Friday, January 12, 2007

The Last Zeppelinist

Joe Lust, the last American trained to operate and maintain a dirigible aircraft has died at age 94. Most experts agree that this brings an end to the Zeppelin Age, at least in the United States.

There was a time in the early 20th century when zeppelins were the rivals of fixed wing aircraft for mastery of the skies. Airships attacked London during the Great War and great gas lozenges gently floated across oceans with ease while airplanes struggled and too often crashed into the seas.

Compared to flimsy airplanes, zeppelins were the safe way to travel.

The handful of passengers journeyed through the air in an enclosure protruding from the underside of a colossal bag of explosive hydrogen gas held rigid within a metal skeleton.

Separated from the millions of cubic feet of inflammable gas, passengers were free to smoke and chefs prepared lavish meals with open flames in the kitchen. Crew members maintained the dozen of so internal combustion engines attached to the sides of the airship.

Even though a carelessly tossed match would have been enough to ignite the craft and doom all aboard in what would have been a detonation equal in splendor and magnificence to a nuclear explosion, restricting cigarette smoking seemed to be an overreaction to the danger. And in fact, while nearly all zeppelins succumbed to catastrophic accidents of one sort or another, none were destroyed by cigarettes.

Accounts written by zeppelin passengers describe sensations that few of today’s air travelers can imagine today. As they silently drifted over the landscape at low altitude, passengers could lean from the open windows and hear the barking of dogs and the mutterings of farmers below suddenly turning to terrified screams as the immense, and immensely volatile, gas bag eclipsed the sun and glided past in cataclysmic majesty on its way to Berlin or Rio de Janiero.

Zeppelins were the embodiment of modernism and to prove it, go to the top of the Empire State Building. The apex of the building was envisioned as a mooring mast for globe-girdling zeppelins.

The idea was that passengers would conveniently arrive in Midtown Manhattan and disembark from an open stairway in the nose of the airship. Pausing in the ferocious winds on the stairway between the small door opening into the cramped space at the top of the building and the vast airship swollen with highly explosive gas, (as I mentioned earlier), arriving passengers would be able to enjoy dizzying views of New York City 1,200 feet below.

An entirely acceptable level of risk at the time.

Mr. Lust must have felt on the cusp of a dazzling future when he began his education in zeppelin technology. The fact that he was recovering from an automobile accident on the day he was scheduled to ship off on the fatal final voyage of the USS Akron accounts, in part, for his longevity. The United States dirigible program collapsed shortly after (even though it relied on strategic reserves of helium rather than hydrogen gas) and in two more years, the catastrophic detonation of The Hindenburg (gaz) marked a suitably spectacular end to the dreams of those who saw the future of air travel as big, slow, and lighter than air.

With the death of Lust, the U.S. military now finds itself without any trained zeppelin professionals for the first time in nearly a century. This is a major setback for those at the Pentagon who envisioned a reconstituted zeppelin attack capability.

That it happened on Bush’s watch goes without saying.

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