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March 15, 1957 – Return of the Snowbird

Posted March 16, 2007 4:45 PM by Steve Melito

On this day in engineering history, "Whitey the Snowbird" returned to the United States. The U.S. Navy's helium-filled airship finished the longest and farthest non-refueled, continuous voyage since the Graf Zeppelin flew around the world in 1929.

On March 15, 1957, U.S. Navy ZPG-2 Airship 141561 landed at the Naval Air Station (NAS) in Key West, Florida after spending 11 days and 12 minutes (264.2 hours) aloft. "Snowbird", as the massive airship was affectionately known, traveled nearly 9,500 miles, all the while demonstrating its capabilities as an all-weather vessel and Cold War radar platform.

Launched from South Weymouth, Massachusetts in a freezing drizzle, the airship traveled east over the North Atlantic before turning south toward the Azores and along the coast of Africa. After heading westward over the South Atlantic, "Snowbird" made for the Florida Keys, where dignitaries such as Admiral William J. "Bull" Halsey were on hand to meet its 14-man crew.

U.S. Navy ZPG-2 Airship 141561 was equipped with 2 Wright 1300-2A engines located in nacelles mounted within the car. Though easily accessible for in-flight maintenance, the engines were extremely loud because of their interconnected dual-drive, clutch-shaft-gearbox design.

During "Snowbird's" 11-day flight, the crew cruised mostly with one engine shut down and a minimum of onboard systems operational. If the pilot throttled back too far, the engine would backfire a few times.

Francis J. Maxymillian, a radio operator aboard the "Snowbird", remembers hearing "these big booms" while trying to get some sleep. "I came flying out of that bunk and was halfway down the ladder to the flight deck before I realized no one else was worried." Fortunately, the airship's all-electric galley worked like a charm; however, a few extra engine revs were required to fire up the oven or do any heavy cooking. According to Maxymillian, the cook used chocolate milk mix to concoct a birthday cake for one of the crew members. Cigarettes served as candles.

Resources:

nlhs.com

thetranscript.com

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