The airship USS Shenandoah
was the first American built rigid airship. Although built in the United States, Shenandoah was based on the design of the German L-49, a World War I high altitude bomber which had been forced down intact in France in October, 1917 and carefully studied.
Construction of ZR-1 took place during 1922 and 1923; parts were fabricated at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia, and the ship was assembled at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. ZR-1 was 680.25 feet long, with a diameter of 79.7 feet, and could carry up to 2,115,174 cubic feet of lifting gas in 20 gas cells. As originally built the ship carried six Packard 6-cylinder engines — five mounted in individual power cars attached to the hull, and one mounted at the rear of the control gondola — but the sixth engine was removed in 1924.
ZR-1 made a series of test and demonstration flights in September and early October, 1923 — including an appearance at the National Air Races in St. Louis and flights over New York and Washington — and on October 10, 1923, the ship was christened USS Shenandoah
(an American Indian term meaning “daughter of the stars”) and officially accepted as a commissioned vessel of the United States Navy.
On September 3, 1925, on its 57th flight, Shenandoah
was caught in a storm over Ohio. Updrafts caused the ship to rise rapidly, at a rate eventually exceeding 1,000 feet per minute, until the ship reached an altitude over 6,000 feet. Shenandoah
rose, fell, and was twisted by the storm, and the ship finally suffered catastrophic structural failure, breaking in two at frame 125, approximately 220 feet from the bow. The aft section sank rapidly, breaking up further, with two of the engine cars breaking away and falling to the ground, killing their mechanics. In all, fourteen members of the crew were killed in the crash.