Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Empire State, Airships, and That World of Tomorrow

The NY Times ran this piece by Edward Rothstein about a history exhibit on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building.

This post is to add background to a line in the article:  "The walkway circles around the building’s narrow spire, which, in 1930, was envisioned as a mooring mast for dirigibles; as it turned out, only King Kong ever reliably used it for support."

Airships did stop by, but never for a passenger operation. The longest visit, by Goodyear's Enterprise, was a very brief publicity stunt. And it didn't look like this:
That was an artist's paste-up, done for the mooring mast's publicity campaign. For those curious about our early romance with gasbags and rooftops, here's an excerpt from my article "Hindenpunk," printed in the Winter 2010 issue of Invention&Technology magazine:

"How close did real airships actually come to shuttling passengers from building to building? In 1903 the Brazilian flier Alberto Santos-Dumont used his compact, gasoline-powered airship La Baladeuse to commute between Paris and the suburbs, trying it off to iron balconies while visiting. Airships dropped off passengers atop roofs in Akron and Cleveland. In 1929 an Army blimp rushed Sen. Hiram Bingham from an army base in Virginia to the steps of the Capitol, when he was was short of time. A Navy airship once sidled up to the National Bank of Tulsa's skyscraper. But none of these one-off events would muster even a footnote had the Empire State come through.

Talk of the Empire State's mast – what mastermind John J. Raskob called its hat – first appeared in the newspapers on December 11, 1929, following a press conference by ex-governor Alfred E. Smith. Citing the imminence of transoceanic airship routes, Smith said the mast and its speedy elevators would allow disembarking passengers to step onto Fifth Avenue just seven minutes after the airship made landfall. He didn't need to add that the mast's main job was to steal attention from the rival Chrysler Building. Better yet, it rode into a wave of international enthusiasm raised by Graf Zeppelin's round-the-world voyage.

Though the mast's extra cost (somewhere north of $100,000) was never offset by a dime in passenger fees, it yield a PR bonanza in “world's highest” stories. Luminaries including Ogden Nash, James Thurber, and Lewis Mumford wrote about it. Whenever interest flagged, publicists Amy Vanderbilt and Josef Israels drummed another airship event, each time snarling midtown traffic for hours. That included bringing airships to buzz the mast for newsreel cameras, luring the Goodyear blimp Enterprise over for a three-minute visit, and the inexplicable delivery by airship of a bundle of old newspapers from the roof of the New York Journal-American Building.

But no dirigible captain staked his life and career on a meeting with the mast. Readers may recall a visually striking motion picture released in 2004, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. In the opening scene, the dirigible Hindenburg III pulls up to the Empire State's pinnacle on a snowy night. A man standing on the building's parapet catches a rope from the craft and holds tight while the airship drops a boarding ramp from the nose to the balcony. Seem reasonable? That's how motor boats and fishing skiffs pull up at a dock. 

But a speedboat isn't 800 feet long and doesn't go on a rampage if untethered during gusty winds. Hugo Eckener, the greatest airship pilot of the age, laughed when a reporter asked about bringing his Graf Zeppelin to the Empire State. He noted that many spiky buildings nearby turbled the winds and said with Teutonic politeness that he would not proceed without “many, many experiments” beforehand.

The job of a mooring mast (one early model of which still exists, in Recife, Brazil) is to draw an airship nose first into a secure locking mechanism. Empire State planners based their designs chiefly on two masts. The first was a tall land-based structure at St. Hubert, Canada, erected for the visit of the airship R-100 in August 1930 (and never used again). Drawings of the Empire State's mast show a very similar mechanical connection between mast and airship. Hubert was a “high mast,” 210 feet tall, which held airships so far off the ground that passengers could only come and go through a nose-mounted gangway that linked to a circular railing near the top of the mast. The Empire State would have relied on the same gangway arrangement to get passengers out of the ship.

But bringing mast and airship together was going to be tricky in a downtown setting, for several reasons, one being that ground crews couldn't run around the streets of Manhattan, gathering lines dropped from airships a half mile up then feeding them into winches, in the way that crews could hustle across the grass at conventional dirigible stations. (Note to fantasy writers: don't forget the port and starboard yaw lines when mooring your dirigibles. Without yaw lines, a big airship will veer and surge when approaching a mast and, quite likely, crash into it.)

Since the mast on the Empire State was a quarter-mile high, an arriving airship would have to drop its three lines almost on the mooring crew's heads. This was the reason that the Navy recommended a look at the stern-mounted mast on the airship tender USS Patoka, a converted oil tanker.

The Patoka's crew came up with a streamlined mooring method in which arriving airships like the Los Angeles dragged a grappling hook across the ship's stern. This allowed the Patoka to connect its winches to the airship and avoided the need for sending out motor launches to retrieve lines from the water. A unique feature of the Patoka's mast was its two side-mounted “yaw booms,” each 100 feet long, making an inverted “T” when deployed. Engineers of the Empire State extended the wall columns at the top of the building for mounting these heavy booms. Had it carried through, the skyscraper would have taken on a distinctly nautical look.

Considering the architects' close attention to the workings of other masts, I'd say builders of the Empire State made more than a sham effort through 1931. But no experts came up with a way to control airships in such a wickedly drafty setting. In 1939, seven years after Manhattan got over its case of airship fever, The New Yorker commented that nobody in the building management even wanted to talk about it."

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