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Discover Mid-America — January 2008

Kansas City’s dirigible airline

That blimp hovering over a football game, providing a camera platform or advertising venue, is a survivor. The blimp (a non-rigid airship) is today’s version of an old concept — when airline executives considered using lighter-than-air vehicles for public transportation.

In 1897, while the Wright brothers and European inventors were first tinkering with ideas of heavier-than-air flight, the first dirigible flew in Berlin. It was a rigid airship, using an aluminum frame with a small engine powering three propellers. Also in Germany, Ferdinand von Zeppelin developed dirigibles that would become bombers in World War I and airliners for the next two decades.


One view of a dirigible airliner that never was. (from a 1920s illustration in The Kansas City Star)

According to C.V. Glines, writing in Aviation History Magazine, a German airline, Delag, operated a route between 1910 and 1914 using dirigibles. Serving the cities of Freidrichshafen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Leipzig, Potsdam and Dresden, the line hauled 37,000 passengers “without mishap.” Glines said that German historians admitted the airline schedule was “rarely kept.”

So shortly after World War I, when heavier-than-air flying machines were flimsy and often crash prone, it was logical that U.S. airline entrepreneurs would consider the dirigible. The Kansas City-based Commercial Airship Syndicate, Ltd., formed in 1919, may have been America’s first commercial airline.

In June, 1919, Charles Ora, the syndicate’s local manager, announced that the “sport blimp” purchased from Goodyear, would leave the following month from Swope Park in Kansas City for a pilot trip to Ft. Worth, TX. The announcement, published in the June 22nd Kansas City Star, quoted Ora as saying the company “expects to install regular service, at least twice weekly, by September.”

Ora said the two-passenger dirigible would make the pilot trip for the purpose of “completing arrangements at the stations en route for proper landing facilities.”

The regular service was to use a “monster dirigible” having a cruising radius “equal to a trip across the Atlantic, with a capacity for 144 passengers.” The syndicate announced the big ship would have “sleeping, dining and smoking room facilities.”

A twice-weekly service was to be set up in September, with stops in Coffeyville, KS; Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Ardmore, OK. The promoters figured the total trip time to be nine hours — about half the time required by rail. Their figures were based on an estimated air speed of 80 mph. The passenger rate was expected to be 20 cents a mile. (It is not known whether the Syndicate planned stops in Dexter, KS. According to local reports, the town’s helium deposits had been used by dirigibles, which were a source of amusement for the local population in the early 1920s.)

Ora said the saving in time “will prove attractive to Oklahoma oil men and business men.” Largely financed by Texans, in 1919 the Syndicate was headquartered in the Wyandotte Building in Kansas City, KS.

Apparently, the “monster dirigible” concept gave way to more conservative ideas. But the Kansas City-based company continued to make aviation news.

On March 7, 1920, the New York Times reported on an aviation exposition that included an exhibit by Goodyear of their “Pony Blimp.” The blimp was to be used “for passenger and freight service … between Kansas City, MO and the middle western cities as soon as a similar dirigible has been completed.” The New York Times reported the dirigible would be 95 feet long with a speed of 45 mph, and would carry eight passengers and crew.


The Goodyear Pony Blimp served as the pilot airship for the Commercial Airship Syndicate. Ltd. (courtesy Rosebud’s WW-I and Early Aviation Archive)

According to Goodyear records, the company made three Pony Blimps in 1919-20. Built with a non-rigid envelope holding 35,350 cubic feet, the Pony Blimps were 95 feet long and 28 feet maximum diameter. All were powered with the Lawrance L-2, a 50-hp, 3-cylinder radial engine. Top speed was 45 mph. Of the three, one was sold to the Commercial Airship Syndicate, and a second to a California company that offered blimp rides from Long Beach to Catalina Island — refitted with a Model T Ford engine. The commercially used blimps were helium-filled. The third Pony Blimp was destroyed in a hangar fire July 19, 1920 at Goodyear’s Wingfoot Lake facility in Akron, OH.

Chief pilot of the Commercial Airship Syndicate Ltd. was Frederick Karl Gampper, Jr., a licensed airship pilot and engineer for Goodyear, who was the holder of license No. 53, issued by the Aero Club of America.

Gampper had impressive credentials regarding lighter-than-air technology. He worked for Goodyear from 1913 to 1921, the last four years at Goodyear’s Wingfoot Lake facility, where he supervised their airship operations and was the pilot of the Wingfoot Lake blimp.

According to Wikipedia, Gampper left Goodyear in 1921 and came to work as chief pilot for the Commercial Airship Syndicate, Ltd, whose offices by then were in the Gumbel Building at 801 Walnut in Kansas City, MO. The syndicate’s Pony Blimp was hangared in a building located near the river.

After weeks of negotiating with officials in the various cities, the Syndicate put together a flight schedule, placed newspaper ads and readied their blimp for action.

But the “maiden run” of the new dirigible airline was not to happen. The night before the flight, a “high wind or tornado” destroyed the hangar and blimp, leaving a pile of splintered wood, ripped fabric and broken dreams. The storm spelled the end of the Syndicate, and the idea of regularly scheduled dirigible flights in the Midwest.

Since those early days of aviation, heavier-than-air technology pushed ahead of blimps and dirigibles, evolving into today’s jets. Kansas Citians have seen other airships over the years, including Goodyear’s Navy blimps and, more recently, advertising blimps that hover over Arrowhead Stadium and the downtown area. But nobody has had the opportunity to commute to Coffeyville or Tulsa in a blimp airliner.


Ken Weyand can be reached at kweyand1@kc.rr.com


> Traveling with Ken Archive — past columns

 

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