With the recent announcement that Southwest would begin service to two AirTran cities in Ohio, Akron-Canton and Dayton, on August 12, we will now be serving two of the most historically significant destinations in aviation (not to mention the birthplace of professional football in Canton). Of course, most people know that Dayton was the home of the Wright Brothers, who designed the world’s first successful aircraft. However, few may realize the aviation significance of Akron.
Akron has a ton of indirect aviation connections because most of the rubber companies headquartered there (B.F. Goodrich, Goodyear, Firestone, and General Tire) made (or make) airplane tires and other aircraft items. However, for the direct aviation connection, we first have to cross the Atlantic to Friedrichshafen, Germany. There, Count von Zeppelin began building rigid airships in 1899, and those early Zeppelins began carrying paying passengers in 1910, almost a decade before any airline with airplanes. His airships became feared strategic bombers during World War I, carrying out many bombing missions over England and Scotland and striking fear into the populace. A Zeppelin was very different than a common blimp: They were much larger and carry their gas bags inside a rigid framework of metal that was covered with treated cloth material. Bombs were carried inside the main framework of a World War 1 Zeppelin (above), and gun positions were installed all around the ship to protect the flammable hydrogen from attacking airplanes. These “lighter than air” bombers could remain aloft for over 30 hours, an amazing feat compared to the tiny biplanes of the time that measured flight duration in minutes.
After the war, the Allies wanted to put the Zeppelin Company out of business (the Count had died in 1917), but the US persuaded the other Allies to allow Zeppelin to build an airship as part of Germany's war reparations. This Zeppelin jointed the US Navy as the USS Los Angeles. It was a forerunner to the Graf Zeppelin, which was a commercial, passenger carrying airship operated by Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft (or DELAG), and it made the world’s first round the world, passenger flight in 1929. Starting in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the Graf Zeppelin made just three en route stops, Friedrichshafen, Tokyo, and Los Angeles. The Navy used the earlier Los Angeles as a test vehicle for the modern American-made airships, which would follow. And this is where Akron enters the story.
Goodyear formed a joint company with Zeppelin in 1923 called Goodyear-Zeppelin to build Zeppelins in the US. The building above is the Goodyear Airdock in Akron which is where the USS Akron and the USS Macon were constructed. The building is 1,175 feet long, 325 feet wide, and 211 feet high. With 365,000 square feet of unobstructed space floor space, it was the world’s largest building without interior supports when it was built. The photo above shows the Macon under construction, and you can see the interior framing. The fuel cells, crew quarters, and even the engines were contained inside this interior.
The Navy had planned to use the Akron and its sister ship the Macon as flying aircraft carriers, and the interior of the airship housed a airplane hangar that contained five fighter planes used as scouts. The aircraft were lowered out the bottom of the airship and launched. After the mission, the airplane’s pilot would use a hook on top of the airplane to latch onto a trapeze lowered from the airship. Once the plane was captured, it would then be raised into the airship. The photo above shows the process.
The Zeppelins were like no other flying object. The Akron and Macon were almost 800 feet long, the Hindenburg was slightly larger. By comparison, the 737-800 is only 129½ feet long, and the current Goodyear blimps are only 192 feet long. This size allowed the Hindenburg and the earlier Graf Zeppelin to carry passengers in unprecedented luxury. Above, we see the Hindenburg’s dining room, and it even carried a grand piano. Incidentally, the American airships used nonflammable helium for lift. At the time, the world’s only helium reserves were near Amarillo, Texas (another Southwest tie-in), and it was considered a strategic material. The US refused to export helium to Nazi Germany for the Hindenburg, and it was forced to use highly flammable hydrogen.
After the end of the Zeppelin era, Goodyear built hundreds of Navy blimps in the Akron facility along with some of their commercial blimps. During World War II, Navy blimps protected shipping off both the East and West Coasts. The Goodyear Airdock still stands in Akron (although it is closed to the public), and it is now owned by the Lockheed-Martin Company. Ironically, in 2011, Goodyear placed an order with the new Zeppelin Company for their new generation of smaller semi-rigid airships. These helium-filled Zeppelin NTs will replace the traditional Goodyear Blimps. (Hindenburg carried a little more than 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen; the NT only carries a little more than 300,000 cubic feet of helium.) Travelers to Akron probably never consider the role their city played in a form of aviation even older than the airplane, but for awhile in the early 1930s, it seemed that the Zeppelin was the way to go.