Thursday, October 4th 2018, 2:41 pm
We can finally put to rest an urban legend about the time a Zeppelin visited Tulsa, 90 years to the day after the airship came to town.
The legend says the top of the 320 South Boston Building was built as an airship mooring mast and that an airship actually docked there in the 1920s.
It’s a perfect legend for the city of Tulsa, because it blends the city’s rich aviation history with Tulsa’s magnificent architecture. Too bad a key part of it isn’t true. A great airship did visit Tulsa, but official records prove it didn’t moor at any building here, it didn’t even slow down as it cruised by.
On the afternoon of October 9, 1928, the U.S.S. Los Angeles – a U.S. Navy airship -- passed just east of downtown as it headed north from Fort Worth to Kansas City.
I had heard the legend of the mooring a few times over the years but had never paid much attention to it. That all changed in March of 2015, thanks to a Facebook post by the Philbrook Museum of Art. That post inspired a voyage of discovery that would eventually take me to the National Archives to get to the truth about the airship’s visit to Tulsa.
In a #ThrowbackThursday post on March 12, 2015, the Philbrook showed a large, blown-up version of a photograph of an airship floating over downtown Tulsa. The post said, “Zeppelin over Tulsa in the 1920s.” Thanks to that picture the legend of the visiting airship suddenly became much more interesting. Since there was a photo of the airship over Tulsa, it was now conceivable that an airship actually HAD docked here.
The photo was from the legendary Beryl Ford Collection at the Tulsa Historical Society, and it showed the Los Angeles heading north just east of the 320 South Boston Building and the Philtower. At 400 feet high, the 320 South Boston Building was then the tallest building in Oklahoma. Its neighbor, the Philtower, was also brand new, having been built by oilman Waite Phillips.
Jeff Martin, Communications Manager for Philbrook, said the museum created its large version of the photo in the spring of 2011 for an exhibition called “American Streamlined Design.” He said the blown-up photo was not part of the show but fit the vibe so they put it on the wall of the entryway. “People were taking pictures in front of it. It was such a cool picture we decided to keep it.”
Once the exhibition closed, museum staff transferred it to the back side of the double doors into the gallery, a spot where employees could still enjoy it every day. Four years later, Martin realized it would make a perfect #ThrowbackThursday post on the Philbrook’s Facebook page. That’s where I saw it and the journey began.
Rigid airships, specifically Zeppelins, were big news around the world in the 1920s. Travel by airplane was still in its infancy, while travel by airship offered customers a chance to see the world in relative comfort.
Zeppelins were a type of dirigible, which is a French term that means "steerable balloon." The Zeppelins were so big and technologically advanced they drew intense interest wherever they went.
The U.S. Navy had a robust dirigible program in the 1920s and 30s, using both blimps and rigid airships. Blimps are basically big bags with no internal structure, which limits their size. Rigid airships had internal frames and could therefore be much bigger and carry much more weight, including more passengers and fuel. The most famous rigid airships were known as Zeppelins, named for the man who pioneered them, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin of Germany.
The U.S.S. Los Angeles was the only one of the U.S. Navy’s four rigid airships not to be lost in a crash during a storm. The Shenandoah crashed in Ohio in 1925, the Akron in the Atlantic in 1933 and the Macon in the Pacific in 1935.
Built by the Zeppelin Company in Friedrichshafen, Germany in 1924, the Los Angeles was turned over to the United States Navy as part of Germany's reparations for World War I. Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles it could not be used for military purposes, so it was fitted out to carry passengers. The Germans had used Zeppelins to bomb civilians in World War I so after the war the Allies wanted to make sure that would never happen again.
The Zeppelin Company called this one LZ-126, the U.S. Navy renamed it ZR-3. The wife of President Calvin Coolidge christened it the Los Angeles in Washington, D.C. on November 25, 1924
The Los Angeles was huge, at 658 feet long, 90 feet in diameter and 2,472,000 cubic feet in volume. She flew 81 hours non-stop from Germany to her new home in Lakehurst, New Jersey in October of 1924 in what was only the 4th trans-Atlantic flight by any kind of aircraft.
Non-flammable helium was scarce back then, with the U.S controlling most of the world’s production, so the Germans had filled her with flammable hydrogen. As soon as she arrived in New Jersey the Navy removed the hydrogen and replaced it with helium. Her five engines gave her a maximum speed of 75 miles per hour, but she usually cruised at about 55.
An online search of the Beryl Ford Collection turned up three photographs of the Los Angeles’ visit to Tulsa. One photo appears to have been taken from the Philtower looking south and shows the Zeppelin approaching downtown Tulsa. It shows the Holy Family Cathedral and the Oklahoma Natural Gas Building, with what appear to be spectators gathered on the roof.
The second photo is the picture the Philbrook used. It appears to have been taken from the roof of the Mayo Hotel, looking east as the Los Angeles gracefully cruised just east of the 320 South Boston Building and the Philtower.
A third photo shows the Los Angeles being escorted by several small planes. There are no buildings or other landmarks in the shot so it’s impossible to know exactly where it was taken, but the Beryl Ford Collection says it was over Tulsa.
A fourth photo, purportedly also taken from the Mayo, shows the Los Angeles much closer to the 320 South Boston Building and the Philtower. It’s labeled “Lee Krupnick,” who was a photographer for the Tulsa World. I think this photo was doctored. It appears someone created it by cutting out an image of the Los Angeles and pasting it on a blown-up photo of the 320 South Boston Building and the Philtower.
We felt a connection to the legend here at News On 6, because KOTV’s original antenna was on the top of the 320 South Boston Building from sign-on in 1949 until a bigger tower was built in 1954.
In the late 1960s, we also used the top of the building to alert people to changes in the weather by lighting the spire in different colors.
It was called the “Weather Teller,” a play on words based on the building housing the National Bank of Tulsa back then. The bank is now called Bank of Oklahoma, and we brought the Weather Teller back in 2017.
The Los Angeles had left its base at Lakehurst at dusk on Saturday, October 6, 1928, arriving in Fort Worth 48 hours later. It was on a mission to make a big loop around the central United States to show the giant craft to as many people as possible. A few years earlier, the Navy had built a helium production facility in Fort Worth and the Los Angeles spent the night of October 8, 1928 moored there before heading to Tulsa on the morning of October 9th.
The wire services would have alerted newspapers and radio stations along the route that the ship was coming, giving anyone who wanted to see it ample time to get into position to watch it pass by.
A front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune, an afternoon newspaper, on October 9, 1928 indicates many people did just that. “At the first sign of the ship the roofs of the downtown district became crowded with people,” the paper reported. The paper makes no mention of the airship mooring anywhere in town. Had the Zeppelin docked in Tulsa, newspapers across the country would have printed a photo of it, and the Tribune would have put it on page one. Instead, the Trib used a photo taken when she left Lakehurst on the previous Saturday.
The internet then led me to Enid native and retired Air Force officer Bill Welker, who loves airships so much he runs a web site devoted to them.
Welker was happy to share his extensive knowledge of U.S. Navy airships and specifically the U.S.S. Los Angeles. He cleared up the confusion about the date of the Los Angeles’ visit to Tulsa, stating that it was 1928, not 1929 as some sources claimed.
Welker knew the legend of the mooring well and had done a lot of work using photographs and mapping software to investigate whether it was feasible that an airship could dock at the 320 South Boston Building.
He suggested a visit to the building to see if there was any evidence the spire had been built for docking airships.
We found no evidence the spire was designed as anything other than decorative: no means of transporting wealthy passengers or their luggage up and down and no heavy machinery necessary to secure a huge airship. The only structures visible inside the tower are a narrow staircase and an exhaust pipe for the old steam boiler in the basement.
Chris Bumgarner, the owner of the building, told us in 2015 he thought the building's complex construction history probably had something to do with the legend's creation. The building was constructed in three stages with the tower being completed in 1928.
“This building took 12 or 13 years to evolve into what it is,” he pointed out. The great airships, including the U.S.S. Los Angeles, were traveling all over the world during much of that time.
Because it's a great marketing tool, Bumgarner wanted the legend to be true but seemed convinced it wasn't. He was gracious in allowing us access to the inside of the spire.
When I shared photos of the inside of the building with Welker he was disappointed, but then he said something that struck a chord. He said he’d tracked down the official logbooks of the U.S.S. Los Angeles in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. It took me more than three years, but I finally got the chance to see those logbooks.
To see records at the National Archives, you have to become an official researcher. Because the Archives will be entrusting you with official U.S. records, you have to promise you won’t damage or alter them in any way. Once you’ve completed the brief training and gotten your official ID, you then have to tell the staff in the research room specifically which records you want to see and then wait for the staff to bring them to you. They don't allow you to take pens or markers into the research room, only pencils. They do allow you to take phones and cameras so you can photograph the records.
The U.S.S. Los Angeles logbooks for October 1928 are here:
Record Group 24
That box contains the logbooks for the U.S.S Los Angeles from July 1, 1927 to October 31, 1928. The logbooks contain two types of records. On one page is a chart featuring the instrument readings for each day, including time, altitude, temperature, speed and heading. The other page contains the narrative of what the ship was doing.
The log entries for October 9, 1928 confirm the U.S.S. Los Angeles flew over Tulsa, but they say nothing about mooring at a building here.
According to the logbook, the Los Angeles’ visit to Tulsa happened on the “12 to 16” watch, which was noon to 4 p.m. The chart says the airship was at an altitude of 2,000 feet and a ground speed of 44 miles per hour.
The logbook contains a single paragraph about the airship’s flight over Oklahoma, including mistakenly referring to Wetumka as “Metumka” and Okmulgee as “Okumlgee.” Here’s what the entry says:
1212 Crossed Canadian River north of Allen, Okla. 1248 Passed Metumka, Okla. 1315 Engine #5 half speed and stopped #4. 1325 Over Okumlgee, Okla. 1345 Engine #4 half speed. 1415 Over Tulsa, Okla. 1542 Over Independence, Kansas, c.c. to 22 degrees T, drift 12 degrees L, var. 9 degrees E. Distance cruised during this watch: air knots 139.2, ground knots 180. S.E. Peck, Lieutenant, U.S. Navy.
There’s no mention of mooring in Tulsa, not even of circling downtown, just three words. The log proves the Los Angeles flew over Tulsa at 2:15 that afternoon, but it also proves the airship didn't stop. About an hour and a half later it flew over Independence, Kansas. A log entry from the previous day, October 8, 1928, includes a notation that the Los Angeles “commenced circling” over Dallas as it headed to Fort Worth, so if the Los Angeles had circled over Tulsa that fact would have been recorded in the log.
Like Bill Welker, I’m disappointed the official records show the Los Angeles did not dock in Tulsa, but it was still great fun to learn the history of Tulsa’s link to one of the great airships.
When the Los Angeles cruised over Tulsa it was the height of the oil boom, a year before the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Her visit happened just minutes before Game 4 of the 1928 World Series was to begin in St. Louis, a game which Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the rest of the Yankees would win, sweeping the Cardinals for the title.
It was a time when seeing an airplane was still a novelty, so watching a stately airship longer than two football fields cruise gracefully by, her five 12-cylinder Maybach engines running smoothly, must have been a thrill for anyone in her path. Imagine a farmer out working his field somewhere in eastern Oklahoma when he suddenly caught sight of the giant dirigible passing overhead. Probably told that story for years afterward.
The Los Angeles was retired in 1932, to save money. She was brought out of her hangar at Lakehurst a few times during the 1930s for testing that didn’t involve flying. She was in that same hangar when the Hindenburg disaster happened just outside on May 6, 1937, effectively ending the era of the great airships.
The only serious mishap the Los Angeles suffered occurred on August 25, 1927, while she was tethered at one of the ground masts at the Lakehurst base. A gust of wind lifted her tail into colder, denser air, causing the tail to lift higher.
The ship eventually reached an angle of 85 degrees before descending on its own. No one was hurt and the ship didn't suffer any serious damage, flying the next day.
In 1929, the Los Angeles tested the trapeze system the Navy developed to launch and recover airplanes from rigid airships. The equipment worked and was installed on the bigger Akron and Macon airships.
On May 25, 1932, the Los Angeles took part in a demonstration of photophone technology. While cruising over Schenectady, New York, the crew of the ship had a conversation on the air with a WGY radio announcer using a beam of light.
She accumulated a total of 4,398 flight hours, covering 172,400 nautical miles which included flights around the U.S. as well as to Panama, Costa Rica and Bermuda.
The Los Angeles was dismantled in her hangar after being stricken from the Naval Register in October of 1939, a sad end for an airship that had served the Navy well.
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