Lighter Than Air Craft
The Board of Naval Officers chose the Brunswick site for the new Naval Air Station in July of 1942. Glynn County was chosen as a base for airship operations because of the accessibility of the Atlantic Ocean eight miles to the east, a lack of air hazards in the clear approaches offered by the marshes, and the availability of good water, adequate electrical power, and rail transportation. The site was carved from over 2,400 acres of flat pinelands and palmetto swamp. On this location, Glynco NAS joined eight other east coast airship bases in a coordinated effort to combat the frightening toll taken by German submarines.
The first use of Lighter-Than-Air (LTA) craft in U.S. military operations dates to the Civil War, when Union forces used hydrogen-filled “kite balloons” fitted with baskets to observe Confederate battle lines and artillery locations. The Navy’s association with LTA craft was born during this conflict when observation balloons were moored to barges or specially constructed boats which moved the balloons into position. The Navy lost interest in LTA after the Civil War and did not revive it until fixed-wing aircraft emerged in the early twentieth century.
The Navy revived interest in LTA during World War I when Germany first unveiled its deadly submarine fleet. At first, the design and engineering of non-tethered hydrogen-filled airships were relatively untested and an early Navy attempt to build one was disastrous. Continued research and development fared better, however, with the B-class airship which was used extensively during World War I.
Airships’ ability to hover made them invaluable for coastal patrol and escort work in both European waters and along the US coastline. Used in conjunction with airplanes, airships could detect the presence and position of German submarines or mines and then warn surface vessels of potential threats. Airships could also attack submarines with guns and bombs. Their ability to cruise for extended periods at slow speeds with little vibration enabled airships to detect submarines and mines which might not be visible to rapidly moving airplanes.
The Navy’s experience with LTA during WWI led to increased airship design experimentation and innovation in the following years. This work led in 1919 to the first domestically produced rigid airship, the USS Shenandoah, which was inflated with helium rather than the flammable hydrogen.
Research in the 1920s and 30s also led to the development of the K-type non-rigid airship which became the workhorse of the Navy’s airship fleet at World War II installations, including Glynco. The K-type ship was the largest non-rigid airship in the Navy’s fleet. It was 250 feet long with a gas volume of over 400,000 cubic feet. The airship featured an internally suspended 40-foot long control car fitted with anti-submarine patrol equipment such as radar and underwater search gear. Armed with four 350-pound depth bombs and 50-caliber aircraft machine guns, the airship was a deadly foe to U-boat commanders.
The K-ship was typically manned with a ten-person crew. Ship officers included a flight captain, two copilots, and a navigator. Enlisted personnel included an airship rigger, an ordnanceman, two mechanics, and two radiomen.
K-ships were ideal for coastal patrol with their ability to hover during slow-speed searches at altitudes of 100 feet or less during missions that lasted as long as 26 hours. The ships’ ability to operate at night or when bad weather reduced visibility made them particularly valuable when other aircraft remained grounded. These attributes also made the ships adept at rescue missions for people in distress.