A Facebook post by the Philbrook Museum of Art has sparked new interest in a forgotten milestone in Tulsa's aviation history.
Last Thursday, the Philbrook posted a photo of the back doors of its main gallery which showed them covered with a picture of an airship flying over Tulsa. It was the U.S.S. Los Angeles passing over downtown Tulsa on its way to its home base in New Jersey.
The date was Tuesday, October 9, 1928. What a sight it must have been to see the Los Angeles cruising majestically over a city that was booming thanks to its status as the oil capital of the world.
The U.S.S. Los Angeles was built by the Zeppelin Company in Friedrichshafen, Germany in 1924. It was turned over to the United States Navy as part of Germany's reparations for World War I, and under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles it could be used only for passenger service. The Zeppelin Company called it LZ-126, the U.S. Navy called it ZR-3.
It was giant. Ninety feet in diameter and stretching 658 feet, it was longer than two football fields. The Los Angeles was powered by five, 12-cylinder Maybach piston engines that gave it a maximum speed of 75 miles per hour, though it usually cruised at just 55. As soon as it was delivered to the Navy's airship base in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the Navy removed its flammable hydrogen lifting gas and replaced it with helium.
According to newspaper accounts from the day it visited Tulsa, the Los Angeles was spotted approaching downtown at 1:40 p.m. Thousands of Tulsans climbed onto roofs or stuck their heads out windows to catch a glimpse of the massive Zeppelin. At 2:10 p.m. it arrived over downtown, passing to the east of the Philtower and what was then called the Exchange National Bank, now known as the 320 South Boston Building, which was the tallest structure in the state at the time.
That's where Bill Welker enters the picture. Welker is a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and certified information system security professional from Enid who now lives in Colorado. He created a web site he calls Then and Now! to highlight his research into airship history.
“I've always been fascinated with the great airships - an era I missed - and a few years ago, I was looking at a photo of an airship, and I vowed to determine where the photo was taken! I succeeded! I like revisiting history by knowing exactly where some great events took place,” he wrote in an email to News On 6.
Welker has posted a mountain of research on the U.S. Navy's rigid airship program, which was active from the end of World War I until the late 1930s. The Navy also used blimps for decades, but they differ from the rigid airships because they didn't have internal frames.
Using a process called photo grammetry, Welker has been able to discover many details about period photos of the airships, including pinpointing the path the Los Angeles took as it cruised over Tulsa that day in 1928. It passed directly over the intersection of 5th and Elgin as it headed almost due north.
Welker said the Los Angeles left Fort Worth at 8:58 a.m. on October 9, 1928. Its arrival in Tulsa was captured by at least three photographers whose work survives thanks to the Beryl Ford Collection. Two of the photos were taken from the roof of the Mayo Hotel, showing the Los Angeles passing just to the east of the Philtower and Exchange National Bank. One picture was taken by Lee Krupnick, a photographer for the Tulsa World. It appears he was positioned on the roof of the Mayo near its famous sign. A second photo, which can be seen in the Tulsa City/County Library's Beryl Ford Collection, was apparently taken from the Mayo's penthouse patio, about 25 feet lower than and 40 feet south of Krupnick's position. The identity of the photographer who took it has been lost over the years.
Welker believes Krupnick's photo was taken as much as an hour later than the first Mayo photo, because the Los Angeles is closer to the two skyscrapers and because of the people visible on the roof of the Exchange National Bank in that picture. He says the airship would have had to make a circle and descend a few feet for that to be possible, but so far he's found no official document proving the Zeppelin did that.
A third photo was apparently taken from the Philtower building looking due south as the Los Angeles approached. The photo shows the Holy Family Cathedral and the Oklahoma Natural Gas Building, which appears to have spectators gathered on its roof.
Welker hopes to eventually make a trip to the national archives in Washington, D.C. to examine the actual flight logs of the U.S.S. Los Angeles and the other great airships. He's even gone so far as to find the location of those specific records there.
Legend has it that the tower of the Exchange National Bank was actually built as a mooring mast for airships and that an airship docked there in 1930. However, no one can find any contemporary newspaper reports of the event, which surely would have been covered extensively if it really happened. Welker has his doubts, because his research indicates the towers on the Exchange National Bank and the Philtower are only 492 feet apart, 166 feet less than the length of the Los Angeles. An airship the size of the Los Angeles moored at the mast would have risked colliding with the Philtower if the wind shifted. Boarding an airship through a slender tower 22 stories above street level would also have been a challenge for most passengers.
According to a newspaper report from October of 1928, the great airship was due to arrive in Kansas City between 6 and 7 p.m. that night, on its journey back to its base in Lakehurst, New Jersey. It was met and escorted over Tulsa by eight airplanes, some of which can be seen in the photos.
The Navy decommissioned the Los Angeles in 1932 to save money. It was the only U.S. Navy rigid airship not to be lost in a crash. A storm destroyed the U.S.S. Shenandoah in 1925, the Akron crashed in a thunderstorm in 1933 and the Macon was lost in a storm in 1935.
The Los Angeles returned to service briefly in 1933 after the loss of the Akron, but was dismantled for scrap in 1939. It was being stored in its hangar at Lakehurst when the infamous Hindenburg disaster happened at the same airfield on May 6, 1937.
Jeff Martin, Online Communities Manager for Philbrook, said the museum obtained its image of the Los Angeles from the Tulsa Historical Society and created a large version that covered a whole wall for its exhibition, “American Streamlined Design,” which ran from February 13 to May 15, 2011.
“Wanting to add a Tulsa element to the exhibition and a tie back to the origins of Philbrook itself (built in 1927), the image seemed to perfectly encapsulate the ideas of the show and retains a certain amount of awe all these years later,” wrote Martin. That's a fact proven by the response the image received when he posted it on Facebook.
Martin said many of the museum's exhibition graphics live on behind the scenes and this one now adorns the back side of the doors to the main changing gallery.