A Gripping Story of America’s Great Airship

Jerry Copas adds a new dimension with powerful images.

The USS Shenandoah was a 680-foot-long rigid airship and the pride of the American Navy in 1925. It was built to fly as a scouting platform for the fleet at sea. But as she proved her super flying capabilities, she was turned into a publicity tool, cruising over cities and towns, where eager crowds waited for her glimpse across the skies.

It was during one such publicity tour that the airship was caught in a violent storm over Noble County, Ohio, on September 3, 1925. The ship was twisted and ripped with the debris falling on three crash sites. Fourteen men were killed, including Lt. Commander Zachary Lansdowne, who remained at his post to the very end. Miraculously, twenty-nine people survived the catastrophe.

Jerry Copas’s book “The Wreck of the Naval Airship, USS Shenandoah” tells the story of America’s great airship and captures its epic tragedy with 156 images, text, and some extraordinary stories never published before.

One of the three crash sites — the Neiswonger farm. Salvage rights for the wreckage were awarded to the Aluminum Corporation of America of Pittsburgh for 20¢ per pound. The contract stipulated that none of it would be sold as souvenirs. After expenses, the Navy got about $3,000 for the ship’s remains. (Courtesy of Rayner Collection.)

Passionate about aviation, especially lighter than air (LTA) history, and a veteran balloonist and flight instructor, Copas felt inspired by the bravery and dedication of the crew. “In 1920s, they did not even have the benefit of a basic doppler radar that we have on our smart phones today, and they had no clue what lay ahead of them,” said Copas in an interview. He says he feels

Jerry Copas, author of “The Wreck of the Naval Airship USS Shenandoah,” is also a veteran balloon pilot.

for the crew and for Capt. Lansdowne who had repeatedly requested the Navy to postpone the flight as Lansdowne was concerned about the late summer thunderstorms in Ohio. “I know he had reservations about that particular trip,” says Copas, “but they followed through and some of them gave the last measure of their devotion to follow those orders and do what the country wanted. It’s just very sad and they deserve their commemoration and their respect.”

The foreword is written by Captain Lansdowne’s granddaughter Julia H. Hunt who was “thrilled” when the author invited her to do so. She notes: “I remember my grandmother’s recollection of the day the Shenandoah embarked on her final journey. It was September 2, 1925, in the late afternoon in Lakehurst, New Jersey. As she watched the gleaming rigid zeppelin slowly emerge from Hangar One, my grandmother distinctly recalled feeling a sense of dread as the airship slowly took flight and faded into the distance.”

On August 8, 1924, the Shenandoah became the first rigid airship to be moored to a floating mast.(Courtesy of Navy History and Heritage Command.)

In the introduction, Copas briefly tells the story of the Shenandoah highlighting the events prior to that fateful flight, Capt. Lansdowne’s concerns, and the airborne drama on that fateful night, which whets the reader’s appetite. The story progresses along four chapters and has a powerful impact with images. Each chapter opens with a topic and then the images show and tell the story with interesting scenarios, captioning, analysis, and context.

In the chapter entitled, “An Airship for America” Copas discusses how the symbol of technological advancement was built, tested, and christened. Shenandoah in Native American means “Daughter of the Stars.” She was the first rigid airship to get lift from the safe helium gas and not the explosive hydrogen and was the first one to be moored on a surface ship’s mast proving the concept of replenishment at sea.

The Shenandoah flies up the California coast toward Tacoma, Washington, on October 16, 1924. (Courtesy of Navy History and Heritage Command.)

Copas relates how the ship’s notable accomplishments, including an epic 19-day journey across the United States, turned her into “A Publicity Tool” (title of chapter 2). It’s clear how the Shenandoah became a victim of politics and vested interests as much as a victim of that terrible storm.

In the third chapter, “The Morning After” Copas looks at the events of that tragic night on September 3, 1925 and what followed. He says, as a balloonist, he can somewhat relate to what he calls the “miracle” of the story where seven men brought the fragment of the ship down that was free ballooning at 8,000 feet into the heart of the storm, without engines or steering capability. “Even in that situation, they had their senses about them,” said Copas. “Much of the credit goes to Lieutenant Commander Charles Rosendahl, who took command and gave direction to six sailors. They slashed those gas cells and vented some of that helium and made a controlled descent and when they got closer, they dropped ballast and made a pretty good landing in the middle of a rip-roaring thunderstorm.”  Rosendahl would retire with the rank of admiral in 1945.

In 1937, the federal government erected a gleaming bronze and stone monument to the Shenandoah
in Ava, Ohio. This photo taken in 1963 shows Peggy Lansdowne Hunt, daughter of Lt. Cmdr. Zachary Lansdowne. She was accompanied by Ohio congressman Bob Secrest. (Courtesy of Rayner Collection.)

In “The Shenandoah’s Legacy” he covers the court appearance of the captain’s young widow, Margaret Lansdowne, whose testimony “proved to be an embarrassment to Navy brass.” Copas reveals insights and stories from residents of Noble County, who were alarmed and amazed when this high-tech, state-of-the-art marvel descended on their rural and isolated community; some of whom were eye witnesses to the tragedy. While lavishing care and support on the wounded, many locals also looted the wreckage. “Due to the rampant looting, 20 Department of Justice operatives were dispatched from Washington. They collected four truckloads of wreckage items from private homes in the area,” writes Copas.

Captain Zachary Lansdowne’s ring was discovered almost 12 years after the accident. Faye Larrison found it on the stem of a mustard plant while weeding her garden at the old Gamary house. (Courtesy of Rayner Collection.)

One highlight is the captain’s missing Naval Academy class ring mysteriously found on a mustard plant at the crash site, 12 years after the accident. It was missing from his hand when his body was recovered from the wreckage.

The author’s interaction with the Lieut. Cmdr. Lansdowne’s daughter and granddaughter and also with Noble County residents, during his several visits to the site, adds a personal flair to the great airship’s epic tragedy.

Wreck of the Naval Airship USS Shenandoah is a gripping story with a new dimension and powerful images, for aviators and anyone else.

by Jerry Copas (Arcadia Publishing)
128 pages, paperback, $21.99

All photos reprinted from “Wreck of the Naval Airship USS Shenandoah” with permission, by Jerry K. Copas (Arcadia Publishing, 2017) 

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