Saturday, April 30, 2011

Looking Up: Rare Airship Photo Captures Wonder Of Early Aviation

This 90-year-old photo shows the U.S. Navy's ill-fated H-1 blimp passing over the boardwalk at Far Rockaway, N.Y., during a brief series of test flights in the summer of 1921.

The picture was taken by my great grandfather, Leon Goldberg, a lifelong photo enthusiast. My grandmother and I discovered it in a long-overlooked family album earlier this afternoon.

The original image is small -- 3 inches by 3 and 3/4 inches. So the people in the foreground didn't catch my eye until I scanned and enlarged the photo. Absolutely everyone is looking up at the airship -- many shielding their eyes from the sun, some waving. A half-dozen boys are standing on the rails of the boardwalk for a better look. One almost looks like he's reaching up to the passing craft and its three-person crew. But I especially love the pair to those kids' right: the woman in the hat and a long dress, holding the hand of a well-dressed little boy. I imagine looks of quiet amazement on their proper faces.

The wonder my great grandfather's photo captured reminded me once again how far aviation has advanced in just 90s years -- one lifetime. My grandmother was born just six years after her dad snapped this picture. Now she watches space shuttles rocket into orbit from her kitchen window in Vero Beach, 80 miles away from the Kennedy Space Center.

But the H-1 blimp's test flights were not such a high point in aviation's history. The airship's final journey must have attracted a wide range of bewildered looks -- and explains why there are so few pictures of this short-lived aircraft.

The H-1 was the Navy's smallest blimp at the time. An official Navy history says the craft was built by Goodyear and arrived by rail at Naval Air Station Rockaway in Queens in May 1921. "Various trial flights were conducted" that summer -- until. . .
"On August 5, 1921, a malfunction in the engine caused her to come down. The landing was especially hard and the car tipped overthrowing the crew out. With the H-1 lighter, minus her crew, she ascended again and flew off on her own, making a gentle landing in a pasture near Scarsdale, N.Y."
The New York Times account of the H-1's unpiloted escape appeared on the front page of the Aug. 6 edition:
The Times described the airship's rapid ascent as it passed high over Queens and Brooklyn and then recounted a three-hour chase that involved trucks and a seaplane before ending 50 miles away:

"A good part of the population of Scarsdale, attracted by the sight of the balloon cavorting mysteriously over their city, raced after it as they saw it suddenly begin a graceful descent. After narrowly missing a church steeple and a couple of flagpoles in its descent, the H-1 finally settled down to earth without a jar."
The crowd at Crane farm "captured the unruly aircraft" and tethered it to a tree, the Times reported. And "air officers who examined the blimp said that it was intact and ready to be used again."

But there was no happy ending for the troublesome blimp. The Navy's history offered this epilogue:
"A farmer found the airship and tied her to a tree. Unfamiliar with LTA [lighter than air] vehicles, he used the cord attached to the airship's rip panel for securing the airship. During the night, the wind caused a strain sufficient to pull open the rip panel and deflate the H-1. The airship was recovered and returned to the hangar at NAS Rockaway where, on August 31, 1921, she was destroyed in a fire."

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