On this day in 1931 it was reported that an airship had managed to dock at the top of the Empire State Building in New York City. This sounds like a pretty unlikely scenario and to explain how it came about, I need to go back a bit.
In the late 1920’s there was a huge amount of rivalry between a small group of very rich people to see who could build the world’s tallest skyscraper. The competition continued to rage despite the stock market crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression. At first there were two projects involved, the Bank of Manhattan Building at 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building. Each added extra stories to their plans during construction. It looked as though 40 Wall Street would come out on top, but the Chrysler building had a secret. They had constructed a 125 ft metal spire and hidden it inside the building. It took only ninety minutes to add the surprise spire. The Chrysler was a clear winner at 1,050 ft. But it didn’t last long.
In 1930 construction began on a third skyscraper. The Empire State Building. Like the other two designs, extra stories were added to the design. The building was going to be eighty-six stories high and, at 1,050 ft, the same height as the, then uncompleted, Chrysler Building. Unlike the builders of 40 Wall Street; the main investor of the Empire State, John Raskob, suspected that the Chrysler would pull some last minute stunt. He suggests that his building: needed a hat.
The hat would be 200ft high and bring the building up to 103 stories and a height of 1,250ft. Al Smith, chairman of the building’s construction company, insisted that this decision was not taken to outdo the Chrysler, but that it was an economic investment. The mast would be used as a mooring point for airships. The airship would be able to throw out a line which would be attached to a winch. Then it’s nose could be pulled right up to the mast. Passengers would be able to simply walk down a gangplank, into an elevator and be on Fifth Avenue within seven minutes. It would be much better that the lengthy journey currently experienced by international airship passengers, all the way from Lakehurst, New Jersey.
The Navy Department, who ran the landing site at Lakehurst, were pretty sure it was a terrible idea. Landing an airship was a tricky business even on the ground. They said that they would really need to experiment with a mooring tower somewhere else first before they tried it over a massive city. They further pointed out that a Graf Zeppelin would at some point need to jettison hundreds of gallons of water ballast before it could rise as high as the Empire State. Dr Hugo Eckener, commander of the Graf Zeppelin, and probably the greatest expert on the subject, agreed that it would be too dangerous. He knew that there would be irregular and violent updraughts of air between the high buildings, the worst possible conditions for an airship. Even if the ship did manage to anchor it would be unstable. If a draught caught the underneath of it, it could be lifted vertically and wind up standing on it’s nose.
This is true, it had actually happened at Lakehurst in 1927. An airship was moored to a mast only one tenth of the height of the Empire State Building. It was a calm day but a sudden sea breeze caught the tail and the ship was lifted almost vertical and began to swivel around. After that they started to use much smaller mooring towers and weighted down the tail end. Eventually even Al Smith had to admit that there was a problem. Weighting down the tail would mean fifty ton lead weights swinging high above the streets of Manhattan. Not really a thing that people would be comfortable with.
In May 1931 when the building opened, the necessary winching gear had still not been, and never would be installed. So the airship that was reported to have ‘moored’ there was not an international airship, nor did anyone actually get on or off. In was an advertising blimp belonging to the Dunn & McCarthy Shoe Company. In winds of 45 mph the ship battled to get close enough to drop ropes to a ‘ground crew’ of just three men. Without winding gear, they were only able to hold the ship for about one and a half minutes before they were completely exhausted. It was decided that the mooring tower would be best used for delivering mail.
An attempt to deliver some newspapers via airship was made two weeks later. The photographers and celebrities invited to witness the event were almost swept from the narrow balcony by a wind-tossed blimp. It also had to drop it’s water ballast, drenching everyone for several blocks. A more successful effort was made the following day, but still the person who cut the stack of papers from the lowered rope was lucky not to be pulled over the balcony. The delivery was hailed as a mighty success by Al Smith, but no further attempts were made to use the docking station.