from Lansdowne's Ring

by John Oravets

Chapter One: Anton Heinen, U.S. Navy consultant

Jan. 16, 1924

Gray as gun barrels, the clouds roll off the Atlantic toward the giant tethered airship. They’re as dark as any Heinen saw while flying Zeppelins over the Somme, London, and the North Sea during the Great War.

“Heinen, I’m going home for awhile,” McCrary says. “I’ve been aboard all day.”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” Heinen says, saluting with Prussian sharpness. He guesses that all seven Americans in the Shenandoah’s Control Car are snickering behind his back. They know he needn’t salute, being a mere consultant hired to help the United States create an airship fleet.

He fumes at their disrespect but holds his tongue. I’m a professional airship captain and will behave like one at all times. I’m not like that fool McCrary. No good captain would leave his ship when such a storm is coming.

As soon as McCrary departs via the mooring-mast elevator, the remaining crewmen begin to complain.

“This is a waste of time,” says Earle Kincaid. “Now we have to wait hours for these guys to finish their stress tests.”

“The ship’s but four months old,” Heinen hurls back at the young lieutenant.“In your eagerness to catch up with Germany, you Americans copied one of our designs. But your engineers couldn’t resist tinkering with the plans. So now they must test the results carefully to be sure they haven’t botched the job.”

“Just wake me when it’s over,” Kincaid says.

Americans! They think they know all things when in fact they know very little, Heinen thinks. Maybe this storm will teach them a few things about big rigid airships.

At 3:00 p.m. the storm reached the Lakehurst Naval Base. The freshening wind causes the Shenandoah to rock constantly at the end of her cable tether. At 4:00 p.m. heavy rain pounds the airship, soaking her cotton covering. Heinen knows well that the weight of that water would make the Shenandoah much harder to handle.

The gale swings the ship like a silver windsock. The men seize grab rails to steady themselves but can’t avoid jostling each other, for the Control Car is just nine feet wide and thirty-six feet long.

“The engineers just got a wind-speed reading of seventy-one miles an hour at the top of the mooring mast,” a crewman reports. Heinen can feel in the soles of his feet that the buffeting has already put the ship at risk.

“Men, be ready for anything,” he orders. Through the front window of the Control Car, which hangs 120 feet back from the ship’s nose, they watch the coupling that holds the cable to mast.

With a squeal of separating girders, the ship’s nose cone rips out of the bow and dangles from the top of the 160-foot steel mast.

“We’re adrift,” Heinen shouts. “Everyone to battle stations.”

As the gale carries the ship backward, the Shenandoah spills hundreds of feet of cable across the base’s landing zone. Heinen knows the unchained ship, at a length of 682 feet and a weight of 64 tons, is going to defy recapture.

Inside the ship’s hull, the engineers forget the gauges measuring stress on alloy girders and grab the very trusses and tie beams they are testing.

“Kraut,” they sneer behind my back, but not one of these Americans has ever been captain of an airship, Heinen thinks as the ship drifts, tailfirst, across the New Jersey flatlands. Only I have had such a command.

Kincaid moves to the front of the car and takes over the wheel that controls the rudders on the tail. Heinen steps to the wheel that moves the horizontal fins.

“We must lighten the ship,” the German shouts. “Open ballast valves.”

Kincaid scowls. “Mister Heinen, I believe Commander Pierce is the senior U.S. Navy officer aboard.”

Pierce yields authority at once: “Go ahead, Heinen. You’ve done this sort of thing before.”

“Dump fuel tanks at Frames 80, 155 and 156,” the German orders. “Cut loose the spare generator, tools, and reserve oil tanks.”

Crewmen lurch into action. Three of them yank levers that open ballast bags, sending thousands of gallons of water cascading from pipes all along the ship’s bottom. Lightened, the Shenandoah ascends just enough to clear the pitch pines and cedars surrounding the base. The ship, tail still leading the way, lumbers just above the faded pink cranberry bogs of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens.

“Check for damage!” Heinen commands.

“The fabric’s been ripped off the top tail fin,” a crewman responds.

“Outer panels torn off the bow,” someone else reports.

“Two gas bags just behind the nose have ruptured.”

The gale shoves the Shenandoah northwestward.

“We need to right the ship and push back to Lakehurst,” Kincaid says.

“Count von Zeppelin always warned against fighting the wind,” Heinen says. “‘Run with the storm,’” he told us. “‘Our motors cannot overpower strong wind.’”

Kincaid balks. “It’s our best hope.”

“No, no, no! Better to wait and see how the ship behaves,” Heinen says.
Pierce pushes into the discussion. “We must right the ship and send out an SOS message.”

Heinen searches the map table. “Where are the charts?” he says.

“They probably didn’t give us any,” Pierce says. “This was to be a static test—we weren’t supposed to actually fly anywhere.”

Below, streetlights begin to flicker on, widen into a broad swath of golden sparks. The buildings grow taller, wider, closer together.

“What place is this?” Heinen asks.

“Manhattan,” Kincaid answers, his tone a razor.

Radio stations all along the East Coast interrupt their broadcasts to report that the Shenandoah is lost in a storm. WOR in Newark asks listeners to phone reports of engine noise to its studio so it can relay them to Navy officials trying to locate the airship. Then WOR, like many stations in the Northeast, stops broadcasting all together to avoid interfering with the search.

For the first time since Germany’s defeat, Heinen feels the thrill of command.

“Where are we now?” he asks.

“Passing over Queens, headed for Long Island,” Pierce replies.

“Can you feel in your legs how the wind is dying?” Heinen says. The Americans around him seem awed by his savvy and only nod in agreement.

A quarter hour passes. “I think we can now turn for home,” the German says.

Kincaid spins the rudderwheel and turns the ship toward Lakehurst.

“Lieutenant, you cannot steer the ship straight into the wind like this,” Heinen says. “The nose is broken open. You will tear off more of the outer covering.”

Kincaid stares straight ahead in silence.

“You must hold her so she cuts the air with the port side of her nose. That will protect the broken side.”

Kincaid explodes. “I will not take orders from a civilian.”

Heinen’s russet-bearded chin juts out as if to say, Take a swing at this, if you dare.

“Do as I say,” the German insists.

“And I do not take orders from foreigners either.”

No puppy lieutenant can speak with such insolence to a German airship officer! Summoning his sternest Prussian command voice,Heinen screams,“Get out of the Control Car, you idiot.”

“Foreign nationals do not have the authority…” Kincaid begins, but Heinen points to the ladder that leads up out of the Control Car into the hull. “Out! Now!” he shouts. When the young officer begins to climb, Heinen delivers a well-polished boot to his backside.

The German takes a few deep breaths to calm himself. “We are not out of danger yet,” he tells the remaining crewmen. “We don’t know if the nose will break more, so we must be careful. We will stay close to the ground, go no higher than 400 meters. And we will hold the engines at half speed.”

Relief and embarrassment seem to have exhausted the American crewmen, and the Control Car remains silent for the rest of the voyage. The Shenandoah returns to Lakehurst at 3:00 a.m., eight hours after being torn from the mast.

“Nice work, Heinen,” Pierce says as they descend in the mast’s elevator. “We may not have made it without you.”

Yes, they thank me for saving their ship, but do they clap me on the back or promise to hold a party at the Officers Club in my honor? No! They walk away. To them I will always be the hated Hun.

John Oravets worked as a copy editor for most of his forty-one years in the newspaper business. He retired to Asheville in 2004 after working for the Washington Post for seventeen years.

About Lansdowne’s Ring—The Navy airship Shenandoah crashed about a mile west of my grandparents’ farm in 1925. They were up early to do the milking and watched the dirigible try for about an hour to push through a severe storm. After the ship finally succumbed at about 4:50 a.m., my uncle, age twelve, was one of the first people to reach the wreckage. So I grew up hearing lots of stories about the Shenandoah and decided to try to recreate the disaster in a novel.