Saturday, February 15, 2014

Fort Worth: Sky High On Airships ~ The Helium Center Of The US Dirigible Fleet

Since 1918, the citizens of Fort Worth had been aware that the was a possibility the the U.S. Navy would  establish a helium plant north of the city to service the huge airships or the rigid dirigible design that would soon be under construction. A strong source of helium, which unlike hydrogen won't burn, was the key to the new airship program.  The best source was in the helium rich natural gas deposits around Petrolia, northeast of Wichita Falls near the Red River. After the field was proved a pipe line brought the natural gas to Fort Worth.

1919-1920 Greater Fort Worth Map Clip <click image to enlarge>
A Greater Fort Worth map by C.H. Rodgers published in 1919, shows a U.S. owned Argon gas production facility in the southeast corner of what is now Blue Mound and Terminal Road about a half mile east of Meacham Field. Like helium, argon is a rare gas that can be extracted from natural gas.

<click image to enlarge>
 In 1922 the plant was completed and small scale production began pending the testing of the feasibility of using helium instead of hydrogen in large airships. This had never been done before and there was a question as to whether helium, which has less lifting power than hydrogen per cubic foot would really work or not.

In December of 1922 the U.S. Navy inflated their airship C-7 with Fort Worth helium for the first time and did a demonstration flight over Washington D.C (See above). It was a huge success and a  proof of performance. It also revealed that helium had a number of other advantages over hydrogen including a faster loading or refueling time and less loss of gas at various altitudes and temperatures.

July, 1924 Dallas Morning News <Click image to enlarge>
In addition to the plant expansion, it would be necessary to be able to dock and service the airships passing through Fort Worth for refueling and maintenance. A tall 175 foot lighted mast with embedded mooring points in a radius around it would be necessary as well as a small building and parking places.

May, 1924 Dallas Morning News

The work was rushed and the facility began to take shape.  The only question was when would the first airship visit to Fort Worth take place?

September, 1924 Dallas Morning News
 By this time most of the construction had been done and the mooring mast and tine-downs had been placed in a field just across the road to the northwest of the plant.

1925 Greater Fort Worth Map Clip <click image to enlarge>
The new facility is shown on a rather well-worn 1925 Great Fort Worth map by C.H. Rogers. from the Electric Books Collection.  The mooring mast is shown in the upper left red box and the plant in the lower right box just below what is now Terminal Road.

It was a great excuse for a Fort Worth party! Thousands turned out to watch the graceful ship maneuver in and out of its mooring as hundreds manned the ropes that dangled from the

1924 Airship Shenandoah In Fort Worth
From The Electric Books Collection
 <click image to enlarge> 
For several mores Fort Worth was a major part of the Navy airship fleet. In 1928 the Los Angeles came through to much acclaim.  But times were changing....

August, 1928, Dallas Morning news
The Petrolia gas field declined to an unusable point and a new primary helium plant was built in the Amarillo area. Much of the Fort Worth equipment was shipped to that location. Some of the buildings eventually became a regional FAA center.

The large airships were slow, clumsy to maneuver, and could not withstand high winds and bad weather. Accidents happened. In 1937, the German owned Hindenburg Zeppelin which had never switched from hydrogen to helium partly due to U.S. government restrictions on the foreign sale of helium caught fire and killed 35 of its crew and passengers.

March, 1938 Dallas Morning News
The prospect of a global war was in the air in 1938 and it was becoming evident that the US needed many fast airplanes and a greatly expanded naval fleet.  Although the Navy was still pushing for rigid airships, the general consensus was that they were outmoded.

As it has turned out, helium is one of the most valuable gases in use today and is becoming rare and very expensive.  While still used in "blimps", its uses in industry are everywhere.

Airships and helium were a great and little known part of Fort Worth history in the first half of the 20th century...

1 comment:

  1. Hope the new owner of the property appreciates its history. Another pearl of the past that Fort Worth is modest about.