The first time Don McDonald went to Grand Central airport was in 1929. He and his father watched the launch of the metal dirigible built by Thomas B. Slate, a local inventor who had developed commercial dry ice.
Slate's goal was to provide a coast-to-coast passenger service with his all-metal airship landing on the rooftop of large hotels in about a dozen cities across the nation. Here's how it was supposed to work, as detailed in the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 5, 1928.
“A traveler leaving Los Angeles will wait for the ship on the roof of the hotel. Promptly on schedule, a great silver-gray airship will appear overhead and hover, nosing into the wind.”
A lengthy description followed of a passenger elevator descending from the ship to take on passengers and how the airship would be refueled while travelers were boarding. Then, the airship would travel on to the next city, where it would repeat the process. (Slate had selected the Hotel Glendale as our city's landing site.)
The airship had made news in Europe also. Earlier that year, two representatives of a European cruise line came to inspect Los Angeles' harbor. They also came to Glendale to see if Slate's airship could transfer passengers to and from their cruise ships.
Slate had been working on his airship for years, the article noted. He was on his third one; two others had been destroyed by high winds, but now that he had a covered mooring at Grand Central, he expected no further problems.
Slate said his team worked independently. “There are no bosses standing over the men to keep them busy. Every man here is keenly interested in the job and as anxious to see the ship a success as I am myself.”
So, the launch day arrived. And here's 11-year-old McDonald's view of what happened.
“We were part of an excited crowd watching this much-publicized event. As the huge craft slowly rose, it suddenly stopped and sank back to earth. We found out later that a hydrogen intake valve had stuck open and the pressure had popped a number of rivets.”
McDonald, who now lives in Los Altos and wrote his memories for the Spring 2011 Glendale Historical Society's newsletter, continued, “because this could not be corrected without completely rebuilding the ship, Slate's enterprise was sunk, wiping out the (mostly Glendale) investors who had joined him in his dream, which included a mooring mast above the Glendale Hotel.”
McDonald saw two dirigibles as a young boy. He caught a glimpse of the famous Graf Zeppelin, made in Germany, which safely flew 34,000 passengers more than a million miles around the world between 1928 and 1937, according to airships.net.
The Zeppelin stopped in Los Angeles during a round-the-world flight in August 1929. McDonald said, “It looked like an angelic silver cloud. We could scarcely hear the unusual muffled throb of its five diesel engines.”
Inspired by the sight of the beautiful Graf Zeppelin, McDonald later participated in a debate as a student at Wilson Junior High. He took the position that the dirigible had a brighter future than the airplane.
“Of course,” he concluded, “such a debate would have been impossible a few years later when the Hindenburg and other dirigibles crashed and burned.”