Glendale, the airship capital of the world! That was the dream of a brilliant, self-taught inventor by the name of Thomas B. Slate.
Selecting Glendale as the site of the Slate Aircraft Company in 1925, his futuristic portrayal of an efficient and comfortable means of passenger travel between Los Angeles and New York, as well as the profit potential of the venture, convinced many prominent Glendale residents to become stockholders. Intrigued by his commitment to name the first airship built "The City of Glendale," the City Council leased a large tract of land to Slate at the new Grand Central Air Terminal.
The innovations incorporated into Slate's rigid-frame airship were designed to overcome various flaws that had hampered conventional dirigibles. With a hull shaped like an elongated egg, constructed of a lightweight aluminum alloy and powered by a steam-driven blower in its nose, the craft would be capable of transporting 30 passengers and crew at 100 miles per hour on 1,200-mile legs. With stops at major cities, the trip from Glendale to New York would take 36 hours. Airfare would be approximately the same as that of railway Pullman service.
The 80-foot-long cabin would offer comfortable sleeping accommodations and a dining salon. One of the more innovative conveniences was an "elevator-and-anchor" system that would allow three passengers to disembark to the ground from a height of 500 feet. A landing platform for the elevators' cable descent was to be erected on the roof of the Glendale Hotel.
Operating out of a large trench intended to serve as a windbreak, prototype construction began in 1926. Eleven weeks into construction, Santa Ana winds lifted the framing out of the trench, totally destroying it. Undeterred, Slate and company erected a huge hangar to house the next assembly effort.
On Dec. 19, 1929, "The City of Glendale" was wheeled out of the hangar for its maiden cross-country flight; 2,000 requests for seats on the flight had been received. Thousands of spectators crowded the airfield in anticipation. But the fates would have it otherwise.
Minutes before departure, as hydrogen gas was being pumped aboard, the pilot noticed that one of the safety valves had stuck. The airship was being over-inflated. Police ordered the crowd back as rivets popped, the hull bulged and escaping gas was heard. No one was hurt.
After the extent of the mishap had been assessed, Slate met with the stockholders and informed them that the damaged section could not be accessed and that the airship was effectively a total loss. He appealed for additional funds to start the project anew, but the "Crash of 29" had occurred two months earlier, eliminating all potential sources of financing.
Two years later, Slate, in the presence of newsreel cameras, climbed onto a catwalk high atop the hangar and, with tears in his eyes, dropped a 50-pound sandbag onto the hull. Rivets popped, ribs buckled and the hull of the airship crumpled to the floor. Slate's grand vision of building ever-bigger airships, capable of transporting 800 to 1,200 passengers, ended with the destruction of the "City of Glendale."
The hull was sold for scrap and sections of the hangar became hay barns in Arizona. Slate moved back to Oregon, where he continued to invent. He died in 1980 at age 99. Its runways too short to accommodate big jets, Grand Central Airport closed in 1955.
The U.S. Army recently awarded a contract to Northrup Grumman for the design of an experimental airship capable of transporting an entire Army battalion and its equipment. The heavy-lift, low-energy potential of such an airship may someday result in the realization of Slate's grandiose dream of commercially viable cruising airships capable of carrying hundreds of passengers.
So next time you see Snoopy floating high above the Rose Bowl, envision the possibilities of an air-cruise to your favorite tropical island aboard a similar craft.
PAT GRANT has lived in Glendale for more than 30 years and was formerly a marketing manager for an insurance company. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.