Matthew B. Gilmore
By Matthew B. Gilmore
“Out of the dark Northeast, under dark clouds and through fog banks, the German-built dirigible ZR-3 poked her silvery nose into an area of blue and sunlight over the District just at 12:50 o’clock. . . .” Washington wasn’t under attack–ZR-3 had flown to Washington to be re-christened the Los Angeles and join the U.S. Naval air services. The first lady, Mrs. Coolidge, would have the honor of formally christening the airship. The ceremonies were simple by design: Mrs. Coolidge would pull a cord releasing “a fluttering crowd of white pigeons . . . [accompanied] by myriads of vari-colored toy balloons. This would be accompanied by a 21-gun salute and the band striking up the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’” Temporary stands and other seating was provided for Cabinet members, other government officials and guests at the Bolling Field landing spot. The Evening Star reported the christening events in its November 24th and 25th, 1925 issues.
“With the sun glistening against her-silver-colored body the world’s largest dirigible moved in Washington almost silently except for the purr of two of her five motors . . . a large white star with a red center stood out plainly forward of the cabin. Along her sleek side, plainly visible, were written U.S Navy. Aft was another big star and next to it were the words ‘Los Angeles.’”
The order of the ceremony deteriorated from there as ZR-3overshot the field twice. ZR-3 had flown from Germany across the Atlantic in four days (October 12 to 15). On arriving at Lakehurst, New Jersey and before departing for Washington, it was deflated, hydrogen gas removed and was re-inflated with (much safer, rarer, and vastly more expensive) helium. It was the use of helium which caused ZR-3 to handle much differently than previously.
The ceremony signaled the official turning over of the airship to its American crew. The German builder and commander of the ZR-3, Hugo Eckener left Lakehurst and arrived in Washington October 16, to deliver his report on the airship.
While today we rarely see airships, the sight would have been become familiar to Washingtonians of the day. Dirigibles and blimps had already been floating though the Washington area for nearly 20 years.
In 1908 the United States Army was engaged in the perpetual quest for better technology. In aviation, several new options were under consideration, some fairly tried and true, others innovative and experimental. In August of that year the Army set up avionics trials out at Fort Myer, with innovative heavier-than-air aeroplane technology competing with tried and true lighter-than-air airships. During the previous month a board had been appointed to oversee the trials of three competitors — Orville Wright’s flier, Cpt. Thomas Scott Baldwin’s dirigible, and Augustus M. Herring’s own heavier-than-air craft.
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