It was 1918 and twenty-six-year-old George Austin, a small city journalist, was sent to cover the story of retired U.S. Army Colonel, Gordon Victor Remington, and the launch of his newest flying machine – a rigid airship called GR-5 Cedar Dell. At the suggestion of the Colonel’s attractive secretary, Sarah Kelly, he was invited to accompany nineteen influential dignitaries on a demonstration flight around Cape Cod and the islands of Massachusetts. George hoped the story of that flight would cause his stalled journalistic career to finally take off. And takeoff it would – but not as he planned.
“All engines slow-ahead.” Came the next order. The Buzzards Bay gradually began her ascent in the early morning air. With no obstacles ahead, the airship made a gentle 180 degree turn to a south-southwest to get on course. As the airship passed 700 feet George began rotating the elevator wheel to the nose-down position. With the airship being so large there is a certain lag time from the control input to the airship actually responding; similar to a large ocean liner. George learned with the Buzzards Bay, if the nose were lowered 200 to 300 feet before the intended altitude then the ship should arrive very smoothly at the desired altitude. It was the mark of a proficient elevatorman to keep the ship as level as possible, without wild variations in altitude, and George was determined to be proficient. Before they even reached 1,000 feet the Braxton could be seen as a black speck out in a sea of white, which was normally water. The colonel moved closer to the control car’s front window peering at the dark speck ahead searching for the small plume of smoke that should be coming from her funnel. He hoped to use this plume of smoke as a wind direction indicator thereby determining how to approach the ship, yet even at 1,000 feet no smoke was visible. He picked up his binoculars in order to get a better view, but still there was no sign of any smoke; and the ship seemed to be down slightly by the stern. Not being a nautical man the colonel couldn’t be sure if the ship was simply up on the ice slightly or perhaps the boilers were already shut down and without the pumps she was taking on water. Still, the colonel needed some indication of the wind if the landing was to be a successful. “Mr. Austin, take us to 600 feet.” Once again George skillfully, and gently, brought the ship to the required altitude. When the ship was level at 600 feet the colonel moved to the center of the cabin placing the black speck of the Braxton behind the forward window post and waited. Slowly the black speck appeared to the left of the window post indicating that at 600 feet at least there was a slight wind out of the east. Knowing this he planned to make a downwind approach on the Braxton’s starboard side since the ship was for the most part facing the east. The Coast Guard Life-Saving Station at Truro was able to contact the Braxton on the wireless long enough to relay rescue plans before losing contact with them. The plan was to have the sailors get out onto the ice as far away from their ship as possible once they saw the airship approaching. The colonel wanted to be as far from the Braxton as possible when he set the airship down in case the wind changed direction, possibly swinging the airship into the Braxton’s superstructure. “Come to 090 degrees.” Acknowledging the order, the helmsman spun the ships wheel to the left and slowly the nose of the airship came to the new course. “Mr. Austin, bring us to 20 feet if you please, no lower,” the colonel said calmly when they made their final approach to the Braxton. George acknowledged the order then slowly rotated the wheel to the right. In the current situation, bringing the airship to within 20 feet of the surface was risky given the ragged chunks of ice piled up due to the changing tides. As the airship descended lower that dry feeling in George’s throat returned. When the altitude reached 100 feet he began to rotate the control wheel to the left to slow their rate of descent. He had to be precise in gauging when to level off to keep from slamming into ice; he noticed his right hand was shaking slightly. As the airship came closer to the Braxton the colonel ordered all engines slow ahead, at the same time moving closer to the front window, accessing the situation ahead. It was obvious now the Braxton was down by the stern and definitely taking on water. A group of men could be seen leaving the ship, and with noticeable difficulty, attempted to make their way across the ice away from the ship. The sailors were able to move some distance from their ship but not far enough to completely satisfy the colonel; their progress was blocked by large pieces of ice partially submerged creating pools of water. So, like it or not, the he ordered the helmsman to steer for the group of men out on the ice. Staring out the cabin window as the airship approached its chosen landing area the colonel noticed something he hadn’t counted on. With some difficulty four of the sailors were carrying someone across the ice. The wireless reports received from the Coast Guard Life-Saving Station made no mention of any injuries to the crew, so the original plan was to hover the airship 20 feet above the ragged chunks of ice dropping a rope ladder for the sailors to board the airship. The plan just became a bit more complicated, but not impossible, just time consuming. And the longer the Buzzards Bay stayed near the Braxton the greater the chance for disaster. With the airship’s engines set at standby the airship would be a giant weathervane left to the vagrancies of the wind. Without power the helmsman could counter any small deviations the airship would make due to the shifting wind by using the rudder. But unlike the GR-5 Cedar Dell that had a top and bottom rudder, the Buzzards Bay had a small bottom rudder only; if the wind increased the ship would be uncontrollable without use of her engines.
Robert J. Keith is a retired firefighter/EMT and a licensed private pilot with a seaplane rating. A chance encounter in 1983 allowed him to pilot, with an instructor, the Goodyear blimp Enterprise. Since that flight he has become an avid airship enthusiast. As a 1970 graduate of Vesper George School of Art, in Boston, he continues to draw and paint his favorite subject — aircraft. He is the author of Blue-Collar Wings, Remembering Thirty Years of Private Flying. Robert lives in Massachusetts with his wife Nancy.