Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Seventeen Officers and Men of the United States Navy Meet Death in Collapse of Giant Dirigible -- August 24, 2021

Pensacola Journal, 25-August-1921

The US Navy arranged to buy British Zeppelin R-38 while it was under construction. The US renamed it ZR-2. While undergoing a test on 24-August-1921, the Zeppelin broke in two, and the forward portion burned and exploded. The whole wreck crashed into the Humber River. 44 members of the 49-man crew died. 17 American sailors were aboard and all but one died. After accepting the ship, the Americans were going to fly ZR-2 across the Atlantic. Lieutenant-Commander Richard Byrd, who was not aboard, later became a famous polar explorer. 


Only Five Men of the Forty-Nine Who Were Making
the Trial Trip of the ZR-2 Known
to Have Been Saved.


Vessel Flying About 1,000 Feet Over Hull Was
Seen to Buckle Amidships and Plunge
Downward Over the City.

(By The Associated Press) 
HULL, England, Aug. 24. -- Seventeen officers and men of the United States navy and twenty-seven officers and men of the British navy met death today in the collapse of the great dirigible ZR-2 over the city of Hull.

Every one of the Americans on board the ill-fated craft perished as far as could be ascertained at midnight tonight.

Only five men of the forty-nine who were making the trip in the dirigible prior to me vessel being turned over to the United States are known to have been saved.

The American officers who started the trip included:
Commander Louis II. Maxfield, 
Lieutenant-Commander Emory W. Coil, 
Lieutenant Henry W. Hoyt. 
Lieutenant Marcus H. Esterly, 
Lieutenant Commander Valentine N. Baig, 
and Lieutenant Charles G. Little.

The American enlisted men who went up with the craft from Howden were:
C. I. Aller, 
Robert Coons, 
L. E. Crowel, 
J. T. Hancock, 
William Julius, 
M. Lay, 
A. L. Loftin, 
A. I. Pettit, 
W. J. Steele, 
N. O. Walker 
and George Welsh.

The British losses include the famous air veteran, Brigadier-General E. M. Maitland, and all the other officers on board, except Lieutenant Wann, the commander of the ZR-2.

Starting from Howden Tuesday morning on a test flight to Pulham, the big aircraft had been afloat for 34 hours, at times in bad weather, and was returning to the Pulham airdrome at the time of the disaster, which constitutes the most terrible of its kind in peace times.

The ZR-2, which was a sister-ship of the famous R-34, the first dirigible to cross the Atlantic, was on her final test trip prior to being accepted by the United States navy and taken across the Atlantic by an American crew especially trained for that purpose. She was 690 feet long and was built to carry a crew of thirty. Her speed was estimated at 70 miles an hour.

The American navy was to pay $2,000,000 for the craft.

While flying at about 1,000 feet over Hull spectators saw the ZR-2 seemingly buckle amidships and plunge downward over the city and into the Humber river. One theory of the cause of the disaster is that while the ship's rudders were being tested the giant craft took a sharp turn, which caused her framework to buckle and that the explosion of a gasoline tank completed the tragedy of the air.

The actual cause, however, never may be known. A rumor had been afloat for some days that the ZR-2 was structurally weak, but this was stoutly denied by all in authority. Tens of thousands of spectators saw several men climb outside the balloon and drop from the falling mass, which was enveloped in smoke, and others jump into the Humber as the crippled craft came over the water. As the dirigible struck, the wreckage above water was burning and there was slight hope for any of the men caught inside to escape.

Tugs immediately put out into the stream and brought ashore the survivors who were taken in ambulances to hospitals. Among these was the American quartermaster, N O. Walker, who died soon after reaching the hospital from burns he had received. Lieutenant Little was also rescued from the debris alive, but succumbed to his injuries on reaching the infirmary.

A rescue tug pulled another American out of the water. He was dead. Inside his coat was the name "Commander Maxfield." Early reports were to the effect that Lieutenant Easterly had been saved. Unhappily this report proved to be without foundation.

One member of the rescuing party said that when they got alongside the burning airship the pilot of the tug asked for volunteers to board one part that still was almost intact. Jumping upon the wreckage, the rescuers ripped open part of the fabric while parts of the debris were pulled away by means of ropes. The task was a hazardous one, because of the baloonettes was still filled with gas and another explosion was feared.

Among the wreckage an American naval man was to be seen hanging by his coat to a girder in the frame of the airship. It was believed he was dead, owing to the peculiar position of the body which was not recovered. Another rescuer said one was hanging onto the tall of the ship apparently uninjured, while another was found floating in the water. Both of them were saved.

While the rescuers were at work the balloon began to turn over and the rescue party had to return to the tug.

When first seen from Hull the ZR-2 was approaching the city, coming from a southeasterly direction over the Humber toward Hull. When sailing on an even keel above the city, according to some eye witnesses, a huge cloud of dense smoke burst from the tail of the aircraft. It was thought the ZR-2 was sending out a smoke screen as an exhibition, but to the horror of thousands of spectators, it was seen she had broken in two and was taking a tremendous nose dive, which apparently would bring her down in the thronged streets.

Then there came a loud explosion and a great crash, followed by another explosion, which was accompanied by the breaking of glass in the windows on land, the whole being reminiscent of war times, when German airships bombed Hull and explosions shook the whole town. Today's concussion was so great that it wrecked windows over an area of about a mile square.

Some spectators assert that the airship began to buckle before any flame or explosion was seen or heard. The broken halves of the ZR-2 reached the water nearly a mile apart. The general opinion of the public of Hull is that the commander of the airship accomplished a remarkable feat of bravery in diverting the descent so that it would fall into the water instead of in the crowded streets.

It was a moment of terror for the populace when the disaster occurred. People in the streets rushed madly to cover, fearing that the massive wreck would fall upon and crush them. The terror gave way, however to horror as the wreck plunged into the middle of the river near the corporation pier.

During the fall of the airship three members of the crew were observed making a thrilling parachute descent. They came down into the river where they were rescued by small boats. All who jumped from the falling craft lost their lives. They had no chance for escape, for the water was covered with burning gasoline and the heat from the burning wreckage was so intense that even the rescuers experienced the greatest difficulty in approaching for some time. Barges, trawlers and small boats thronged around the debris willing to render any possible assistance.

Immediately after the disaster telephone messages came from distances up to fifty miles reporting that the people had felt an earthquake shock.

Among those on board the airship were the designer of the ZR-2, Superintendent Warren, of the works where she was built, and Flight Officers Wicks and Matheson.

ZR-2 closely resembled her sister ship, the R-34 which sailed across the Atlantic in July, 1919, although she was 41 feet longer and 7 feet greater in diameter than the R-34. Her gasoline capacity also was greater than that of her sister ship and she had a cruising radius of 6,000 miles in contrast with 4,900 miles credited to the R-34.

It had been estimated that the ZR-3 would be able to cross the 3,200 miles to the American continent in from 3 to 4 days whereas the R-34 had occupied nearly five days in her voyage.

Brigadier-General Maitland, who met death in the disaster today was one of the officers who made the trans-Atlantic voyage in the R-34. He has been in charge of the trials of the ZR-2. It was recalled today how the American members of the crew of the ZR-2 recently had chafed over the decision of General Maitland not to permit the giant craft to leave Howden until sailing conditions were perfect. Maitland was criticized more or less for what was considered over-cautiousness.

Like the ZR-2 the R-34 ended her career in disaster. She was cut in two by a violent wind and left a wreck outside her airdrome near Edinburgh in January, 1921.

This vessel had a thrilling experience on her trans-Atlantic flight, and the collapse of the ZR-2 would seem to have afforded General Maitland some justification for his hesitancy in sending the Americans across seas with the ZR-2 in the face of meteorological odds.

In the construction of the ZR-2 it was thought that many of the serious defects of the smaller ship had been remedied. The vessel underwent daily polishing or cleansing and engineers tested and repaired the six engines, the riggers inspected the controls, gas bags, valves, the outer cover and thin surface. Constant hull inspection on all dirigibles is necessary because of the breakage of small braces and wires. The outer cover fabric sometimes gets torn or blown loose at the joints and repairs were made immediately to prevent the holes from becoming larger. Gas bags were unspected by going over them with a leak finder, which registered any trace of escaping hydrogen. The fabric in the ZR-2's bags was very thin and light and when it chafed through it resulted In a loss of gas, lowered purity and life reduction.

In flight the ZR-2 was operated as far as possible along the lines of a sea-going veasesl. The ship altitude comparatively was 2,000 feet. The crew of the ZR-2 selected to bring her across the Atlantic to the United States, included 14 officers, 10 riggers, 16 mechanics and two radio men. Only a few of these were aboard, however, when the giant air craft plunged Into the waters of the Humber today.


MAXFIELD, Louis Henry, Commander,
U. S. N., Navy Cross, born in St. Paul. Minn.. Nov. 19, 1883.

Commander Maxfield, who was to have commanded the ZR-2 on its trip across the Atlantic, is a native of Saint Paul, Minn. Appointed to the Naval academy from Minnesota in 1903, he graduated with the class of 1907. He was one of the pioneers in U. S. naval aviation, having received his designation as air pilot, heavier-than-air branch, after training at Pensacola during the pre-war period. In 1917 Commander Maxfield went to Akron, Ohio, where he was stationed in lighter-than-air and qualified as a pilot. For several months during the spring and summer, of 1917, he was in command of the U. S. naval air station at Palmboeuf. His next assignment was in the department, Washington, where he was lighter-than-air aid in the office of operations. He was subsequently sent to England, where he has been commanding officer of the airship detachment at Howden.

COIL, Emory Wilbur, Lieutenant-Commander,
U. S. N., born at Westboro, Mass., Sept. 28, 1888.

Lieutenant-Commander Coil was appointed from that state to the Naval academy and graduated with the class of 1911. He entered the aviation service in December, 1910, and trained at Pensacola in heavier-than-air, transferring to the lighter-than-air section in March, 1917. He was a student at Akron in 1917, and there qualified as a lighter-than-air pilot. His next assignment was the command of the Rockaway naval air station. When Commander Maxfield went to Europe in 1917, Lieutenant-Commander Coil took his place as aid for lighter-than-air in operations, navy department. He was subsequently sent to England to serve as a member of the allied aeronautical commission of control. During the past year he has acted as executive officer of the airship detachment at Howden.

HOYT, Henry Willets, Lieutenant,
U. S. N., Navy Cross, born at Clearwater, Fla., May 26. 1890.

Lieutenant Hoyt was appointed to the Naval academy, from Florida and graduated from the academy with the class of 1914. During the pre-war period, Lieutenant Hoyt specialized in kite balloon duty at sea. He also was a student at Akron in 1917, and after qualifying as a lighter-than-air pilot at that place, served for a short time at the Hampton Roads naval air station, and then returned to Akron to assume command of the station there for a short time. He was subsequently in charge of the lighter-than-air with the Pacific air force, until he was sent to Howden as a member of the airship detachment at that place.

ESTERLY, Marcus Herbert, Lieutenant,
U. S. N. R. F., born June 30, 1891, in Columbiana, Ohio.

Lieutenant Esterly enrolled in the Naval reserve force October 11, 1917, was promoted to ensign January 24, 1918, to lieutenant (j.g.) March 13, 1919, and lieutenant January 20, 1920. He was ordered to active duty as an officer February 1, 1918, and has been on active duty continuously since that date.

BIEG, Valentine Nicholas, Lieutenant Commander,
U. S. N., born at Alexandria, Va., Oct. 24, 1889.

Lieutenant-Commander Beig was appointed to the Naval academy from Virginia, and graduated from the academy with the class of 1910. During the war Lieutenant-Commander Beig served onboard the U. S. S. Trippe (March 26-May 10, 1917; at Philadelphia in connection with the fitting out of the U. S. S. Dent, and on board this destroyer as executive officer, when she was put into commission.

LITTLE, Charles Gray, Lieutenant,
U. S. N. R. F., born July 9, 1895, in Newburyport, Mass.

Lieutenant Little enrolled in the naval reserve force May 9, 1917, was promoted to ensign November 6, 1917, to lieutenant (j.g.) June 28, 1918, and lieutenant, January 6, 1917, and served on active duty until the expiration of his enrollment and re-enrolled May 9, 1921.



EMORY W. COIL, U. S. N., Westboro,
U. S. N Clearwater, Fla.
Alexandria, Va.
U. S. N. R. F., Newburyport,


Denver, Colo.
AD PETTITT, C. B. M, New York
Commerce, Texas.

South Carolina.
London, England.
Bainbridge, Ind.


Prepared to Seek Authority for
Construction of New Ship
of the ZR-2 Type.

(By The Associated Press.)
WASHINGTON, Aug. 24. --
Expressions of deep regret were voiced by government officials without exception today over the total destruction of the giant airship ZR-2 with a heavy loss of American and British lives. Pride in the acquisition of the new Queen of the Air and hopes of tremendous development in military and commercial aeronautics had lent interest to the proposed trans-Atlantic flight of the British-built air cruiser even beyond that which It normally would have aroused.

Latest advices to the navy department indicated that of the seventeen members of the hand-picked American crew on board during the test, only one, Quartermaster Norman O. Walker of Commerce, Texas., had survived.

London dispatches however, put the American loss at 17, declaring "every American aboard" was lost.

"It is a terrible thing," was the sad comment of Secretary Denby, as he received cabled dispatches giving the details of the catastrophe.

Mr. Denby immediately forwarded to the British air ministry a message expressing the sympathy of the navy department.

"The navy department of the United States extends to the air ministry and the British navy deepest sympathy in the appalling disaster to the ZR-2," the message said. "We hope our early reports will prove exaggerated as to loss of life."

Far from being discouraged by the disaster, naval aviation officials immediately prepared to seek authority for construction of a new ship of the ZR-2 type in the United States.

"We will carry on; build and operate as many ZR-2's as may be authorized by congress," Admiral William A. Moffett, chief of the naval bureau of aeronautics said tonight, "so that these brave, men may not have lost their lives in vain."

Other aviation officers while greatly distressed, declared they had lost faith in rigid airships. They pointed out that Germany had built and successfully operated 140 ships of similar design, many of only slightly less carrying capacity, while English constructors had turned out 16.

The only serious accidents recorded against these, so far as naval files indicate was the wreck of an early German Zeppelin over Lake Constance before the war and the smashing of the British R-34 when she ran afoul of her hangar.

Official dispatches to the department did not contain any information upon which experts could base an opinion as to the cause of the disaster. The opinion was expressed, however that the theory of an explosion of hydrogen gas in one or more of the fourteen compartments might be dismissed at once. Construction of these sections and other precautionary measures taken in designing the actual containers of the gas, it was said, rendered this possibility very remote.

The theory most generally expressed was that a structural weakness developed, similar to that reported officially by American observers under date of July 18, rupturing the envelope so as to bring the hot gasses of the engine exhaust into contact with the hydrogen, or that a buckling of structural braces might have punctured the fuel containers permitting the escaping gasoline to come into contact with the exhaust lines.

Another possible cause of the accident, but considered remote, involved a buckling of structural braces over or near one of the six "power eggs" which carried the 350 horse-power engines.

The report of July 18 describing the accident of the day before pointed out that the ship was able to stay aloft more than four hours while the crew made an examination.

"From a cause as yet undetermined," the report said, "two intermediate transverse frames at an intermediate longitudinal frame buckled just aft of frame seven."

Repairs were immediately made and structural parts similar to those which had failed were strengthened, a subsequent report said, suggesting that the damage had been caused by overloading one section during the progress of construction. It is presumed here that a thorough survey of the entire ship was made at the time of those repairs to determine whether other sections had been strained.

"Lacking an official report as to the sailing list," recording those who were on board today, the department was unable to publish a casualty list.

Although the ZR-2 had not been accepted formally, under contract with the British air ministry, several payments had been made by the United States toward the cost of construction. It was estimated at the navy department that these payments total $1,500,000, or three-fourths of the total cost.

"Under law and by naval custom no material or vessel ever is considered to be within the jurisdiction of the department until it has finally passed by inspectors or completed prescribed tests and formally turned over. Under this rule, title to the ZR-2 would be considered to have been wholly with the British owners today," naval officers declared.

At the close of purchase contract provided that in the event of loss of the ship during her flight to the United States, each party to the contract would assume half of the cost of construction.

Byrd Among Survivors.

LYNCHBURG, Va., Aug. 24 -- Lieutenant-Commander R. E. Byrd, Jr.. navigation expert of the dirigible ZR-2 is among the survivors, according to a Washington dispatch to The News, quoting a cablegram received at Washington. Commander Byrd Is a son of R. B. Byrd, former United States attorney for the western district of Virginia and a nephew of Representative H. D. Flood, of Virginia.

Halliburton Safe.

MACON, Ga., Aug. 24 -- Shine S. Halliburton, chief engineer, on the ZR-2, is safe, according to a cablegram received tonight by his brother, T. H. Halliburton. The message was dated Hull, England, and signed "Shine."

Lay Native of Alabama.

GREENSBORO, N. C, Aug. 24 -- Chief Petty Officer Maurice Lay, who lost his life in the destruction of the ZR-2 today, was a native of Alabama, but regarded Greensboro as his home. He was married to Miss Mabel Ridge in this city In 1918. His widow survives.


The telephones in The Journal office were kept busy last night answering inquiries from anxious friends of officers and men who were thought to be on the ill-fated dirigible ZR-2.

Lieutenant Ralph G. Pennoyer, who was slated to be one of the officers to make the trip across the Atlantic, was not on the craft yesterday on the trial trip.

Lieutenant Pennoyer was well known in Pensacola, having married while stationed here, Miss May Curtis, who made this city her home for some time. Mrs. Pennoyer was known as a wonderful dancer, and taught dancing at the San Carlos.

Other officers who were slated to make the trip from England with the ZR-2. but who were not with the craft yesterday, many of whom are known in Pensacola, having at some time or other been stationed at the naval air station, are:

Lieutenant-Commander Richard E. Byrd. Jr., Lieutenant Joseph B. Anderson, Lieutenant Clifford A. Tinker, Lieutenant Telford B. Null, Lieutenant John B. Lawrence, and Chief Machinist Shine S. Halliburton.


Many Reasons Given as to What
Might Have Been Cause
of the Explosion.

(By The Associated Press.)
LONDON, Aug. 24 --
Newton White, aviation attaché of the American embassy and Lieutenant-Commander Richard E. Byrd, of the American air service, who was to assist in the navigation of the ZR-2 to the United States went to Hull tonight to take charge of the bodies of the American naval officers and men killed in the disaster.

American naval officers here expressed the opinion that the wreck of the ZR-2 was due to hydrogen escaping from one of the ship's gas bags being ignited by the exhaust from one of her six motors. What they say they are unable to understand, however, is how it was possible that a gas leak sufficient to make an explosion possible could have occurred without it having been discovered through the pressure gauge fitted to each gas bag.

One of the points in the construction of the airship which her builders repeatedly pointed out to visitors at Bedford where the ZR-2 was built was the way in which her six motor gondolas were slung several feet from the outer shell of the craft. This, the builders declared, would greatly safeguard the ship from the danger of leaking gas coming in contact with the backfire flame from a motor.

One conjecture as to what may have caused the disaster is based on the assumption that the ZR-2 might have sprung a girder while riding out the severe storm over England early Thursday night.

Largest Dirigible Ever Built
Had Estimated Speed of
70 Miles an Hour.

When the ZR-2 started on her trial flight from Howden Tuesday she had on board Commander Louis H. Maxfield, of the United States navy, who had been designated by the American navy department to bring the ZR-2 from England to the United States; Brigadier General S. M. Maitland, the British marshal; Colonel Campbell, who supervised the work of designing the dirigible, five other American officers, seven engineers and three riggers, in addition to the regular British crew.

The ZR-2 was the largest dirigible ever built, the dimensions being as follows:
Length 695 feet, diameter 85 feet, capacity 2,700,000 cubic feet, total lifting capacity 83 tons.

The aircraft was operated by six engines. She was estimated to have a cruising radius of 70 miles per hour, giving a capacity to make an aggregate of 6,000 miles of uninterrupted flight. She had a capacity for officers and crew of forty-two men. The gasoline supply was 10,900 gallons. It was estimated that she would cross the Atlantic in 72 hours.

The huge aircraft had four gondolas suspended from the framework. These provided sleeping quarters for the officers and crew and an electrical apparatus for cooking meals. Her wireless set was expected to keep the monster craft in close touch with both shores of the Atlantic and to have a radius exceeding 2,500 miles.

Seen in flight the ZR-2 closely resembled her sister ship the R-34 with a bewildering confusion of aluminum girders, rows of gasoline and water tanks, acres of gas bags and a miscellany of guy wires, pipes, swivels and hinges. A telephonic system connected the entire airship so that the pilot at the wheel was in direct communication with every part of the craft. Electric lights kept the craft brilliantly Illuminated.

A London dispatch of Sunday last quoted the Observer as asserting that during the first trials of the ZR-2 a tendency of the giant dirigible to "hump" developed and that an inspection revealed the fact that certain girders had bent and that lattice work had buckled under the strain. Remedial measures were taken, the newspaper said, including considerable reinforcement of the frame work along much of the airplane's length. In addition to the structural trouble the Observer asserted the ZR-2 had been handicapped by engine difficulty.

The purchase price of the ZR-2 was to be $2,000,000. This, it is assumed, was to become effective after the aircraft had completed her trials and was delivered to and accepted by the American authorities. The British air service had been careful however, to avoid a premature delivery as they had wished to be assured that everything connected with the structural arrangement of the dirigible was in satisfactory condition. It was for this reason chiefly that the flight which terminated so disastrously yesterday begun. The monetary loss, under the circumstances apparently falls on the contractors and those instrumental in building the ship.

Pensacola Journal, 29-August-1921

Pensacola Journal, 29-August-1921

Bisbee Daily Review, 25-August-1921

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