Interview with Jerry Copas: Aviator and Author

“What’s most intriguing about the 1925 crash of USS Shenandoah, America’s first rigid airship, is that the most modern state-of-the-art flying machine of the future, fell into this rural, disconnected, unenlightened part of America. There were roads in Noble County that had not even seen an automobile before and then by the end of the day there were traffic jams!” says Jerry Copas, author of The Wreck of the Naval Airship USS Shenandoah, published last month by Arcadia Publishing.

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

Copas is also a veteran balloon pilot, flight instructor, and LTA historian. He has flown over such varied landscapes as the Swiss Alps, Australian Outback, and the Arabian desert and spoken at numerous ballooning safety seminars and symposiums.

Copas will sign books and talk with visitors at the Soakum Fall Festival in Noble County, Ohio, from September 30 to October 1. Here, he shares his experiences as a writer and balloon pilot, with Sitara Maruf.

Your book, “The Wreck of the Naval Airship USS Shenandoah,” published on August 21st has an amazing compilation of images. That has a powerful impact.

Yes, and that is how it came to me. I was interested in things that fly. When I first saw the photo of the Shenandoah wreckage, in an elementary school library book, I wondered how it got there and the story behind it. I wish I could recall the book. I was fascinated with the story for many years.

So, when did you pick it up again and decide to write this book?

Lighter than Air history has always been a passion of mine, and over the years, I’ve collected a lot of books on ballooning, airships, and memorabilia. It was in the 90s when my wife and I were traveling in southeast Ohio, I knew I was in the area where the ship went down and wondered if anybody would know exactly what field that was. I found the field and it is well-maintained. There was a flag there and a sign that locals have put up and an official government monument; there were a lot of other commemorations to that day and that inspired me to meet some people in Noble County and make friends and that’s how it came to putting down in the book.

I started working on the book a couple of years ago. There have been several fine books on the USS Shenandoah before mine, and hopefully there will be many more, but I thought if I could do my part and keep the legacy alive and keep people’s interest in the event, it would be worth the effort.

And later you took the captain’s daughter, Peggy Lansdowne Hunt on a balloon flight?

Yes. She was three years old in 1925 when her father died, so she vaguely knew him, but obviously she is familiar with his illustrious career. He was one of those few naval captains who literally went down with the ship and that’s quite a distinction. The Navy takes great pride in someone with that degree of devotion.

Had Peggy been on a balloon ride before, and what was her reaction when you were flying in the area where the Shenandoah went down.

No. I’m sure she had invitations, but I don’t think so. She was in town for some dedication for the Shenandoah, but she had never visited the crash site before. The locals have made an outline with stones of the fallen airship. When the grass is mowed you can see that outline from the highway. We inflated the balloon inside this outline where the ship lay, and I had brought along 14 red carnations to toss out on the crash site; she kept one in honor of her father.

I have flown balloon all over the world in many different situations, but that was a very special flight considering what had gone on in that very same airspace, where her father gave his last full measure of devotion to our country. The day we flew, it was a beautiful summer evening and the sun was going down, a stark contrast to the September 3, 1925 stormy night flight of the Shenandoah. We had a nice landing in the valley and dozens of people showed up and wanted to see inside the balloon and touch the basket. It was a distinct privilege for me to meet her first of all, and then take me up on the offer for the balloon ride. It was a highlight of my ballooning career.

In June 1991, Peggy Lansdowne Hunt, daughter of Lt. Cmdr. Zachary Lansdowne, accompanied
the author on a balloon flight launched from crash site No. 2. Hunt was only three years old
when her father died in the crash. Assisting with the balloon are Stanley Nichols (left) and
Brian Rayner (right). Nichols was a toddler when the bow section landed on his family farm near
Sharon, Ohio, but he could still recall his father grabbing a rope and securing the wreckage to
a tree. Rayner grew up on the former Neiswonger farm, tending the crash sites and amassing a
significant collection of Shenandoah memorabilia. (Courtesy of Jerry Copas)

It seems that Noble County is still remote and rural, and people had not seen a hot air balloon?

No, there is not much ballooning in Noble County, but it’s a beautiful place to fly a balloon. Most of the people who came to the basket knew about the Shenandoah, and they were very happy when they learned that Capt. Lansdowne daughter was in the basket.

Did you talk with any surviving witnesses?

When I first started encountering people in Noble County, I met a couple of eyewitnesses. They were children at the time. And a couple of people did tell me that they were toddlers and they remember the day of the accident. When I was taking Peggy Lansdowne on the balloon ride, in that photo on page 122 there is Brian Rayner who grew up on the farm and the other one is Stanley Nichols. The nose section came down on Nichols’ family farm, when he was just a kid.

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.)

How many images in the book? And any content left out?

There are 156 images, and yes, lot of text and stories did not get included. There was a balance between text and illustrations, and the series had a form to it and each book is about 128 pages. I had to shorten a lot of other stories too, but the key ones they allowed me space. I wish I had a better photograph of the woman who allegedly found the captain’s class ring in the vegetable garden and the neat part of the story was that, that class ring was discovered on a mustard plant, when she was pulling out a weed in the garden. She found that precious relic from the terrible accident all those years before.

I recall reading about his ring that it was rusty and had a scratch, but the ring that was returned was almost new.

Yes, that is intriguing. Some people are weary of that lady’s story. You know when the ship came down for the lack of a better term there was looting, and the fact that the captain’s class ring was missing was just scandalous at that time, and the family was wondering where could it be–he had it on all the time. By the way, when this lady found the ring it was 12 years after Shenandoah came down and also just a few weeks after the airship Hindenburg crashed.

The family had their suspicions, because his ring had some previous damage and Capt. Lansdowne was very busy and never had time to repair it. After it was “found”, the damage had been repaired, so how could that be?  And there were some people who said that she was fighting a guilty conscience all those years and the Hindenburg’s accident brought it back to her again, so she thought maybe I should give this ring back to where it belongs. But who knows all those stories have gone to the grave now. We will never know whether that ring was stolen from the poor man’s body or that it fell off his finger in the yard.

What was the most fascinating part to you while writing this book?

I’m fascinated by things that fly, and I make my living off lighter than air. What’s most intriguing about this story is that the most modern state-of-the-art flying machine of the future basically, fell into this rural, disconnected, unenlightened part of America. There were roads in Noble County that had not even seen an automobile before and then by the end of the day there were traffic jams! So, this was such a contrast between old and new. Some of them knew what an airship was, but many of them had no clue particularly those who were just farming and living their daily lives and boom all of a sudden, the ship descends on their existence. They had never seen light-weight metals, they had never seen airtight fabrics; so, the contrast between this old and new was so fascinating to me and the impact it had on these people back then.

When did you take to hot-air ballooning?

I’ve always liked anything to do with aviation and flying. In my formative years in the 70s ballooning was becoming very popular and unless you’re a kid fortunate enough to live close to an airport, you cannot really get close to planes, helicopters, and things like that. But balloons land right in your schoolyard sometimes. And that’s what happened to me. I got to know some balloonists and I got my license to fly balloons in high school, and I have been doing that ever since. It has been a full-time job for me for years and my wife is a balloon pilot and my son who just started college also got his pilot’s license.

Is the average person aware of lighter than air history in America? I know most of them know about hot air balloons as recreational balloons, but do people know that there is more to lighter than air history and ballooning?

I don’t think enough people know about lighter than air, as much as they do about heavier than air. I fly passengers in my balloon every week and at the end of every flight when we have our balloon packed away, we have a champagne toast. I tell the story of the Montgolfier brothers and how they invented hot-air ballooning and most people are very surprised to know that was 120 years before the Wright brothers flew their airplane at Kitty Hawk.

So, anytime I get a chance to go talk to a school group or anybody about lighter than air history, I tell them how long people have been flying balloons, and the impact of airships and zeppelins. Less than a year and a half after the Lindbergh flight, the Zeppelin Company began transatlantic service for civilians with luxurious staterooms, gourmet meals, and even shoeshine service. Most people don’t realize that it had gotten quite far that along, and many people are not aware about the story of Shenandoah, but when they find out, they show a lot of interest.

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