Airships played a valuable role in WWI, acting as bombers to surveillance craft. However, most countries had phased out their use of airships once the Great War ended as they were no longer needed in most aerial combat scenarios due to advancements in aircraft. In addition, the hydrogen which fueled many of these airships was quite dangerous.
The Hindenburg, a hydrogen-filled commercial airship, exploded in New Jersey in the late 1930s. This incident helped bring an end to an era, except in one country, the United States. All due to a monopoly on a certain gas
The hydrogen used to give airships lift was dangerously combustible, with the better alternative being inert gas helium. Unfortunately for most of the world, the United States had a near-monopoly on all of the world’s accessible helium. This allowed the U.S. to continue use of airships well past the age when the rest of the world retired theirs.
Growth in WWII
Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States found itself thrust into war with little to protect America’s coasts from the lurking threat of German U-boats (submarines).
Starting in the early 1940s, the United States Navy commissioned a fleet of K-class helium-filled blimps. These blimps were roughly 250 feet long and powered by Pratt & Whitney or Wright engines. They were also armed with one to two 50 caliber machine guns and four 350 pound depth charges.
In addition to weaponry, these airships were filled with various equipment such as radar and magnetic anomaly machines needed to detect submarines, their primary purpose.
The airships were quickly put to use guarding the coastline and conducting convoy escorts. The K-class airships had a range of nearly 2,000 miles and could stay aloft for almost 40 hours.
K-class airships patrolled millions of square miles hunting for submarines. Once a submarine was located the blimp would then radio in the location to a convoy of surface ships.
The Navy built huge wooden hangars to house these airships along the East and West coasts. Today, only a handful remain. One of the most notable is Hangar B in Tillamook, Oregon. Hangar B was built in 1943 to house eight blimps for anti-submarine patrol.
It is the largest free-standing, clear-span wooden structure in the world, covering more than seven acres. It’s over 1,000 feet long, 296 feet wide, and 15 stories high.
This hangar, along with many others, dotted across the country provided as bases for the Navy airship fleet.
While airships have now officially fallen out of favor, several of these large bases still remain as a testament to the efforts by thousands of men to help protect the nation.
Hangar B in Tillamook Oregon is one of the few remaining hangars and is now a museum open to the public.
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