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by Don Kennon

Returning to the subject of dramatic visual imagery of flying machines and the United States Capitol, I am struck by how the Capitol has been used for promotional purposes by various aviation agencies, both governmental and commercial.  Consider these two photographs of the visit of the German airship Graf Zeppelin in October 1928, designed to demonstrate the practicality of transoceanic flights.  As the Washington Post reported on October 16:

“The inspiring sight of the great Graf Zeppelin floating over the Capitol and the White House demonstrated to Americans that the practicability of airships for long-distance travel and transport is no longer to be questioned. This airship left Friedrichshafen, Germany, on October 11, and passed into United States territory on the morning of October 15. This is faster time than has ever been made by a steamship, although the Zeppelin swung far to the southward to avoid bad weather. The same mileage could not have been made by the Mauretania or any other steamship in less than seven or eight days. . . .

 “Germany has set an example that spurs other countries to emulation. Americans congratulate the ingenious and persistent Germans who have developed the Zeppelin, and will make their compliments take the sincere form of imitation. Immense airships, sustained by noninflammable gas and driven by powerful motors, will eventually cross the sea carrying the American flag.”

Unfortunately, the destruction of the Graf Zeppelin’s sister ship, the Hindenburg, at Lakehurst, N.J., on May 6, 1937 when it burst into flames as it was preparing to land brought the era of the commercial use of airships.

The first of two photos depicting the “Graf Zeppelin” flying over the U.S. Capitol in October 1931 (Library of Congress).

Second image of the “Graf Zeppelin” floating high above the Capitol, October 1931 (Library of Congress).

Thirty-five passengers and crew of the Hindenburg perished along with one person on the ground, but the deadliest airship accident was the 1933 loss of the USS Akron which crashed into the ocean off the New Jersey coast killing 73 members of its 76-man crew.  Ironically, the Akron was built and commissioned largely as a result of the success of the German zeppelins, and it, too, had flown over the U.S. Capitol on its maiden voyage on November 2, 1931.

The USS Akron on its first voyage as a commissioned airship in the U.S. Navy cruised down the east coast from Lakehurst, N.J. to Washington, D.C. in 1931 (Library of Congress).

We’ll conclude this post with a look at one of the more intriguing aviation oddities, the autogyro, also known as the autogiro, gyrocopter, gyroplane, or rotaplane.  This flying contraption essentially uses an unpowered rotor in autorotation to develop lift, and an engine-powered propeller, similar to that of a fixed-wing aircraft, to provide thrust.  Invented by a Spanish engineer, Juan de la Cierva, the autogyro first flew in 1923.  Although the development of the helicopter largely displaced autogyros, they were used in the 1930s by the Postal Service to deliver airmail between the Camden, N.J. airport and the Philadelphia post office.  U.S. Senator Hiram Bingham of Connecticut (1924-1933), an aviator who had commanded the primary Air Service flying school in France during World War I, was an avid supporter of the autogyro, which he claimed was almost as safe as a church pew.

An autogyro lands on the grounds of the Washington post office with the Capitol in the background in 1939 to demonstrate the feasibility of a shuttle airmail service (Library of Congress).

An autogyro aircraft, possibly a Pitcairn PA-18, in flight over the US Capitol. This image was likely taken on the same occasion as the next photograph (George Mason University Library).

Senator Hiram Bingham poses on the wing of an autogiro after returning to the Capitol from a round of golf in 1931. The Bingham Genealogy Project, by Douglas K. Bingham (http://www.telusplanet.net/public/dkbing/genproj.htm).

References:
Airships: The Hindenburg and Other Zeppelins (http://www.airships.net/lz127-graf-zeppelin)
Autogyros (http://www.jefflewis.net/autogyros.html#history)

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