Alaska Life

For over a century, Alaska’s airship dreams have been dashed

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by Anchorage historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Aerial photographs of Fairbanks during the 1930s and 1940s include a curious detail. A perfect circle is clearly visible near the city’s first airport, Weeks Field. The ring was an airship landing field. It was also the last relic of a bygone era, a time when Alaska’s future seemed mixed with that of floating blimps and dirigibles. During the 1920s, promises and plans for airships in Alaska were rife, but they amounted to very little before leaving only the largely forgotten Fairbanks field in their wake.

Airships are self-propelled, steerable and lighter than air. They come in three varieties: nonrigid (i.e., blimps), semirigid and rigid (i.e., most dirigibles), differentiated from each other by the absence or presence of a supporting framework. Airships are distinct from hot air balloons, which are not self-propelled.

In late December 1920, the Harvey-Campbell Dirigible Aircraft Corp. of Spokane, Washington, announced an airship passenger service between Portland, Spokane, Seattle and Juneau. Their first flight was planned for the summer of 1921, with trips between Seattle and Juneau expected to take 16 hours.

Naturally, Alaskans were thrilled by the futuristic proposal. Though the details were scant, the news spread to every newspaper in the territory. The summer of 1921 passed without progress, but hope remained high.

By 1923, the corporation had morphed into the Alaska and Northwest Dirigible Co. based in Seattle. O.A. Campbell was the face of both companies. That year, he toured Alaska, promoting the project and selling shares.

During an October presentation in Anchorage, Campbell declared, “Just as certainly as tomorrow is Tuesday, we expect to have a first-class passenger carrying dirigible balloon on the Seattle-Juneau route next year and if the venture is successful — and we have every reason to believe it will be — we will extend the service to southwestern Alaska and the interior.” Ticket prices for the Seattle to Juneau run would be $50, about $800 today after accounting for inflation.

As late as 1924, Campbell promised eight to 10 Italian-made dirigibles sailing between Washington and Alaska. By the next year, several Anchorage investors had lost faith in the project and publicly offered their shares for 10 cents on the dollar. And by 1928 at the latest, that particular dream was dead when the corporation failed to renew its Alaska license.

The U.S. Navy made more progress with airships, having commissioned several blimps and dirigibles, including two dirigible aircraft carriers. The Navy’s first dirigible was the USS Shenandoah, which made its maiden voyage on Sept. 4, 1923.

The Shenandoah’s first major mission was meant to be a polar expedition in the summer of 1924. Plans included establishing a weather station and a 160-foot-tall mooring post at Nome that would serve as the jumping-off point for the expedition proper. The itinerary called for a zigzag path across northern Alaska followed by a straight shot over the North Pole to the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. From there, the airship would visit England before returning to America.

As an American expedition, there was, of course, some hope of discovering signs of oil deposits. However, other scientific and strategic interests were paramount. For example, the Navy wanted to ascertain whether there was land between the northern coasts of Alaska and the pole.

By January 1924, the mast had been built and placed aboard a naval oiler at California’s Mare Island Naval Shipyard. On Feb. 14, an advance party arrived in Seattle. On Feb. 16, they were due to leave for Alaska and oversee the construction of the Nome station. However, on Feb. 15, President Calvin Coolidge suspended the polar expedition, influenced by congressional complaints about the $350,000 cost (about $5.7 million today). The advance party, and later the expedition itself, were canceled. Later that year, the Shenandoah did travel from New Jersey to California to Washington, the first transcontinental flight by a rigid airship.

In 1926, the Italian-built semirigid airship Norge actually made it to Alaska, though it left the territory decidedly worse than it entered. The airship also included a relatively unique design feature. A hollow keel ran from nose to tail beneath the familiar elongated spheroid shape.

The Norge party included famous polar explorers Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth. The designer, Umberto Nobile, piloted the ship and was accompanied by his dog, Titina. While Titina hated flying, she took part in several hundred flights. Nobile later said, “She did not at all like to fly, but she would not allow me to go flying without her. So, when I was going on board of the airship, she jumped also. She stayed there a long time just sleeping, yes, but she was very glad when we arrived.”

After several delays, the Norge took off from Spitsbergen on May 11, 1926. On May 12, the airship reached the North Pole, the first aircraft to fly over the pole. Representing the mixed funding and crew of the Norge, they dropped American, Italian and Norwegian flags onto the ice. Amundsen, by then thoroughly disenchanted with the pilot, scornfully noted that Nobile had packed an Italian flag larger than the others.

The expedition hoped to land at Nome. Landing is one of the most perilous aspects of airship flight. So, Nobile had informed local officials in advance, and they had prepared cables, anchors and a crowd of men ready to assist the landing. But storms and fog forced their hand, and on May 14, they landed at the village of Teller, roughly 70 miles from Nome. Said Nobile, “We were lucky. ... We made a very excellent landing with practically no help from the ground.”

Ice thrown upward by the propellors had damaged the Norge in many places by the time it set down in Teller. With the primary goal achieved, the decision was made to dismantle the airship on the spot. A freighter hauled it to Seattle, where opportunistic souvenir hunters stole large swaths of the expensive silk that covered the wings and rudders. It was later returned to Italy. Meanwhile, in Anchorage, a conveniently named bakery advertised, “You don’t need a dirigible to reach Gust Rudelbach’s North Pole Bakery.”

The German LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin was one of the more successful airships of this era. The dirigible, not an airplane, was the first to offer commercial transatlantic flights. In 1929, the Arctic International Society for the Exploration of the Arctic Regions contracted the Graf Zeppelin for a polar expedition planned for the following year. As with the proposed Shenandoah expedition, the project required an advance base in Alaska. Nome and Fairbanks were the frontrunners.

Fairbanks lawyer Thomas Marquam negotiated the details in Washington, D.C. In August 1929, he wrote home, “Be positively assured Fairbanks will be the Graf Zeppelin’s base provided Fairbanks prepares a suitable field. ... The flight means publicity for Alaska and freight over the railroad approximating 500 tons this year and a slight less amount each of the two following years.”

On Sept. 11, 1929, the Fairbanks Commercial Club, a chamber of commerce equivalent, voted to buy 60.5 acres of land adjoining the airport at $25 (roughly $400 today) an acre. The land was valued at twice that, but the owner, Paul Rickart, agreed to discount the price as his contribution to the project. Industrialist Austin “Cap” Lathrop covered the initial outlay with the intention that continued fundraising would recoup most, if not all, of the cost.

In a rush to beat winter, work began the next day to clear the airship airport area. The field was surveyed and cleared by late October, aided by continuing warm weather. The first concrete for the anchors and mast was poured on Oct. 24. The mast itself, which had to support a 15-ton pull, had not yet been obtained.

The sad news came in late December. Due to an inability to obtain insurance for the dirigible, the 1930 expedition was canceled. By then, the field was essentially complete, apart from the mast and some minor work around the metaphorical edges. The Graf Zeppelin never visited Alaska, and the Fairbanks airship field was never used as intended.

The Graf Zeppelin signaled the end of airship dreams in Alaska. In the 1930s, government, commercial and public support for airships declined for several reasons, including a number of bloody disasters. The 1937 Hindenburg explosion, which killed 36 people, achieved a popular infamy, but it was not the deadliest such accident. In 1923, the French Dixmude exploded over the Mediterranean Sea, killing the entire 50-man crew. In 1930, the British R101 crashed during a storm with 48 fatalities. In 1933, the USS Akron crashed off the coast of New Jersey with 73 fatalities.

The USS Shenandoah, which could have visited Alaska in 1924, was torn apart by a storm in 1925 and crashed in Ohio. Fourteen members of the crew were killed. While the bodies of the dead lay on the ground, locals looted the wreck for souvenirs and anything of value. The farmer who owned the property began charging admission to visit the site.

Dirigible passenger services are far from the craziest ideas proposed for Alaska. Mathematician Charles Steinmetz once suggested warming the Alaska climate by bombing the Seward Peninsula out of existence and thus widening the Bering Strait. But some ideas never seem to die. In 2016, the British company Straightline Aviation, partnered with an Anchorage logistics firm, announced plans to bring airship service to Alaska. The airship was to be completed in 2019. We are still waiting.

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Key sources:

“Air Service to Start in Summer Seattle-Juneau.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 28, 1920, 1.

Amundsen, Roald. My Life as an Explorer. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1927.

“Coolidge Suspends Plans for Arctic Trip of Dirigible.” Anchorage Daily Times, February 16, 1924, 1.

DeMarban, Alex. “Lockheed Martin’s First Cargo Airship is Planned for Deployment in Alaska.” Anchorage Daily News, September 8, 2016.

“Field Purchased for Big Airship; Start Work Soon.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, September 2, 1929, 1.

Nobile, Umberto. Interview by Kenneth Leish, 1960. Columbia University, Center for Oral History.

“Oiler Ramapo Equipped for Relief Duty.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 18, 1924, 1.

“Polar Flight Cancelled.” Petersburg Press, December 27, 1929, 1.

Potter, Robert D. “Blasting Bering Strait to Make an Arctic Eden.” American Weekly, December 22, 1940, 4.

“Power Driven Blimps to be on Alaska Run.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 29, 1923, 8.

“Pouring Concrete at Airship Field.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, October 24, 1929, 1.

“Secretary of Navy Pleads for Authority to Dispatch Shenandoah to North Pole.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 21, 1924, 1.

“Zeppelin Base Assured Here, Says Marquam.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, August 7, 1929, 1.

“Zeppelin May Stop Here on Arctic Cruise.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, May 8, 1929, 1.

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