The First Airship Filled With Helium Still Crashed Spectacularly
The other day, we were telling you about the USS Shenandoah, the first airship to use helium. The crazy fact we wanted to share was how much helium it used. It held more than 2 million cubic feet of the stuff, as much as around ten Goodyear blimps, which was at the time most of the world's helium reserves.
But helium seemed like a worthy upgrade from hydrogen. The reason, of course: safety. Hydrogen is extremely flammable, while helium isn't flammable at all. Helium airships won't explode—and despite what cartoons might tell you, they also won't suddenly pop or go whizzing uncontrollably if punctured. The airship has a rigid body, and the helium is kept at a low pressure, which means it won't rush out even if a hole does rip open.
Despite all this, the USS Shenandoah ended its life with a huge crash. Meanwhile, a fair number of hydrogen airships went into retirement without any deadly incidents whatever.
It was September 2, 1925. A storm yanked the Shenandoah too high in the atmosphere, and that "low-pressure" helium suddenly was pretty high-pressure compared to the rarified air around it. The wind ripped much of the ship apart. It crashed to the ground, killing 14 of the 43 aboard. Incidentally, that's roughly the same proportion of people who'd die in the Hindenburg disaster 12 years later—despite that famous fiery photo, 62 of the 97 aboard the Hindenburg survived.
The multiple sections of the airship landed across Ohio. And local people immediately swarmed the crash sites ... to grab souvenirs. By the time soldiers showed up to keep the looters back, people had already made off with most salvageable stuff, including all data recordings. Later, the farmer who owned one crash site started charging people to come take a look. Once he'd made $500 ($8,000 in today's money), he was afraid the police would shut him down, but they told him no worries, it was all good.
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Top image via Wiki Commons