Monday, May 07, 2012

Remember the Akron

I forgot about the 75th anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster, which was yesterday, but today's close enough. So I poked around a little because it's easy to find film and audio and a lot of reading about the disaster on line, such as on this page about the history of WLS, where Herb Morrison worked when he made the famed recording describing the explosion and fire as he saw it. The lesson here? Besides not to load your airship with hydrogen, that is. If you want your disaster remembered, point cameras at it.

The point is driven home by the loss of the U.S. Navy airship Akron in 1933. More people died in that disaster than the Hindenburg. Though it was a helium ship, bad weather took it down off the coast of New Jersey (and what is it with New Jersey and airships?). Still, who's heard of that accident anymore? Of course, the Akron was major news at the time, but left no dramatic images. Even the song about it, I think, is lackluster, but things might have been different had Jimmie Rodgers or Woody Gutherie written a song about the Akron, though Rodgers was nearly dead himself by then.

Speaking of helium, years ago I read that the Germans couldn't make enough of it to raise a ship like Hindenburg, so they used hydrogen and tried with German thoroughness to control any possible sources of ignition. In hindsight, not thorough enough. According to this always interesting site devoted to National Historic Chemical Landmarks, the virtual U.S. monopoly on helium also had its advantages in wartime a few years later.

"Large-scale production of helium came too late to be of much value in World War I, but it did play a major role in World War II, when helium-filled U.S. Navy patrol blimps safely escorted thousands of ships carrying troops and supplies," the American Chemical Society says (and they ought to know). "The blimps used sensitive listening devices that when lowered into the water could detect submarines up to five miles away. At the time, the Allies had a virtual monopoly on helium, because the only known gas wells capable of producing helium in large quantities were in the United States and Canada."

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