On 10 October 1923, the rigid airship ZR-1 was christened the USS Shenandoah. It was the first aircraft to serve as a commissioned vessel in the United States Navy. A few weeks earlier, on 04 September 1923, the ZR-1 made its maiden flight and became the world’s first rigid airship to fly with helium rather than the more conventional, and more inflammable, hydrogen. It was also the first rigid airship to be built in the United States. Construction and operation of the USS Shenandoah was a valuable educational exercise for the United States in the technology of lighter than air craft, as the Navy had never used this sort of aircraft before. The new airship was initially designated the FA-1 (Fleet Airship Number One), but this was later changed to ZR-1.
USS SHENANDOAH Moored at Naval Air Station, Lakehurst NJ
The ZR-1 was constructed using drawings made of a WWI German Zeppelin, the L-49, as a guide. On 19 October 1917, the Germans launched one of their largest WWI raids against England. Eleven Zeppelins took part in the attack; however, five were forced down by severe weather on the return flight. One of these, the L-49, was captured intact after it made an emergency landing in France. Extensive studies and drawings of the airship were made by the French.
Several months later, the L-49 plans were personally delivered to the United States Navy in Washington, D.C. by LCDR Joseph "Swifty" Norfleet. At the time, Norfleet was a staff officer at the U. S. Navy Headquarters in Paris. These drawings served as a fabrication guide for America’s first rigid airship, the ZR-1. Subsequently, LCDR Norfleet became the ZR-1’s first navigator, serving until September 1924, a period of about 10 months.
Before the ZR-1 design program had progressed very far, it became apparent that some changes wore in order. The L-49 was not the most recent of Zeppelin designs, and it was found desirable to include some features found in the latest German airships existing at the end of the war. These design changes received final approval by the Secretary of the Navy in October 1921.
The Construction Manager, Commander Weyerbacher, had never built an airship before, however, his duties did not start immediately, so he had time to learn. One of his first steps was to tour the British and German airship industries to learn what he had to do, and how he might do it. On this trip he became acquainted with Anton Heinen, an airship captain employed by the Zeppelin Company, and later arranged for Heinen to come to Lakehurst to assist in the erection and outfitting of the ship. Also, from England, he obtained the services of several men who had worked on rigid airships for the British Admiralty.
All fabrication work was done at the Naval Aircraft Factory (NAF) in Philadelphia. During the early design period, the NAF was primarily engaged in building test girders designed by the staff in Washington, and learning how to work with aluminum. The latter was done in cooperation with the Aluminum Company of America, who provided most of the aluminum for the airship and did most of the early experimental work necessary to produce satisfactory material. The NAF also built mock-ups and test facilities as they were required.
When the Navy’s Lakehurst NJ facility was ready for occupancy, ZR-1 assembly operations were moved to that location. Girders for the first frame were received, assembled and, on 24 April 1922, the frame was hoisted into place. By the first of October more bays had been assembled, and on the twenty third of November the first gas cell was hoisted into place in the midship bay and inflated with air for a pressure test. On 01 January 1923 the structure was complete except for the bow and tail sections.. The tail was completed and installed by the first of April. Inflation began on 13 August, the outer cover was put into place and the general outfitting of the ship took place. On 20 August, with inflation complete and a full crew on board, the overhead lines were cut loose and ballast was dropped until the airship floated free of its shores. The ground crew then walked the ship over to the south side of the shed and docked it on cradles under the control oar and the rear power car. The U. S. Navy rigid airship ZR-1 had been launched!
On 04 September 1923, the ZR-1 made its maiden flight. About 15,000 people were reported to he present to witness the event, including the Chief of the recently formed Bureau of Aeronautics, Rear Admiral W. A. Moffett. During the weeks that followed the first flight, the ZR-1 made flights over New York, Philadelphia and Washington, generating a great deal of publicity. On the first of October, the airship began what might be termed its shakedown cruise, flying from Lakehurst to Saint Louis, with a brief stop at Scott Field, Illinois, to refuel. The International Aeronautical Congress and the National Air Races were in progress at Saint Louis, and the ZR-1 quickly became the star attraction. But the star shone briefly, for after a hurried breakfast, and brief period for interviews, the airship took off again, having spent only two hours on the ground. The return trip was made by way of Chicago, and was significant in that Admiral Moffett came on board at Saint Louis for passage to Lakehurst.
On 10 October 1923, the airship ZR-1 was christened the USS Shenandoah, an Indian name meaning "Daughter of the Stars", by Mrs. Edwin H. Denby, wife of the Secretary of the Navy. Following the ceremony, the christening party was taken on a brief flight over the air station. Appropriately, the next flight was a trip over the Shenandoah Valley.
In all, the SHENANDOAH was in service for a period of almost two years. During this time, many technical problems were encountered and, on 16 January 1924, the SHENANDOAH was damaged at its mooring by a severe gale. Repairs were made and the airship went back into service on 22 May 1924. Several successful flights were made thereafter. Unfortunately, on 03 September 1925, the airship crashed. The SHENANDOAH was totally destroyed and 14 of its crew died, including its commander, LCDR Zachary Lansdowne.
[Most of the above narrative was prepared from information contained in the monograph entitled USS SHENANDOAH, published 1968, by C. L. Keller.]