Lighter Than Air
EXPLORING THE LANDSCAPE OF HELIUM
THE LAND USE OF HELIUM may seem like a strange thing to consider, initially at least, because helium is invisible and is always trying to escape into space. Revealing the materiality of this immaterial element is a forensic process, as helium leaves its mark on the earth indirectly, through the industries of its extraction, processing, distribution, and consumption. Exploring the landscape of helium makes for a curious and revealing journey through the past century of American technology.
Helium is increasingly critical, and retrograde. It is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, but in usable form is a limited, non-renewable resource, extracted from natural gas. Helium gives rise to low tech, like blimps and party balloons, as well as high tech, like cryogenics, semiconductors, and nuclear bombs. Hoarded by the US government since the 1920s, the federal reserve has recently been sold off, and the industry of helium is now private, and global.
Helium has the atomic number 2, and is the second lightest chemical element, after hydrogen (atomic number 1). It is a noble gas, meaning it does not react chemically with other elements or compounds, making it useful as an inert gas in micro-electronics and vacuums (the original Declaration of Independence and Constitution are stored in a transparent helium-filled chamber.) Helium also has one of the lowest boiling points of any element, making it useful for cryogenics, and for chilling electronic imaging systems.
Helium was first discovered by astronomers making spectrographs during a solar eclipse in 1868, and is named after helios, the sun. It is the product of the nuclear fusion of hydrogen, which occurs on the sun (as well as in hydrogen bombs). Though helium is one of the most abundant chemicals in the universe, it is scarce in the atmosphere, as it is always escaping into space. The gas was not discovered on earth until 1895, when it was detected as a product of radioactive decay.
Terrestrial helium is a product of earth’s rot: the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium. For the most part, the gas remains stuck in the ground. In a struggle to rise above the heavier elements, following the path of least resistance within the ground, it joins other components of geologic rot, like the methane produced by the decay of carbon-based lifeforms (the primary component of natural gas). When we find sufficiently rich gas fields to tap, holes are drilled deep in the earth to let the gas out. In some of these fields, there is enough helium—even just three to five percent of the gas is enough—so that it, too, is captured, separated from the gas, and further refined.
Amarillo: The Helium Capital of the World
The Texas Panhandle town of Amarillo has been the helium capital of the world for nearly a century, when natural gas in the region was discovered to have helium in high enough concentration to be extracted, and the federal government started work on the Amarillo Helium Plant, the nation’s first major helium production operation.
The plant opened in 1929, following the Federal Helium Act of 1925, which authorized the Bureau of Mines to construct and operate helium purification facilities to supply Army and Navy blimps. It was the nation’s sole helium plant until 1943, when the government opened a few more during WWII. It was also the site of the Helium Research Center, which explored new uses and markets for helium over many decades. The plant has been unused since the 1990s, after the federal government ordered the privatization of the helium industry, and federal plants were shut down.
With the creation of the Federal Helium Reserve in 1962, a few miles north of town, Amarillo became the storehouse for just about all the usable helium in the world. The reserve is a former gas field, with 23 wells drilled into it, originally used to extract helium-rich gas occurring naturally in the field, until it was depleted. The reserve was established there to inject helium-rich gas, extracted and refined elsewhere, into the ground for storage and use by the government.
The refined helium gas, generally referred to as crude helium, is around 75% helium, and came from around a dozen gas plants and helium refineries located in the helium-rich gas fields between Amarillo and central Kansas, connected by the 425-mile-long Federal Helium Pipeline. Starting in 1963, 40 billion cubic feet of crude helium flowed through the pipe, filling the reserve.
Some of the plants along the pipeline also produced refined helium from the crude helium they made, or that was piped to them from gas plants. Refined helium, above 99.5% pure, is often compressed and chilled to the point where it becomes liquid, making its volume 750 times smaller. Whether in gas or liquid form, refined helium is transported to distribution points and end users in specialized tank containers, mostly on trucks, though sometimes by rail, and in ISO containers by ship overseas. Generally transporters have 40 days or less to get the helium to end users before too much of it escapes through the walls of metal tanks.
In 1996 the Helium Privatization Act mandated that the government begin selling off its plants and stockpile of helium, in order to pay the cost of constructing the system, but also because strategic military uses, like blimps and nuclear bombs, no longer required so much of the material to be held by the government.
Now the pipeline runs in reverse: the crude helium is extracted from the reservoir and purified at the now privately owned and operated helium processing plants located up the pipeline, with the last one 425 miles away, at Bushton, Kansas.
In 2004 the Bureau of Land Management, which took over the operations from the Bureau of Mines, opened the $30 million Crude Helium Enrichment Unit at the reserve, to purify the gas to a standard level of 78% helium, aiding the process of distribution to the private refineries up the pipeline.
The BLM held its last crude helium auction in August 2018. Now, as required by the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013, three billion cubic feet will remain in the stockpile for government use—as helium has, once again, been re-listed as a strategic material.
Another three billion cubic feet that remains in the reservoir (and in the pipeline itself), is now owned by private industrial gas companies like Praxair and Linde. Air Products Inc. bought all of the helium sold at the last auction (210 million cubic feet, for $58 million) and they, like the others, now pay the government a fee to store it there. Under current law, the BLM is supposed to sell the reserve, including the helium, wells, and the pipeline itself, to private companies, at auction, by 2021, getting completely out of the helium business. The government will remain a consumer of helium, for defense projects, rocket launches, fuels, and blimps, but will do so as a customer of the companies that already control the industry.
Private Helium Companies
The US government once controlled 95% of the helium production in the world. Now private companies processing helium in the USA, along with the BLM (for another year or two), produce around 40% of the helium produced globally, at less than 15 helium refineries in the country. Domestic production and distribution is dominated by three industrial gas companies, companies that also dominate internationally.
The German industrial gas company Linde operates one of the largest helium plants in the country in Otis, Kansas, on the Federal Helium Pipeline. The plant has been operating since 1965, and was the first liquid helium plant in the world. Linde just completed a $90 billion merger (in October 2018) with one of its competitors, Praxair, and the combined company, still called Linde, is now the world’s largest helium producer and supplier, as well as the largest industrial gas company, with approximately $27 billion in annual revenue. Praxair also operates two helium plants along the pipeline, one in Ulysses, Kansas, and the other at Bushton, Kansas, at the end of the Federal Helium Pipeline.
Air Products Inc. is the other major industrial gas company that refines and distributes helium produced in the USA. It operates two refineries on the helium pipeline, one in Liberal, Kansas, and another in Sherhan, Texas. Both produce Grade A helium, which is 99.99% pure, and is pressurized, liquefied, and trucked offsite in specialized helium tanker trucks, as is the case at the four Linde/Praxair helium plants on the pipeline. These five refineries, and two small independent operations, constitute all the refined helium produced along the Federal Helium Pipeline, at the moment.
There are other natural gas fields in the West with high concentrations of helium as well, especially in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. A few production plants have been established in these areas, especially in recent years, as the Federal Helium Reserve is being phased out, and the helium gas fields connected to it have become depleted.
These “off the pipeline” plants include the Doe Canyon Plant, a unique helium facility in the southwestern corner of Colorado, opened by Air Products in 2016. It was the first plant to produce helium from the carbon dioxide stream of the natural gas industry. Though small, the plant can produce up to 230,000 cubic feet of helium per day, and around 84 million cubic feet per year, about 1.4% of the global demand for helium, of around six billion cubic feet per year. And in southwestern Wyoming, ExxonMobil operates the largest single helium plant in the nation, part of its Shute Creek Gas Plant, in the Labarge Gas Field. The plant is capable of producing as much as 1.4 billion cubic feet per year of Grade A (99.99% pure) liquefied helium from natural gas collected and processed at the site. This is close to a quarter of the six billion cubic feet per year consumed in the world annually. The plant opens and closes based on production problems and market demands. It closed in 2011, but was back online in 2017.
Though 35-40% of the helium produced and consumed annually in the world comes from plants in the USA, helium is becoming a globally sourced material, with US production sharing the market with places like Algeria, Qatar, and Russia. Less than two percent of the helium escaping from gas wells is captured and processed, as it is too expensive to produce in small quantities. But with a few giant centralized gas processing plants being built and expanded (especially at Ras Lafan in Qatar, and Gazprom’s new plant in Amur, Russia, each of which may end up producing a third of the global demand in a few years), there will likely be enough helium to meet demand for a growing need for helium from high tech industries, at a cost the market can bear. Helium is an element that is here to stay. At least until it all has floated away.
Almost 40% of the two billion cubic feet per year of helium consumed in the USA is used for MRI machines, and other high tech imaging technology, where helium’s properties as a cooling gas and inert vacuum gas make it useful. It is also used to make fiber optics and semiconductors, and used in rocket fuel and nuclear bombs. Around 13% is used for welding gas, and breathing gas for deep sea divers, where it replaces nitrogen in the air, preventing narcosis (and making for high-pitched voices).
The use of helium as a lifting gas requires less refining, using gas that can be as little as 90% helium, which makes it less expensive to produce. The party balloon market in the USA, by far the largest user of helium as a lifting gas, consumes around 250 million cubic feet of helium, around 12% of the total helium consumed annually in the USA. That translates to around a billion balloons.
Though airships, including blimps and dirigibles, once consumed all the helium produced, and were the main reason for the government monopoly on helium production, airships now consume less than two percent of the helium produced in the USA. Their impact on the ground, however, and on our imagination, remains the largest part of the legacy of helium.
Airships have been around for centuries, as hot air balloons and later hydrogen blimps and dirigibles, but it was the use of helium that enabled airships to evolve into modern forms, with widespread use. Helium replaced explosive hydrogen in US airships in the mid 1920s, and the government took over its production, seeing the strategic importance for surveillance airships guarding ships at sea.
While rapidly developing helium production, the government also ramped up airship production, with most of the craft being built by Goodyear. After WWII, in the boom years of marketing and consumerism, Goodyear’s blimps became a unique and familiar brand. Now other companies make and market advertising blimps, though a similar number of blimps exist to hold radar on tethered aerostats—modern surveillance blimps guarding the nation’s southern perimeter.
Commercial and military airships in the USA have been produced primarily by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company of Ohio, and the Zeppelin Company of Germany, often as a partnership between the two, operating as the Goodyear-Zeppelin Company.
Goodyear Tire and Rubber was founded in Akron, Ohio in 1898, and became the largest rubber company in the world by 1926, after developing the tubeless tire, and supplying Ford’s Model T. Goodyear was an innovative marketer of its brand, and has used blimps for this purpose for nearly a century.
In 1916 Goodyear bought 720 acres in the countryside a few miles southeast of Akron, surrounding an artificial lake it renamed Wingfoot Lake, to reference the corporate logo, Mercury’s winged foot. This has been the company’s primary airship production and testing site for most of the last 100 years, and is, in a sense, the “Kitty Hawk” of lighter-than-air flight.
Goodyear started making blimps in 1910, though they were more like giant oblong rubber balloons, and were filled with hydrogen, not helium. The first series of airships ordered by the Navy, the B series, was made at Wingfoot Lake in 1917. Since then, Goodyear has erected around 350 airships over the past century, 239 of which were erected at Wingfoot Lake.
During WWI, the Navy took over Wingfoot Lake as its Naval Airship Training Station, while Goodyear produced more Navy airships, including the C series, which were deployed to coastal bases, like Rockaway Beach in New York City. By the time the war ended and the Navy left, Wingfoot Lake had 26 buildings.
Goodyear made the first commercially licensed and helium-filled airship in 1925, and began using blimps for promotional purposes. The conversion to helium, a much safer gas, increased production, in spite of its limited supply. Between the wars the company built dozens of blimps at Wingfoot, which grew in size from 86,000 cubic feet of helium, to 123,000 cubic feet. In 1930 it made its first blimp with an illuminated sign, which spelled out “Goodyear” in neon. In 1940 it flew blimps with megaphones that made live sonic “blimpcasts” to the crowds below.
Most of these blimps were transferred to the Navy either before, or during, WWII. During the war, more than 100 Navy airships were erected at Wingfoot. The hangar was extended to 800 feet, and many other buildings were constructed on the site.
By the mid-1950s, Wingfoot Lake had evolved into a diversified aviation and electromagnetic test site, and in 1962 was renamed Wingfoot Lake Test Operations. It tested helicopter armor, cryogenics systems, fuel tanks, underwater acoustics, amphibious aircraft, and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons, and with 17 ranges, was called the “most complete radar testing facility in the USA.”
Meanwhile, Goodyear’s blimps continued to grow, from 132,000 cubic feet in 1959, to 202,000 cubic feet in 1969, with the introduction of the GZ-20 series, which became the mainstay of the Goodyear fleet for nearly 50 years. Signage was expanded with the introduction of the “Super Skytacular” system, with 3,780 lighted pixels on either side. Goodyear blimps became broadcast television platforms starting with the Rose Bowl in 1955, and the blimp’s association with large scale sporting events was tactically promoted during the events themselves, as well as in films, including Black Sunday in 1977, where a terrorist uses a Goodyear Blimp to attack a stadium filled for the Superbowl.
Goodyear restructured its aerospace business in the 1960s, and opened a blimp assembly and maintenance station in Spring, Texas. Wingfoot Lake was put into caretaker status in 1972, and many of the buildings, including three of the four hangars, were torn down.
Government and defense work continued at the site, however, including the use of the remaining hangar by the Department of Energy to develop centrifuges for uranium enrichment. Other electromagnetic test structures, including the Underwater Acoustics Test Facility, were used after Goodyear Aerospace was purchased by Loral Defense Systems and Lockheed.
In the 2000s, things at Wingfoot Lake again changed dramatically. The north part of the site, which had been used as a corporate retreat and recreation area for Goodyear, was sold to the state to become a wildlife area and public park. Goodyear kept the land on the southern shore of the lake, cleaning it up further, stripping away most of what remained of its industrial and military history, and turning it into a dedicated airship base, once again.
In 2011 Goodyear announced that its next generation of blimps would be designed by the Zeppelin Company of Germany (which resurfaced in 1993, after its disappearance in WWII) and assembled at Wingfoot Lake.
Since then, three of these 250-foot-long semi-rigid airships have been built. One is now based in California, and one in Florida. The third, named Wingfoot Three, was finished in June 2018, and is based in the revamped hangar at Wingfoot Lake.
Goodyear is the only private company to build and operate airship bases in the USA. Besides Wingfoot Lake, Goodyear built four other blimp bases for its airships, including one at Akron Airport, closer to its headquarters. Owned by several companies now, including Lockheed, the base is dominated by the Goodyear Airdock, built in 1929 to construct the largest airships ever made in the USA.
The airdock was designed by Karl Arnstein, from the Zeppelin Company in Germany, which partnered with Goodyear to become the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation in 1924. Arnstein also designed the first airships to be built inside the hangar, which resembled the hangars in structure and form.
The hangar is 325 feet wide, 211 feet tall, and 1,175 feet long, longer than the only other structure anything like it in the country at that time, Hangar 1 in Lakehurst, New Jersey, which was built in 1921 to construct the USS Shenandoah.
The first airship built inside the Goodyear Airdock was the USS Akron, in 1931, followed by the USS Macon, in 1933—both around 785 feet long, the largest airships ever made in the USA. These were flown over the coasts and met their fate in the sea.
Smaller airships continued to be built in the hangar, especially during WWII. The last one built there was ZPG-3W, in 1960. After that the hangar housed other defense projects, mostly related to surveillance, including the photographic division of the Goodyear Aerospace Corporation.
In 1987 the Goodyear Aerospace Corporation was purchased by Loral, a space and surveillance company. Loral was purchased by Lockheed Martin in 1996, and the site became part of their Tactical Defense Systems branch, which built things like flight simulators for fighter jets, and their Naval Electronics and Surveillance Systems Division, which developed a high altitude surveillance blimp, to be stationed 70,000 feet above the ground (apparently it never went into production). Lockheed still owns the hangar, and uses it as an engineering and storage space.
Goodyear operated another blimp base in Spring, Texas, north of Houston, from 1969 to 1992, which took over maintenance and assembly activities from Wingfoot Lake in Ohio for that period, and served as the southeastern base for commercial blimp operations. The Spring facility closed after the company’s base in Florida was expanded, and the site has been developed into a shopping center, though the footprint for the old hangar remains in the bushes on one corner of the property.
Goodyear’s Florida base is at the airport in Pompano Beach, Florida, on the coast between Miami and West Palm Beach. In 1986 it opened a new hangar, and an office building to serve the pilots, base administrators, and public relations specialists. The blimps based here are used for promoting the Goodyear brand over the crowded beaches of the Florida coast. They are also deployed to major outdoor sporting events in the southeastern USA, to shoot aerial video for broadcasts, and to be seen.
The hangar there is 275 by 150 feet, and was first occupied by the airship Enterprise, which operated until 1991, when it flew back to Akron to be deflated forever. It was replaced that year by the Spirit of Akron, which in 2006 was replaced by the Spirit of Innovation. In 2014 the Spirit of Innovation was retired, and replaced with Wingfoot One, the first of the latest generation of Goodyear blimps.
The fourth Goodyear blimp base is in Carson, California, visible next to the 405 freeway. It opened in January 1968, and covers 27 acres. It has been home to at least nine Goodyear blimps since then, but with just five different names: the Columbia, the Eagle, the Spirit of America, the Spirit of Innovation, and now, Wingfoot Two. Wingfoot Two is the second of this latest generation of Goodyear’s blimps, and was delivered in 2017. Unlike all the previous models, the 250-foot-long Wingfoot series is a semi-rigid airship, and therefore, not a blimp, but a dirigible. Goodyear has decided not to challenge the popular, more general use of the word “blimp.”
Blimp Companies Besides Goodyear
Goodyear is not the only company that made commercial blimps in the USA. The largest of the few independent blimp companies is the American Blimp Company. The company designs and builds commercial blimps for advertising companies out of its small fabrication plant and base of operations in an office park next to the airport in Hillsboro, Oregon. Starting in 1990, it built the first A-60 blimp model, a 68,000-cubic-foot manned blimp, which became popular for small advertising applications. Later, it made the larger A-150, originally commissioned by Sanyo, and capable of carrying nine passengers. In 2004 it built the even larger A-170, 178 feet long, with a 70-by-30-foot LED screen. These models, made by the American Blimp Company, constitute the majority of the 15 or so commercial blimps in the USA that are not owned by Goodyear.
Most modern blimps are shaped plastic skins filled with helium. While these independent companies may design and build the motors and pilot cars that attach to the inflated skin, a company called ILC Dover makes the plastic envelopes for just about all the small blimps and aerostats currently in use in the USA (with the exception of the three latest Zeppelin-made Goodyear Wingfoot blimps). ILC Dover is an aerospace engineering and materials company based out of a plant in Frederica, Delaware. It made most of the space suits used by NASA, and the Playtex brand of women’s undergarments.
Over the last year or two, the advertising company AirSign, which also does aerial sign towing and skywriting, bought all the small blimp companies doing advertising in the USA, including the Van Wagner company and the Lightship Group, which owned the American Blimp Company. AirSign seems to be consolidating all blimp advertising under its wing, and even has a contract now to operate blimps for Goodyear.
Military Airship Bases
The vast majority of airships were developed and produced for military reasons, primarily as surveillance platforms to defend our naval fleet. They were often used as submarine spotters—large bulbous floating things in the sky looking for large bulbous sinking things in the sea. Though you can land and park a blimp in any large open space, airport, or even on a ship, leaving it outside exposes it to wind, which can have damaging effects on the craft.
Therefore, dedicated airship hangars and bases were built around the country, starting in the 1920s, but really taking off in WWII. The sites were at strategic locations along the nation’s coastline. Though the military controls few of these sites today, these former blimp bases remain active, in one way or another. Their uses have evolved in interesting ways, reflecting prevailing conditions of their milieu.
Lakehurst New Jersey: The Main Base for Airships
The Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, in the middle of New Jersey, was the historic center for lighter-than-air aircraft activity in the USA. It is now part of a combined Navy, Army, and Air Force base called Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, and is still a major testing and training center for aircraft carrier flight operations, such as catapult launching and landing arresting systems.
The Lakehurst portion, now a Naval Air Warfare Center, has six blimp hangars, the largest collection in the nation. Though the Navy officially ended its blimp activities in 1962, it has occasionally engaged in blimp programs since then. In 2006 it acquired a new blimp, the MZ-3, which it used for tests at Lakehurst, until it was sold to the aerial advertising company AirSign in 2017.
Lakehurst’s Hangar 1 was the first large blimp hangar in the USA. It was built to construct the USS Shenandoah, the largest American-made airship at the time. The 680-foot-long rigid airship made its maiden flight in 1923, and was destroyed in a crash in Ohio two years later.
The hangar is a steel framed structure, 966 feet long, 350 feet wide, and 224 feet tall, and was by far the largest single-room, clear-spanned structure in the country when it was built in 1921. It was surpassed when Goodyear built an airdock in Akron in 1929 to construct the 785-foot-long USS Akron Airship.
Hangar 1 could hold two long rigid airships side by side. Other rigid airships that used it included the 685-foot-long USS Los Angeles, a German airship built by the Zeppelin Company in 1924 for the US Navy. The USS Los Angeles was based out of this hangar until 1939, when it was scrapped; it was the only one of the four US-based large rigid aircraft that was not destroyed in an accident.
Two German rigid airships used Lakehurst’s Hangar 1 occasionally, too. The Graf Zeppelin, built in Germany in 1928, made its first transatlantic crossing that year by flying to Lakehurst. It later was the first commercial regularly scheduled transatlantic flight service in the world, flying between Germany and Brazil, before the airship was decommissioned in 1939 and scrapped in 1940.
The LZ 129 (the 129th airship of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin company), otherwise known as the Hindenburg, was more than 800 feet long, and began flying commercially in 1936, when it made ten transatlantic trips between Europe and the USA in that year, making Lakehurst the first transatlantic airport in the USA. On its first transatlantic flight of the 1937 season, the Hindenburg crashed and burned on arrival at Lakehurst, with 97 people on board. 62 survived. A plaque marks the spot in an open field, a few hundred yards from Hangar 1.
In addition to the six large rigid airships that docked at Lakehurst in the 1920s and 1930s, hundreds of other non-rigid blimps of varying sizes have been housed here, in Hangar 1, and in the five other blimp hangars on base.
Hangar 2, located adjacent to Hangar 1, was the first WWII hangar to be constructed in the US, finished in 1942 to house blimp maintenance and refitting operations. Hangar 3, next to it, was a training blimp hangar, finished soon afterwards. Today they are used as machine shops and a gymnasium for the officers on base.
Hangar 4 was a WWI-era blimp and balloon hangar, originally located on a base in Norfolk, Virginia. It was moved to Lakehurst in 1931, to house blimps that couldn’t fit in Hangar 1 when two large rigid airships were inside. Though it is called Hangar 4, it was the second blimp hangar on base. It is now cut off from the flight line, and is used for storage by FEMA and state emergency agencies.
Hangars 5 and 6 are adjacent to one another, across the airfield from Hangar 1. They were completed in 1943, and resemble the other fifteen or so new blimp hangars erected at blimp bases that were established quickly to defend naval and shipping fleets during WWII. Now these two are used for non-blimp-related engineering and storage.
Moffett Field: The First Blimp Base on the West Coast
Moffett Field, south of San Francisco, was established in 1931 as the West Coast base for the Navy’s rigid airship program. It has three hangars on site, two from WWII, and the original Hangar 1 from the 1930s, one of the three that were built in the USA for this first phase of large rigid airships (the others being located where the ships were made, in Akron, and the east coast base at Lakehurst). Hangar 1 was built to house the USS Macon, the first airship on base and the third large rigid airship built by the US, which arrived from its trials at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1933. Two years later the Macon was destroyed in a crash off Big Sur, California.
During and after WWII, the base grew dramatically and became a center for surveillance technology and aeronautic research, operated by the Navy, as well as NASA. NASA’s Ames Research Lab still operates some of the largest wind tunnels in the world here.
Companies grew to surround the base, especially Lockheed, which built some of the most advanced surveillance satellites here, as well as civilian earth imaging systems like Landsat. Lockheed still has a large presence, but most of the buildings around the base are owned by information and internet companies like Yahoo, Amazon, and Google, whose owners keep their private jets in former NASA hangars.
In 2014 most of Moffett Field, including the runways and hangars, was leased to a Google subsidiary, Planetary Ventures, LLC for 60 years, at a cost of $1.16 billion. Though the agreement involved a plan for the restoration of Hangar 1, doing so has dropped down the priority list. There is even some talk now of demolishing it. Most of Google’s current activity is taking place on the other side of the runway, around the other two blimp hangars on base. These were built during WWII to house surveillance and submarine-spotting blimps, and are similar to the 15 or so others that were built at ten sites around the country at that time.
Google is restoring these hangars, and using them to house a number of projects, some known, and some unknown. Google co-founder Sergey Brin is said to be developing a large airship inside one of the hangars, but so far no official statements about the project have been made.
This end of the airfield is also busy as the parking lot for Google’s fleet of commuter buses, as well as a very active golf course, left over from the base, and now Google’s.
The Eight Other Naval Blimp Bases in the USA
Lakehurst, on the east coast, and Moffett on the west coast were already established by the time WWII started, though each was expanded considerably at that time, including the addition of two large wooden blimp hangars at Moffett, and four at Lakehurst.
Eight other blimp bases were constructed during the war as well, covering the nation’s coastlines from Massachusetts to Oregon. None of them remain active as naval aviation sites, but their current conditions serve as interesting models of redevelopment, reflecting local characteristic conditions and national trends.
In September 1941, work started on what was to become the Naval Air Station South Weymouth, south of Boston, Massachusetts. This was the first of the eight blimp bases built during WWII. Though blimp operations stopped in the 1950s, the base continued to be developed and used by the Navy until 1997.
In 1944, the South Weymouth Naval Station was the starting point for early transatlantic crossings of non-rigid airships. In March 1957, the Snow Bird took off from South Weymouth on a record-breaking journey, crossing the Atlantic twice, and landing in Key West, after 11 days aloft, covering 9,500 miles without refueling. It marked the pinnacle of a blimp’s capabilities.
After the base closed, the Navy transferred its land to the surrounding towns in pieces, over the following 20 years, as there was considerable contamination and environmental work to be performed. The first blocks of condominiums opened in 2011, and the site is now mostly in the changing hands of developers, who plan a major mixed use project, with retail, offices, and thousands of homes in a dense New Urbanist community, served by circulating driverless cars.
At the moment, though, much of the site is still dominated by the fading remnants of the air base, including hundreds of acres of former runways, and a large circular paved blimp landing area, now used as a logistics site for new vehicles being imported into the Boston region.
The main blimp hangar was commissioned and designed in 1941, before Pearl Harbor and steel rations, so it has a design similar to other steel hangars built for earlier rigid airships, like the Goodyear Airdock at Akron, Ohio, and Hangar 1 at Moffett Field, California, with clamshell doors that opened on curved tracks around the end of the building. It was demolished in 1966, but its oblong outline with curved ends is still visible, though partially consumed by new roads. Part of the old track, which clamshell doors rolled on at either end, is still there, for the time being.
A second blimp hangar on base was similar to the 1,000-foot-long wooden types built around 1943, when steel was being rationed. It was torn down in the 1950s to make room for airbase runways; however, much of its floor remains visible in the grass, with rail tracks down the middle, as was common with these hangars.
In 2016 a portion of Boston’s Boylston Street was built on the old runways, for filming the explosion scenes for the movie Patriots Day, about the 2013 Boston marathon bombing. Just a few facades of the set remain there today. Another set was constructed nearby as a replica of the residential street in Watertown where the police hunted for and found the surviving bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (who is now on Death Row at the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado).
The second of the eight WWII blimp bases to get started was at Weeksville, North Carolina, 40 miles south of Norfolk, Virginia, and near the large Coast Guard air station at Elizabeth City. Construction started on the first hangar at Weeksville in 1941, before the US officially entered the war. Like the first hangar at South Weymouth, it was made of steel. The second hangar at the base was built after Pearl Harbor, and was made of wood, to conserve steel for the war effort.
After the war, with the Navy phasing out blimps in the 1950s, Weeksville Naval Air Station was decommissioned in 1957. After that it was used for aerospace research by NASA and others, including testing of one of the first communications satellites, NASA’s Project Echo, a reflective metallic sphere, 100 feet in diameter, which was inflated in the hangar in 1959, and in space in 1960.
In 1995, with the site used primarily by Westinghouse, a welder’s torch started a fire in the wooden hangar, burning it to the ground, and destroying the Sentinel 1000, a Westinghouse airship, and other surveillance blimps that were stored inside the hangar. All that remained standing were the two pairs of concrete columns that once supported the doors at either end.
After the fire, Westinghouse sold its airship and surveillance divisions. In 1996, the aerospace contractor TCOM moved into the remaining steel hangar on-site, to develop small blimps and aerostats for the government, used primarily as radar platforms. Today TCOM still operates the site as a manufacturing, production, and testing location for airborne persistent surveillance solutions, including the tethered aerostats flown along the US/Mexico border. This is one of the few places left in the nation dedicated to blimp R&D work.
The next of the eight WWII blimp bases built for the war was located near the coast in southern Georgia, near Glynco. Like most of the others, it had two 1,000-foot-long wooden hangars, one to house a squadron of blimps, and the other to house additional and transient blimps. Blimp operations continued there until 1959, and the hangars were torn down in 1971. But the layout of the blimp base set the pattern for the future development of the site, and a few circular blimp parking pads are still visible on-site, though used for other things now.
After the base closed in 1974, it was redeveloped into a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, with a variety of vehicular training tracks, mock towns, and even a mock international border port of entry facility. It is now one of four of these FLETCs, and is the headquarters for the federal program (now part of the Department of Homeland Security).
Richmond Naval Air Station, near Miami, was the largest of the eight new blimp bases built in WWII. It covered 2,100 acres, and had three 1,000-foot-long blimp hangars, instead of the usual two. It also had the shortest life of all of them. In late 1945, a hurricane swept through the area, starting a fire in one of the hangars, which spread to the others, burning them all down, and destroying all 25 of the blimps here, along with 368 military and civilian aircraft that were also on-site. Its life as a blimp base ended, though several other users developed a presence here.
At the center of the base was a large blimp landing and mooring area. It is now the parking lot for the Miami Zoo, which occupies the southern part of the former base. Next to the zoo is the Gold Coast Railroad Museum, which makes use of the tracks that originally served the naval air station, and continued inside the hangars. The museum built sheds on top of part of the original footprint of one of the blimp hangars, and some concrete portions of the hangar survived the fire and demolition crews, and are now used by the railroad museum for storage and display.
Among the many interesting specimens of rolling stock is a US Bureau of Mines helium transportation car, of the type that supplied helium for blimps from the Bureau’s Federal Helium Stockpile in Amarillo, Texas. The railway museum has a display hall about the Richmond Naval Air Station itself, located inside a converted railroad car.
Looming above the railroad museum is a concrete tower topped by antennas. This is the only remaining column of four that once held 150-foot-tall doors—one on either end of the hangar. Other tenants of the former air station installed the antennas, taking advantage of the boost the tower provides, as one of the tallest objects around.
Partially because of this tower, the air station became a significant regional federal communications complex, with several different agencies operating on-site, including the FAA, Coast Guard, Air Force, Army, and the CIA, which used facilities here to spy on the Cubans for many years, and to direct attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime in the 1960s.
The CIA continued to operate its Foreign Broadcast Information Service here until just a few years ago, transmitting programming directed at Cuba. Other federal operations continue inside a substantial restricted area covering the north end of the former air station.
Houma Naval Air Station, near the city of Houma, Louisiana, was another of the eight blimp bases built during WWII. It operated until 1947, when it was transferred to the city, which has since operated the runways as a municipal airport, and the hangar area as an industrial park. The outlines of a few circular blimp mooring pads are still visible within the industrial park.
Houma is located southwest of New Orleans, in a town dominated by the oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico, and the industrial park is full of oil field service companies. The airport is a busy place for helicopters ferrying workers to and from offshore platforms.
There was only one blimp hangar built here, and most of it disappeared ages ago. Its floor is used as a storage site and as a truck training site. The concrete beams that ran along the sides of the 1,000-foot-long hangar are still there, and have been partially filled in to make warehouses. Though it was a wooden hangar, like most of them built at that time, to conserve steel, the soft ground of southern Louisiana would not support the massive concrete towers that held sliding doors that were typically used on this type of hangar. Instead, doors at either end of the hangar were half domes, which moved aside on steel tracks.
The WWII blimp base at Hitchcock, Texas, near Galveston, like the other one guarding the Gulf of Mexico, at Houma, Louisiana, had only one hangar, and did not continue to be a military base for long after the war. It was sold as surplus in 1949, and purchased by a well-known Houston oilman, John Whitfield Mecom, who used the hangar and other buildings to service half-track vehicles used in the Korean War. In 1961 a hurricane damaged the wooden hangar, and it was demolished in 1962. Only the concrete portions of the hangar remain, including two pairs of towers that used to hold the 150-foot-tall doors. The site now operates as the Blimp Base Storage Company. Much of the site is used for open-air industrial and equipment storage, including things like electrical wind farm blades and parts, on their way to the interior of Texas. Another part of the base is an auto racetrack. The old headquarters building, identical to those at some other blimp bases, has been converted into a private home, with a swimming pool in the backyard.
Two blimp bases were constructed on the west coast during WWII, joining the pre-war base at Moffett Field, near San Francisco, in the defense of ships in the Pacific. In the south, the Santa Ana Naval Air Station, in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, was commissioned in 1942, and had the usual pair of 1,000-foot-long wooden hangars housing squadrons of blimps.
In 1949, the base was taken over by the Marine Corps, which operated the El Toro Marine Corps Base nearby. They used Tustin as a helicopter training base, until it was closed in 1999. Most of the property has been conveyed to the City of Tustin, and private developers. Housing has already been built, and much of the property’s grounds have been graded. The fate of the blimp hangars themselves is still uncertain, and they are still owned, reluctantly, by the Navy. It seems unclear if they are an asset or a liability. Like many large buildings in limbo in Southern California, the hangars have been used by the entertainment industry, for advertising and films, including the 2001 film Pearl Harbor, and for other events, including an X-Files convention.
In 2013 the North Hangar was being used to build and test a massive airship prototype, being developed for the government by the Worldwide Aeros Corporation. In a windstorm, part of the roof fell in and damaged the craft. The company filed a $65 million suit against the Navy for damages. Meanwhile, the roof has been stabilized by erecting two towers with cables strung between them, holding up the damaged part of the roof, for now. The south hangar is proving more stable, and can be rented out for $9,000 a day, while its fate is being considered.
The other west coast WWII blimp base was the Tillamook Naval Air Station, west of Portland, Oregon. Like most of the others, the station had two 1,000-foot-long blimp hangars, built out of wood in 1943, which housed eight blimps known as K-ships, the standard complement for blimp squadrons at that time. The base was decommissioned in 1948, and eventually became property of the Port of Tillamook Bay.
The Port of Tillamook Bay rented the hangars to a variety of tenants over the years, who used it primarily for storage. In 1992 the hangar known as Hangar A had several tenants, including one who stored 135,000 bales of straw there. A fire started in the straw, and the hangar burned to the ground. The concrete portions of the hangar remain, including two pairs of columns that held up doors at either end of the structure. The site has been leased to a composting operation associated with the local dairy industry.
Hangar B, undamaged by the fire, has been an air museum since 1991. The museum lost much of its collection in 2014, when the owner of most of the museum’s WWII aircraft opened his own museum in Madras, Oregon. The condition of the hangar, including a leaky roof, was one of his reasons for removing his collection. The roof already has two layers of corrugated metal sheathing on it, and cannot bear the weight of another layer of material, so the owners, the Port of Tillamook Bay, patch what they can. Estimates to redo the roof run as high as $15 million. It’s a big roof.
The south end of the building is used for storage by a number of companies and individuals. The building is also used by the Stimson Lumber Company, which operates a lumber yard just outside the door. This is Oregon, after all.
TARS: Currently the Largest Use of Blimps
Currently the largest use of helium-filled aircraft by the government, or anyone else in the USA, is for the Tethered Aerostat Radar System, or TARS. Like the blimp bases of WWII, TARS stations exist on the periphery of the nation—though in this case, focused on the southern border, not the east and west coasts.
There are currently eight active and three closed TARS stations in the continental USA, and one in Puerto Rico. They are part of a system watching for low-flying small aircraft that might be sneaking across the border, though they are also capable of seeing small boats and cars.
The unmanned blimps are held aloft, two miles up, with a nylon cord, spooled on a winch. Most of the sites use the TCOM/Lockheed blimp model known as the 420K, which hold 420,000 cubic feet of helium and are 208 feet long. Some facilities have used the smaller 275K model blimps, which hold 275,000 cubic feet of helium and are 186 feet long.
Both models are self-contained, with around 2,100 pounds of radar equipment powered by an on-board diesel generator. The blimps are winched down every few days to be refueled, or in heavy winds.
Radar data is transmitted wirelessly, and uploaded to a Defense Department data cloud. It is processed and analyzed in real time at the Air and Marine Operations Center (AMOC) at March Air Reserve Base, in Riverside, California.
The TARS site at Cudjoe Key, Florida, not too far from the naval station in Key West, was the first TARS site developed by the government. It opened in 1980, operated initially by the Air Force, which managed all TARS sites until July 2013, when the program was transferred to the US Customs and Border Protection division of the Department of Homeland Security.
Unlike the single aerostat at other TARS locations, Cudjoe Key operates two TARS blimps, out of adjacent facilities. One blimp has the usual radar platform. The other has transmission gear, used to broadcast US government radio and television programs aimed at Cuba.
The Cudjoe Key and the Puerto Rico stations are the only TARS sites focused on the skies and waters of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. There were three other TARS stations along the Gulf Coast, but they have been closed, as there are other assets more effective at scanning the water for low-flying planes and boat traffic, including radar on board Coast Guard vessels and other shoreline radar. The three closed TARS sites on the gulf are abandoned, or repurposed. (The site at Horseshoe Cove, near the Florida Panhandle, now has a warehouse and factory for a metal roofing and metal building company on it. The one near Morgan City, Louisiana, is now used as a heliport by a local company, and the one at Matagorda, Texas, on the coast southwest of Houston, has not been reused by anyone yet.)
Six operational TARS locations are spread out along the terrestrial border between the USA and Mexico. Their effective range is around 200 miles, so they are less than 300 miles apart. Three are along the Texas part of the border (at Rio Grand City, Eagle Pass, and Marfa), and one, at Deming, covers the New Mexico part. In Arizona, there is one at Fort Huachuca, an Army communications and surveillance base, which was the second location to have an operational TARS blimp, in 1983 (after Cudjoe Key, Florida), and another at Yuma Proving Ground, which is the westernmost TARS, and covers the border along California to the Pacific Ocean.
Back Down to Earth: Airship Crashes
While helium strives relentlessly upwards, everything else falls away, back to the ground—often in bad ways. The three big American-made rigid airships—the Akron, Shenandoah, and Macon—all crashed within two years of being deployed (one in the Pacific, one in the Atlantic, and one in the middle, in Ohio). Our idea of airships is blighted with their failures.
Over the past 110 years, there have been dozens of crashes of airships in the USA, with more than 250 people killed. Some of these early crashes involved hydrogen, not helium airships, as hydrogen is easier to produce, and is even lighter than helium, but is flammable. It was the Roma crash in 1922 that compelled the US Navy to switch to helium, and by 1925, most US-based airships were converted to the safer gas. But the airships continued to fall.
Goodyear’s first airship, the hydrogen-filled blimp called the Akron (not to be confused with the later and much larger USS Akron), crashed. It was built for the photographer and explorer Melvin Vaniman in 1912. Vaniman was attempting to fly across the Atlantic Ocean (something he tried and failed to do the year before, in the French-built blimp America). The Akron was a rubber bladder more than 100 feet long, suspending a long gondola. Minutes after starting on its historic journey at Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Akron exploded, killing all five people on board. Parts, including the lifeboat, were recovered at sea.
Another early airship disaster in the US was in 1919, when Goodyear’s Wingfoot Air Express, a hydrogen-filled blimp, ignited in mid-air over the Loop in downtown Chicago. Pieces of flaming debris fell through the skylight of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank, killing ten employees and injuring 27 more. Three people on the ship were killed as well.
In 1922, the US Army airship Roma hit power lines at a base in Hampton Roads, Virginia and caught fire, killing 34 of the 45 crew on board. Later that year the Army and Navy announced that they would be moving away from flammable hydrogen as the lifting gas for airships, and moving to more inert helium, as soon as possible.
The USS Shenandoah was the first of the four large rigid airships operated by the US, and was the first large airship ever built to use helium. It was assembled in 1923, in Hangar 1, at Lakehurst New Jersey, from parts manufactured at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia. The airship was 680 feet long, and held 2.1 million cubic feet of helium, nearly all that existed in the US at that time. It had a range of 5,000 miles, and could travel at 70 miles per hour. In 1924 it was the first rigid airship to travel across the country.
In September 1925, two years after its first flight, the Shenandoah was on a promotional tour, visiting state fairs and such in the Midwest, when it broke up in a squall over southern Ohio. The ship fell slowly, blown around by the storm in pieces, sustained aloft because the helium was contained inside in individual cells.
The control car fell on the Gamary farm, where there is a memorial at the site, known as Crash Site 1. Four people landed with parts of the central section here, and survived. Others died in the control car, or by falling from the sky, including the commander, Zachary Landsdowne. The stern section fell about a mile west, at a site now next to Interstate 77. The spot has been marked with a large sign, visible to motorists on the highway. 18 people rode the stern section to the ground and survived. The bow section floated for a while longer, landing several miles away at the Nichols farm, where Ernest Nichols tied its dangling ropes to a tree. Seven people crawled out of the wreckage here. Of the 43 on board the USS Shenandoah, 14 perished, and 29 survived by riding the pieces to the ground.
In the hours and days following the crash, thousands of people flocked to the crash sites, taking parts of the wreckage as souvenirs. Some thousands still come to the small town of Ava today to visit the crash sites, especially around September 3, the anniversary of the crash.
The owners of the garage in town, Theresa and Bryan Rayner, became the chief local historians of the crash, directing people to the crash sites, and arranging memorials and displays. They made a museum about the crash inside a camper trailer they had towed away from a wreck on the highway.
The USS Akron was the first of two similar rigid airships made in the early 1930s, in Goodyear’s giant hangar in Akron, Ohio. It was 785 feet long, the largest flying craft ever made in the USA. It flew for the first time in 1931, and was deployed to Hangar 1, in Lakehurst, New Jersey. It was destroyed in 1933, when it crashed into the ocean off the coast of New Jersey, killing 73 of the 76 crewmen on board.
As soon as the USS Akron was completed and left for Lakehurst in 1931, work began on the nearly identical USS Macon, in the vacated hangar in Akron, Ohio. When it was finished, two years later, the Macon was deployed to Moffett Field, California, to guard the west coast.
The Akron and the Macon were flying aircraft carriers, capable of holding five Sparrowhawk biplanes inside their belly, which flew ahead to search for enemy vessels. The Sparrowhawks were launched and captured with a trapeze system hanging under the access portal, snared by hooks on top of each plane. When the airships were deployed over the ocean, the Sparrowhawks had their wheels removed, to save space and weight. The only place to land was back aboard the airship.
In 1935, two years after it was built, the Macon crashed into the Pacific Ocean, off the Point Sur Lighthouse, witnessed by lighthouse operators, who helped coordinate the rescue. The ship fell slowly, allowing time to put lifejackets on. 74 of the 76 crew on board survived.
The loss of the Macon put an end to the rigid airship program in the US. All future airships would be much smaller, and would be blimps, without a frame. The wreckage of the Macon still lies on the bottom of the ocean, more than 1,400 feet down, and has been documented by robotic submarines.
The most famous airship crash, of course, is the Hindenburg, as it crashed over land and was witnessed by people amassed for its arrival, including film crews and radio broadcasters. The 800-foot-long vessel was one of two German-made and operated rigid airships that made transatlantic flights between Germany and Lakehurst, New Jersey. It was designed to be filled with helium, but it burned in this fiery way because it was filled with hydrogen. The US controlled the world’s supply of helium, and banned its export, in part due to limited supply. The US stopped the use of hydrogen in airships by 1925, 12 years before the Hindenburg disaster. Amazingly, 62 of the 97 people on board survived.
After the end of the rigid airships of the 1920s and 1930s, blimps continued to crash, though in less dramatic and disastrous ways. In WWII, there were at least ten major blimp accidents in the US, resulting in a total of more than 50 deaths. Since the end of the naval blimp program in the early 1960s, there have been more than a dozen airship crashes in the USA, though only one with a fatality (when an experimental Forest Service blimp fell apart on a test at Lakehurst in 1986). One of the more unusual modern crashes occurred when a tethered JLENS aerostat became untethered in 2015.
Designed by Raytheon and TCOM in the late 1990s, the blimp was part of an experimental surveillance system, called the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, JLENS, that had been developed and tested in several forms and at several places around the country. In 2015 it was at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, when one of the two unmanned blimps in the system broke free and went on an uncontrolled trip into the sky, and down wind.
The 240-foot-long blimp had 6,000 feet of broken tether dangling underneath it, which when it descended, was dragged through fields and across power lines, knocking out power for more than 20,000 people. The blimp eventually was snagged by some trees near Clarkstown, Pennsylvania, more than 100 miles from where it broke free four hours earlier. Before it could get away again in the breeze, state police arrived on the scene and used shotguns to shoot it full of holes, to allow more of the helium to escape. Once sufficiently deflated, military personnel arrived to remove the sensitive equipment, and clean up. The JLENS program was later scrapped by the Pentagon, though other tethered aerostat programs continue to be developed. ♦
Helium was the subject of an exhibition called Lighter than Air: The Rise (and Fall) of American Helium, which opened December 28, 2018 at CLUI Los Angeles.