Defense Media Network

A Very Short History of Postwar Military Airships

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When the U.S. Navy disbanded the last of its blimp fleet in 1962, it marked the end of the first era of military airships. It had lasted roughly half a century, and during the course of it, the airship had undergone as outrageous an evolution as is possible for a military system. They entered World War I as armed-to-the-teeth, bomb-dropping terror weapons. By the 1930s they had become enormous flying aircraft carriers. But in the face of competing technologies, neither proved viable. What were viable were blimps, which served solidly, if not spectacularly, throughout World War II as sub hunters, convoy escorts, and, more often than not, doing search and rescue. Finally, with the rise of the Cold War, they took on a wholly new mission: as unarmed, airborne radar pickets patrolling the vast expanses of ocean off America’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

An inspection of U.S. Navy airship personnel at Naval Air Station (NAS) Weeksville, N.C. ca. 1950. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

An inspection of U.S. Navy airship personnel at Naval Air Station (NAS) Weeksville, N.C. ca. 1950. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

Nobody can actually say exactly what motivated the Navy to get rid of its blimps. It wasn’t as if they weren’t performing their mission economically and well.  The final class of naval airship, the ‘N” class blimps, were massive craft. Their immense size allowed them to carry a suite of radars, including the AN/APS-70, a large, heavy, low-frequency radar capable of detecting distant flying objects through multiple layers of cloud clutter. The only other aircraft capable of carrying the APS-70 was the WV-2, a militarized version of the Lockheed Constellation. While the WV-2 could operate at a much higher altitude than a blimp could, the longest it could remain on station was for about ten hours, while the airship could, if necessary, stay out for ten days and at a fraction of the cost.

In the end, what did the naval airship in, probably, wasn’t anything actually more than a question of style. It was, after all, the Jet Age, a time when all the real money and the career advancement went with high-speed, high-performance aircraft. Airships were an embarrassment, a slow-moving throwback to the age of biplanes. The airshipman’s insignia, with only one wing instead of two, now seemed substandard. Worst yet, Navy blimps had acquired the nickname ‘poopy-bags,’ which pretty much ensured that no career-minded aviator would ever want to go near them.

A U.S. Navy "K" class blimp used for recruiting purposes flies over the airship hangar at Naval Air Station (NAS) Lakehurst, N.J., ca. 1955. As airships fell out of favor they became relegated to advertising duties. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

A U.S. Navy “K” class blimp used for recruiting purposes flies over the airship hangar at Naval Air Station (NAS) Lakehurst, N.J., ca. 1955. As airships fell out of favor they became relegated to advertising duties. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

Without a military mission, the airship spent the next fifty years in the margins, being mainly used as a platform for advertising and televising Sunday football games. It wasn’t that the military airship didn’t still have some serious proponents, but the Navy now treated them as nothing more than a bunch of eccentric cranks. Despite the fact that military airships had historically proven capabilities, the taint of poopy-bags was too strong.

The 1960s and 70s were a lost cause for the airship, but by the 1980s things were beginning to change. Two things were afoot that looked like they might bring back the military airship. The first was the “war on drugs.” Though it went back to the Nixon administration, its efforts mostly stayed on our own side of the border. But then President Ronald Reagan decided to take up the fight against the drug growers, but even more importantly, against those smuggling drugs up by sea and air. Suddenly Congress was appropriating billions of dollars for the Navy and Coast Guard to go after seaborne and airborne drug smugglers.

Key to waging this new kind of war would be surveillance aircraft to patrol the littoral regions using radar and other sensors, searching for drug-running aircraft, ships, boats, and even semi-submersible craft running just below the surface. For such an aircraft, speed would not be nearly as important as the ability to remain on station for long periods of time.

Among the congressional appropriators funding the drug war, there was now a small, but increasingly strident group of airship advocates who started inserting language into their appropriations bills asking the Navy to seriously examine how airships might be used in this war. The Navy ignored them. They already had the platforms they wanted. But with each passing year, the appropriations language grew stronger. Advice became requests, requests became instructions. But the Navy continued to dodge the bullet.

A U.S. Navy airship hovers over the carrier Leyte (CVS 32) for refueling, May 5, 1955. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

A U.S. Navy airship hovers over the carrier Leyte (CVS 32) for refueling, May 5, 1955. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

The problem, of course, was that the war on drugs wasn’t a real war. Being a war that could not be won, just waged, it became, as these things usually do, a multi-billion dollar kabuki show. If the Navy had to fight it, they would do it on their own terms and not by using the detested poopy-bag blimps.

Around the time the 1980s turned into the 1990s, Congress finally put its foot down and demanded the Navy actually build and test an airship. A contract went to Airship Industries, which started building its prototype Sentinel 1000 airship inside an old World War II blimp hangar at its facility outside Elizabeth City, N.C. Although the Sentinel 1000 was the largest airship in existence, it was, in fact, a smaller scale prototype of the much larger Sentinel 5000 series airship which they hoped to put into production for the Navy. By the summer of 1995, construction of the Sentinel 1000 was complete and it was being prepared for its first flight. But then a fire broke out in the hangar, destroying the Sentinel 1000 and two other blimps.

Years would pass before anybody brought up the idea of military airships again.

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Brendan McNally is a journalist and writer specializing in defense and aerospace. Brendan began his career...