Mark J. Price
They sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind. Brave pilots helped tame the skies for airship travel during the early 20th century, but the risks were as high as the thrills.
The Goodyear blimp Columbia lost a battle with nature 85 years ago in a spectacular wreck that was witnessed by thousands. There was nothing anybody could do. Not even the pilot.
Built in Akron in 1931, the silver airship was the latest addition to the Goodyear fleet, which included the blimps Defender, Mayflower, Reliance, Puritan and Vigilant. The Columbia was 141 feet long, boasted a gas capacity of 112,000 cubic feet, cost $65,000 to build (about $1.1 million today) and required a $6,000 supply of helium ($105,000 today).
“It will carry six passengers in addition to the pilot,” the Beacon Journal reported in 1931. “It is tastefully outfitted with brown leather chairs and upholstering and walnut woodwork in the cabin. It has a gasoline capacity of 100 gallons and a flying speed of 60 miles an hour and is equipped with two Warner Scarab motors of 110 horsepower each.”
The christening ceremony was scheduled for Tuesday, July 14, at the Goodyear-Zeppelin Airdock near Akron Municipal Airport. Two days before the celebration, an ominous event occurred.
A violent storm ripped sister ship Mayflower off its moorings at Kansas City Municipal Airport on July 12, 1931, slamming it into a hangar roof and tangling it in power lines. With its gas tanks leaking, the blimp ignited.
Two passengers leaped from the gondola to safety. Goodyear pilot Charles E. Brannigan, 35, was trapped in the cabin, though, and suffered serious burns. Co-pilot R.H. Hobensack braved the flames to free his companion, but Brannigan died July 17 of his injuries and was buried in Bowling Green, Ohio.
As Brannigan lay dying in a hospital, the Columbia was welcomed in Akron with a 200-piece band and a 200-voice chorus. At the christening, Gertrude Harpham, wife of Fred M. Harpham, vice president of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., broke a bottle of liquid air over the control cabin.
She was assisted by Rebecca Huber, Minnie Stewart, Elizabeth Crouse, Nina Williams and Elizabeth Noble, the wives of executives and chamber leaders. Pilots Karl Fickes and Arthur Cooper took the women on the inaugural flight over Akron.
“This occasion marks another step in the march of lighter-than-air development,” Lt. Frank McKee, Ohio director of aeronautics, told the crowd at the ceremony. “The faith which Akron has placed in this new industry will be justified.”
The Columbia left in August for New York, where it was based at Holmes Airport in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, N.Y. Goodyear ran a sightseeing service in which passengers paid $3 for 15-minute flights around New York City.
In a famous stunt, the blimp picked up a bundle of newspapers in September at the New York Evening Journal and delivered it to a man atop the new Empire State Building as a test to see if airships could anchor on the skyscraper’s mast.
Seven months after its debut, the Columbia met an untimely demise following three uneventful flights on the morning of Feb. 12, 1932, a day that began clear and calm until the wind kicked up at 10:30 a.m.
Pilot Prescott Dixon, 23, and Goodyear chief mechanic John Blair, 32, unexpectedly encountered gusts of 50 to 60 mph while trying to land at the Queens airport. Seeing a ground crew of only six, Blair scribbled a note, wrapped it around a wrench and dropped it to the ground. It was a request for more men.
The blimp circled Flushing Bay for an hour before running low on fuel and trying to land again as a ground crew of 20 men gathered. Sensing the ship was in distress, thousands of New Yorkers stopped what they were doing to watch.
About 50 feet up, the Columbia ran into an unexpected vertical current that smashed it into the ground, tearing off its landing gear and bending its propellers. As Dixon shut off the engines to avoid a fire, an unexpected updraft lifted the wrecked blimp and ripped it from the hands of the ground crew.
The pilot hoped to ditch the free-floating airship in the water after three hours of high winds.
“I thought that Flushing Bay was the best bet, and the wind was carrying us straight for it,” he later told a reporter. “We figured on coming down on the water, and hopping out of the gondola.”
But the wind swept the Columbia back over land, and Dixon decided to dump the helium before getting swept out to sea. He ordered Blair to pull the ripcord.
“That opens up a 25-foot gash in the top of the bag, and in any ordinary circumstances that would cause the ship to fold up and hit the ground,” Dixon later explained. “I saw him reach for it, but the wind was so strong that it held the bag in place and the gas did not come out immediately.”
The blimp shifted and Blair fell out of the cabin door, plunging 50 feet to his death as onlookers watched in horror. The Columbia then knocked two men off a warehouse roof, crashed into a gravel company and knocked down power lines before settling along the electric tracks of the Long Island Railroad about 1:30 p.m.
“Hundreds were now rushing up from all sides,” the New York Times reported. “Dixon could be seen peering out of the gondola windows. The gondola had perched at a teetering angle on a pile of rubbish, and pieces of the motor and of the bag were twisted around in such a way that he could not get out.”
Spectators dug through the debris and pulled the dazed pilot out of the wreckage. He and the men who fell from the warehouse were rushed to a hospital with minor injuries. Blair was pronounced dead on arrival.
Police guarded the blimp to make sure no one would take souvenirs. The envelope, motors, tail-fin assembly and gondola were shipped on flat cars to Akron as salvaging ended Feb. 15.
Goodyear sped up construction of its new blimp, Resolute, to replace the Columbia.
Osee State, the wife of Goodyear engineer William C. State, broke a flask of liquid air over the gondola at the christening in late April 1932.
Another brave pilot, the latest in a long line, prepared to fly the blimp to New York.
“It will leave tonight if conditions are favorable,” the Beacon Journal noted.
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.