National Geographic : 1943 Jul
Aboard a Blimp Hunting U-boats A Day above the Atlantic Reveals Navy Talk and Navy Ways, Creeping Convoys, and Torpedoed Wrecks BY MASON SUTHERLAND FROM one of the Navy's ocean-going training blimps, I watched the Battle of the Western Atlantic for a day. The ride was made up and down the New Jersey coast and many miles to sea. Our ship sighted two wrecks, three convoys, two other blimps, and Navy and Army war planes. But we saw no submarines. Airships, planes, and warships, operating in unison, had driven Hitler's undersea boats out of their once happy hunting ground. Lighter-than-air ships, once regarded as the "folly of fanatics," had proved their ability after years of controversy (page 92). At the U. S. Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, New Jersey, we got word that our ship was waiting. First out of the 200-foot-high hangar came the mooring mast, towed by a tractor. Next appeared the 250-foot silver en velope, a ground crew holding her lines. She was "heavy"-too heavy for her 416,000 cubic feet of noninflammable helium to lift-but her engines would carry the excess weight. Going aboard, we met pilot and co-pilot, both ensigns; three cadets, future officers out to finish their seven-month course; and three petty officers manning engines and instru ments. Counting National Geographic staff photographer Willard R. Culver and myself, ten men were aboard. The cabin-"longer than a Greyhound bus," as one crewman said-was not unlike an air liner's. On one side of the aisle were lounge seats. On the rear half of the other side was a long settee facing the interior; it was my choice. Other fixtures were instrument panel, radio equipment, mess table, pantry, and navi gator's chart table. Deep windows gave clear visibility in any direction. Up forward in a semienclosed com partment sat pilot and co-pilot. Now the 550-horsepower engines roared, the ground crew cast off the lines, and we taxied down the field like an airplane. I looked at my watch. A Landlubber's Log of a Day in a Blimp 9:30a.m. Weroarintotheairata40 degree angle and I, lacking a side rest on the couch, sway and clutch for support. I was told that a favorite trick of peacetime lighter-than-air men is to take airplane pilots up at a steep angle and, 100 feet above ground, kill the motors. Heavier-than-air guests turn pale; such a stall in a plane may mean death. But a blimp continues its climb. The ship levels off at 500 feet. Our shadow, a fat, black cigar, zips across the scrub oaks. As our motors are throttled down, toy auto mobiles pace the shadow at their 35-mile-an hour limit. Weaving overhead, rudder and elevator cables from pilots' wheels remind us of car rier wires that festooned ceilings of old-fash ioned department stores. A sound strangely familiar is the pilot's signal to the mechanic as he rings a bell like the old-time trolley con ductor's "go-ahead" to the motorman. Food Containers Tied to Table There is a clatter amidships, and from the opened pantry spill cans of milk, jars of jelly and peanut butter. An enlisted man, already preparing lunch, ties a string of food con tainers to the mess table. "Comfortable?" asks our skipper, who has turned over the piloting to another (page 82). "Sorry, but no smoking," he says to the offer of a cigarette. Just one of his 23 years has been in the Navy. He is from Brooklyn-"the Dodgers, you know." Showing us to the pilots' door less compartment, he explains their duties. Like the buoyant submarine which she stalks, the blimp has two directional controls. One, running to the elevator, drives the ship up or down. The other, to the rudder, steers us to port or starboard. The pilot, using feet as well as hands, may operate both controls. But the effort is fa tiguing, and the Navy encourages him to let the co-pilot handle the rudder. The ship responds as smoothly as an auto mobile, but winds, nagging the envelope, in cessantly drive it off course. An air bubble, a gadget like that in a carpenter's level, keeps a fog-bound pilot on even keel. "You'll have to put on these." The skipper hands us a pair of yellow life jackets, a sea going blimp's equivalent of a surface liner's life belts. They are inflatable by lung power, or, in event of sudden crash, by carbon-dioxide cartridges in the linings. This is the same kind of gas bullet which aerates a soda siphon.