lines." Those which have been so placed have been of high value in the anti-submarine campaign. Nevertheless, it has been a slow process, from "scratch," and the type is capable of a far greater contribution to the war effort than it has been permitted to make to date.

The performance characteristics which make the blimp a valuable anti-submarine type are:

Obviously, nothing can now be published as to the technical details of anti-submarine patrolling and escorting, or the tactical doctrine in development of contacts and attack. Neither can the armament be described, nor the results of operations in terms of numbers of submarine sinkings. Suffice it to say that the Navy is now energetically pushing the airship program. During the new year we hope to obtain a reasonably adequate number of blimps in our coastal forces, manned by as competent personnel as the circumstances will permit.

Another type of lighter-than-air craft is being utilized by the major belligerents in this war, the "barrage balloon." Moored balloons have had a long history. Napoleon used them in the "world wars" of the turn of the 19th century for artillery and tactical observation. Count Zeppelin observed balloon operations while with the Federal Army of the Potomac in our Civil War. "Kite" balloons were used by all armies in the war of 1914-18; our battleships were provided with them for spotting gunfire. In this war, the airplane has supplanted this branch of lighter-than-air in its traditional role of getting an observer aloft. But constructed in smaller, non-man-carrying sizes, it has a new role; the barrage balloon is being utilized in large numbers by all belligerents, as anti-airplane "entanglements," in the defense of fortresses and other strategically important localities.

The press has carried stories of their employment in merchant ship convoys. A balloon barrage tends to keep attacking airplane formations at higher altitudes than they might otherwise maintain.

The largest type of Naval lighter-than-air craft now exists only on paper — the airship plane-carrier. The two prototype airships of this class were the Akron and the Macon, which were successfully operated for several years. Development of this class was given up when these vessels were lost, although the circumstances of their loss had little apparent bearing on their utility in Naval warfare.

This class of lighter-than-air craft is an "engineering descendent" of the German Zeppelin type, which had a long record of successful operation as merchant vessels, as well as naval reconnaissance craft in the last war.

The surface plane carrier has, of course, demonstrated its utility in this war. The proponents of the airship plane-carrier believe that several squadrons of them could also have been of enormous value to our Fleet commanders in the Naval campaigns to date.

The large cargo-carrying airship is also hypothetical at the moment. Airship men believe, however, that it would be useful if constructed in reasonable numbers, by mass production methods, to carry important cargoes over land and sea areas where surface transport is difficult and the use of airplanes is impracticable.

If necessary critical materials were made available, large airships of both the plane-carrying and cargo-carrying types could rapidly be produced. In the last war the Germans worked up to a production rate of two Zeppelin ships per month. With modern production methods, we should be able to equal this rate, after plant facilities are provided and the necessary engineering and design work are accomplished.

This article was originally published in the February, 1943, "US Naval Aviation At War" Special Issue of Flying including Industrial Aviation magazine, vol 32, no 2, pp 184, 266, 272.
The original article includes a thumbnail portrait of the author and 3 photos.
Photos are not credited, but the Special Issue photos were generally provided by the featured service.

Photo captions: