Goodyear Blimp Crashes on Breathitt-Wolfe Line

By Stephen D. Bowling

It was a terrible storm, but they knew it would be. For a few days, the weather division of the United States Army had called for cold rain or snow with high winds. The pilots knew that the non-stop trip from Arkon, Ohio to warmer temperatures in Gadsden, Alabama would be difficult. They did not understand precisely how difficult and dangerous the trip would become.

The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company launched its first airship, the Pilgrim, in 1925 as a marketing and publicity scheme to increase brand awareness. Between 1925 and 2017, the company launched numerous “blimps” and flew them over large population centers and at high-profile events like football and baseball games. The Goodyear blimp would become a visible marketing tool for many generations.

One of those non-rigid construction dirigibles was the Puritan (NC-7A), which launched on its first flight on July 2, 1928. Named for the boat that won America’s Cup in 1885, the Puritan was a Type TZ airship and was 128 feet long and 36 feet in diameter. The soft cloth body of the ship held 86,000 cubic feet of helium and was propelled by two Siemens-Halska engines that were capable of producing 82 house power each. In 1929, Goodyear replaced the 86,000 cubit-foot envelope with a large 96,000 cubit-foot bag.

The Goodyear Blimp Puritan in 1929.

The blimp, as the ships in the fleet are commonly called by the public, traveled across the eastern United States and made hundreds of “public appearances” before that fateful night in 1930. The pilot, Verner L. Smith, and navigator, August C. O’Neil, left Akron, Ohio about ten o’clock Friday night January 11, 1930. They were expected to be in Alabama by the next day but “mother nature” had other plans.

Shortly after takeoff, the pilots noticed that the light rain had turned to sleet and they struggled to keep the ship in the air. The strong winds blew them off course, and the engines were nearly powerless. They attempted to steer around the oncoming storm. As they dropped south and crossed the Ohio river, witnesses reported that the ship was “struggling” and was “forced to fly at a steep angle.” One witness later said that the ship used all of its power to barely miss some high-tension lines in Ashland.

The Louisville Courier-Journal published a photograph of the airship Puritan and its pilot, V. L. Smith (top left), and navigator August C. O’Neil on its front page of its January 12. 1930 edition.

With visibility dropping and layers of sleet and ice building up on the ship, the trip became perilous as the pilots dropped below the clouds in an effort to gain visibility. The pilots fought all night with the wind and weather. The weight of the ice forced the ship so low to the ground that they could see into the windows of the houses they flew over near Lee City.

As they struggled, the pilots steered the ship to a steep 20-degree angle in an effort to increase their altitude and increase their visibility in the thick fog. With the engines running at full strength, they tried to stay above the trees. A few moments later, at about 4:30 a.m. on January 12, the Goodyear Airship Puritan was hanging in the trees on the Breathitt-Wolfe County line.

Smith and O’Neil told investigators that they did not see the mountain or the trees until the crash occurred. They described a loud “ripping, tearing noise” as the first inkling that the ship was lost to the weather. Both were unhurt in the crash, but the blimp, valued at $75,000, was destroyed. The large, silver “bag” was tangled in the trees. The 96,000 cubic feet of helium emptied into the air. The cabin was slightly damaged and was suspended a few feet above the ground. The pilots made their way to the ground, and Pilot Verner Smith stayed with the aircraft. A. C. O’Neil climbed down the hillside in the snow and walked three miles to the home of Curtis Ely on the Wolfe County side.

An image of the wrecked cabin of the Puritan appeared in The Philadelphia Enquirer on page 17 of the January 16, 1930 edition.

Ely had been awakened by the sound of the engines and was the only witness to the accident. “I heard a funny noise overhead,” Ely told reporters. “I didn’t know exactly what was happening. I knew it wasn’t from the storm, so I went outside the house.” The witness said that he looked up and saw a
“big black object being tossed about in the sky. It’s an airship I thinks to myself.” Ely said that the ship “pitched every which way” before it hit the trees with a loud crash. He watched as a large portion of the bag was torn away by the wind and landed on the ground near the trees.

After warming up at Ely’s home, O’Neil caught a bus to Campton where he found a telephone and called Goodyear headquarters to report the crash to T. V. Van Orman of the Goodyear Zeppelin Corporation. Orman told the navigator to return to the ship and begin operations to salvage the engines, pilot house, and other parts not damaged in the crash. After eating breakfast, he hired a car to drive him back to the scene of the crash.

Over the next few weeks, salvage crews worked to remove the Puritan from the side of the mountain. The engines were hauled to the Kentucky-Virginia Highway (now Highway 205) and transported to Akron. The Puritan was refitted, and several improvements were made before it was relaunched in the fall of 1930.

The repaired Goodyear Puritan lands at the Biltmore Country Club at Coral Gables in March 1931. – Source: The Miami Herald-Sun, September 29, 1991, page 125.

The crash in Eastern Kentucky was not the Puritan’s first incident. The ship had already earned the label as Goodyears “Hard Luck” dirigible for several incidents prior to its encounter with the side of the mountain. Nor would the Kentucky crash be the Puritan’s last. Strong winds damaged the ship on February 8, 1931, in Miami, Florida. The damage was minor. Near tornadic winds from a severe thunderstorm blew the Puritan into its mooring mast in Travers City, Michigan in July 1931 during the Cherry Festival.

The ship would have several other minor incidents. The Goodyear Company decided in August 1931 to retire its “hard luck” ship. The old NC-7A Puitian ceased operations on August 31, 1931, and a newly constructed Puritan which had been under construction with more powerful engines and a semi-rigid frame was launched on September 5, 1931.

The new Puritan, launched in September 1931, was used to rescue two pilots who crashed into the Everglades in January 1932. The airship is seen landing at the Miami Airport in the photo from the Saturday, January 2, 1932, edition of The Miami News.

The Puritan name was given to several airships that replaced the one that crashed on the Breathitt-Wolfe County line, including the Puritan V which continued the lucky streak and was destroyed in a hurricane in 1938. The Puritan name was finally retired from the Goodyear fleet in April 1948.

The Puritan (VI) shortly before it was retired in 1948.

There are few people alive today that remember the cold and snowy day that one of the Goodyear’s blimps came to the ground near the Breathitt-Wolfe County line. The final report of the crash does not give an exact location of the incident. The vague description placed the site in Breathitt County, although it was most likely just across the line in Wolfe. One of Goodyear’s fleet still occasionally passes over the area, but none will hopefully ever get as low as the Puritan did on January 12, 1930.

© 2023 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
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