By Gregory Clark, September 1, 1928.

A Trip in a Dirigible is Something New in Flying

You ask the kind of fellow who likes flying what flying is like and he brightens up perceptibly and says:

“Oh, it’s great. Great stuff.”

“But what’s it like? Tell us something about it.”

And his vivid eyes in his wind-red face stare anxiously at space as he bites his lips, trying to think.

For those who like flying as a rule are feelers, not thinkers. And how can you describe feelings? How would you describe the taste of oysters?

When the Goodyear people were kind enough to offer The Star Weekly a nice long ride in their little dirigible, “The Puritan,” we decided that here was a good chance to describe one aspect of flying – height.

So we took the train down to Akron, the Goodyear city, and at six o’clock in the morning, climbed the ladder into the four-passenger gondola of the little airship to fly to Toronto. We had aboard a hundred gallons of gas, because there was a strong east wind blowing, and as the dirigible only makes a true speed of about fifty miles an hour, the head wind would cut it down to thirty or thirty-five, just as a wind behind us would boost our speed to sixty-five or seventy. And in addition to the pilot, Jack Boettler, who is about a hundred and eighty pounds, besides being the acknowledged best airship pilot in America and who taught the United States Navy most of what it knows about blimps, there was August O’Neil, the boss mechanic, who is another near six-footer, and H. E. Blythe, assistant to the president of the Goodyear corporation in the States, who wears forty-twos.

Seeing old navy blimps at Folkestone during the war, I had the notion that a dirigible was a kind of balloon with a propeller and that it floated along through the air aided and abetted by an engine that helped it on its way.

I did not know It could put its nose straight up in the air and shoot skyward like a rocket, or pointing Its nose to earth, dive like a plummet.

But when we were all aboard at Akron, with twenty men hanging on to our drag ropes and removing the heavy sand bags that held us down, the ground crew slowly hauled us out of the great hangar, and at a word of command let go the ropes.

The two engines, one on each side of the gondola, roared, and with a rush and a whoosh, the little dirigible pointed its nose to the sky and leaped, in a breath-taking instant, to a height of a thousand feet. I have taken off as a passenger, in Bristol Fighters, RE 8’s and big, modern five-passenger planes, but nothing I ever felt, not even New York elevators, shot me aloft quite so suddenly and swiftly, as this little airship that I was cheerfully expecting to float off the ground like thistle down.

Quite Different to a Plane

When you look at it, silver and glistening and huge, crawling through the air, it looks so smooth and bloated, you cannot imagine it is hitting up a speed that would make your motor car vibrate even on a pavement.

The sensation in a balloon is utterly unlike that in a plane. They call it an airship. And a ship it is. It rides the waves of air.

The sky is filled with great rollers, rapids, backwaters, eddies, currents. When an aeroplane goes tearing through the sky, it is smashing and backing these waves and pockets. Sometimes a plane will drop, with a sickening sensation, scores or hundreds of feet into an unseen abyss in the ether.

But the airship slowly and cheerfully heaves up over these air waves, lifts her nose to the near side and dips her nose down into the far side of them. In the aeroplane, the pilot is continually fiddling and manoeuvring with his stick as the plane rushes and leaps, like a sea flea, over the air currents. In the blimp, the pilot, sitting back in his easy chair, in a nice little cabin hung in space, has a large wheel beside him, like a ship’s wheel turned sideways. This is the elevator control. When the ship lifts her nose on a roller, he depresses the elevator. And when she rides across the top and starts down the far side of the unseen, heaving waves of air, he lifts her nose.

There is no sensation of speed, of tumult, of force. The vibration and frenzy of the aeroplane do not exist. The big fat bag can be seen looming above, out of the windows of the gondola. The gondola is about the size of a limousine, with four chairs. It has windows all around, and the ones beside you open so that you can rest your elbow out them and see the world go by.

There being nothing between you and the earth, there is no sensation of dizziness or of great height. I get slightly sick when I look over the top of the new Star building. I let my wife hang pictures and put new bulbs in the light fixtures. But when you look over the side of an aeroplane or an airship, you simply don’t believe it anyway. So it doesn’t hurt your feelings.

The world seems to contract. Grow small. Trees and houses and fences become tiny, like the toy farms and houses you buy the boy for Christmas. And ever so much prettier than they look close up. They seem clean and ordered. All the stains and dirt are lost to sight. Toronto is one of the most beautiful sights in the world from a thousand feet above it. The wild geese must have a very great respect and admiration for men.

Leaving Akron, we leaped, with not merely engines hoisting us, but a huge helium-filled gas bag, to a thousand feet, and Pilot Boettler tested the air. That is, he turned his nose into the wind and found it strong and bucking hard. So little by little, he steered the ship lower and lower, as he began the drive northward towards Lake Erie, until he found the altitude at which the air was least disturbed by boiling currents and heaving waves, and the wind mild and steady. It was at about four hundred feet that we made the first few miles of the journey.

Like a Monstrous Flying Pig

That is the one great cardinal virtue of airships. You can fly so low, with a good margin of safety. Pilot Boettler dropped us down to two hundred feet in some places to have a look at the ground. An aeroplane rushes along at such a pace, the scene is blurred if you are low, and if you are high enough for a safety margin, the earth is in map-like miniature.

We sailed along, like yachting, so low that we could wave to the farm children that ran out to see us passing. We could see their faces. I noted and identified two kinds of hawks floating in the air beneath us. We put the wind up the bird world something terribly, for an atavistic memory made them dream for an instant of ichthyosauri and other monsters that flew in vastly bygone ages.

Cows were the least moved of all creation by our appearance. A few went so far as to rise clumsily to their feet as we sailed over. But most of them went right on biting grass. It takes a lot to make a cow worry about the future. But pigs!

You see, a blimp looks something like a monstrous flying pig. It is huge and fat and sleek.

We arrived low over a field in which there was a litter of seven or eight pigs about the size of spaniels. They were busy in a bunch when suddenly they saw – well, maybe they thought it was the god of pigs coming down to earth! Anyway, they stood in a circle for a moment, in consternation, heads lowered, turned aside, afraid to believe their eyes and ears. Here was the hugest pig imaginable, with the longest sustained grunt and squeal they had ever heard, and it was making right for them.

Then as we approached, and they believed, they broke and fled, scampering in a tight, tangled mass, simply crazy with fright. But pigs can’t run fifty miles an hour, so we overtook them, and they halted suddenly, all in a frantic heap, and stood, with heads lowered and hidden, until we passed with a roar over them.

And then – when we had passed, they pursued us, chased desperately across the field in our path, until a fence halted them. I imagine they stood for some time, squealing their supplications after us as the god of pigdom.

Horses when we appeared would lash their tails and scam per excitedly around the field, first away from us and then, with a kind of arch-necked bravado, right towards us.

It is not far, by air, from Akron to Toronto. But we went across Lake Erle between Chatham and St. Thomas, and then passed over London, Woodstock, Brantford and Hamilton on a kind of sightseeing tour. Yet this journey took us nine straight continuous flying hours. We left at six a.m. and we landed on the Goodyear lawn at New Toronto at 3p.m., a working day of nine hours steadily plodding through the air against an east wind that sometimes was a young gale.

A Nice Sleep in the Air

We were two hours crossing Lake Erie, two hours with nothing but the steel-gray lake eight hundred feet below us, with little gulls waving out of our course far below. Mr. Blythe leaned back in his deck chair and had a nice sleep over Lake Erie. We passed a number of freighters that seemed to be stopped, so smartly did we outdistance them, even though bucking a wind. They were toy ships. I wanted one for my boy, but Captain Boettler said it probably belonged to somebody anyway.

When we came at last to the Canadian side, we did not know the precise locality on account of the possible drift that had occurred over the lake, so we saw, just a little way inland, a railway, and on the railway a station and a village.

Captain Boettler pointed the ship’s nose at the village, ran down to within a hundred feet, shut down his engines! – that was a curious thing to one who had flown in a plane – slowed them down until they idled, and the ship just hung there in space about a hundred feet above the village while we read the name on the station. West Lorne. Then we waved good-by, thank you, tilted the prow upwards, turned on the engine and went soaring away while the pilot got out his map, located our position and laid a course across country for London. He has a compass floating in front of him.

Canada seems to be so much more cultivated than the part of the States we passed over.

Every field that is not woodlot is under cultivation. The fields are laid out better in orderly lots with fences. But the farm houses lack the paint and color of the American farms.

Every few miles, the air currents would shift and change. Where it was best riding a four hundred feet at West Lorne, it was much quieter at eight hundred as we neared London. The pilot, sitting back in his chair, with his feet cocked up on the railing in front of him, with a sort of bay window in it that made it feel as if he were sitting in an old fashioned hotel settin’ room, the pilot would keep the ship’s nose on the course and lift and lower her over hundred-foot waves that sometimes rolled under us.

It was exactly like yachting. When we heaved up over a wave, the ship’s nose would veer to one side or the other, and the rudder, which is controlled by foot pedals, would have to correct her direction while the elevator wheel kept her on an even keel.

Landing on a Dollar Bill

Nine hours is a long time to fly, or even to motor, without once getting down to stetch your legs or eat a little lunch. It was a relief to come at last out over the mountain at Hamilton, where fierce air rapids boiled and rushed up and over the great wooded cliffs. We swooped and slid about on them as Captain Boettler aimed her down, down into the valley and over the lake, heading for Toronto, and able from our height, already to see the tall white towers of Toronto that are beginning to make it a city against the sky.

We sailed over the Exhibition, just to let Mr. Blythe see what Toronto can do in that sort of thing.

“Sail her over high and do a dive,” I said to the plot. “These people think this is just a balloon. They don’t know it can stunt.”

So we dove and climbed while I shot pictures out the window with a camera – none of which turned out because the developer did not know they were panchromatic plates. And the views of the crowd from on high were failure.

When we turned back to New Toronto the Goodyear plant, and hovered over the vast factory, I could not figure out how Boettler was going to dock his sky ship on so small a piece of ground. There were chimneys al about and the recreation ground was hemmed in by houses and telegraph lines.

“Oh,” said Mr. Blythe “he can land on a dollar bill!”

Far below, we saw the ground crew of two men waiting on the grass. We sailed down wind, turned nose into the wind and suddenly, startlingly. Boettler swung the nose of the ship straight down. And with engines on, we dove at forty-five degrees straight for the landing ground. With a whirl of the wheel, he flattened her out, slacked off his engines, dropped the long trailing ropes that had been coiled up, and the ground crew had us. Sand bags were slung on. And there we were, riding on our single tire, with ladder dropped from the cabin door.

But the first thing that happened as we set foot on the ground, a young man in blue stepped forward:

“Any baggage, Mr. Clark?”

“Yes. My valise here.”

“Would you open it, please?”

“Eh? Really?”

“Yes, please. I’m from the Customs.”

I thought he was joking. But he was not. He was an officer of the Customs.

So even if I did smoke Luckies, which for mercy’s sake I don’t, it wouldn’t have done any good smuggling by air.

Editor’s Notes: Bristol Fighters and R.E.8s were World War One airplanes.

New Toronto used to be a separate village in the Etobicoke area of Toronto which housed the Goodyear Tire and Rubber plant from 1916 until 1987.

Panchromatic film was a type that was available commercially in 1906, however it was more expensive, and had to be developed in total darkness (no red lights). It would still be something relatively new in 1928, and could be ruined if not processed properly.

“Luckies” were Lucky Strike cigarettes, the top-selling cigarette brand in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s.