Seattle man was a key figure in the airship era

Jun 20, 2023, 10:06 AM | Updated: Jun 21, 2023, 9:09 am

Seattleite Roland G. Mayer was aboard the airship Shenandoah when it visited the Northwest, seen here moored to a mast at what’s now JBLM in October 1924; the airship was destroyed in a crash in Ohio less than a year later. (Photo courtesy Lee Corbin) In March 1927, Seattleite Roland G. Mayer flew a record 370 miles in a gas balloon from Lakehurst, New Jersey to Lisbon Falls, Maine with Thomas G.W. “Tex” Settle. (Photo courtesy National Air and Space Museum) Roland G. Mayer (first row, second from right) was First Lieutenant aboard the airship Los Angeles in 1928.  (Photo courtesy National Air and Space Museum) In the aftermath of the Hindenburg disaster in May 1937, Seattleite Roland G. Mayer served on a panel that conducted a brief investigation of the tragedy at Lakehurst, New Jersey.  (Courtesy Dan Grossman) The airship mooring mast and maintenance building are long-gone from JBLM, but the concrete footings of the forgotten structures remain. (Courtesy Lee Corbin)

Around 86 years ago, a German airship, the Hindenburg, crashed in Lakehurst, New Jersey. The disaster still resonates, thanks to newsreel footage and the dramatic recording made by radio broadcaster Herb Morrison.

But the Hindenburg wasn’t the only airship that crashed in the United States in the period between World War I and World War II.

Northwest settlers created DIY government in 1843

And throughout the 1920s and 1930s, a mostly-forgotten man from Seattle was deeply involved in America’s efforts to develop “lighter-than-air” aviation through balloons and helium-filled, rigid airships.

He helped design the airship Shenandoah, and was serving as an officer on board when that giant Navy dirigible broke apart over Ohio in September 1925, and he helped guide safely to earth the forward section of the crippled craft.

He served as an officer on the Navy airship Los Angeles, and flew on the Akron and the Macon.

He was at Lakehurst, New Jersey the day after the Hindenburg disaster in May 1937, and took part in the Navy’s initial investigation into the crash.

But for some reason, the high-flying aviation exploits of Seattle native Roland G. Mayer have remained in the background, even right here in his hometown.

Roland G. Mayer’s grandson Kevin Vogel owns an art gallery and lives in Dallas.

“He also was a glider pilot . . . [and he had a] glider license, actually, that was signed by Orville Wright,” Vogel said. “So that will give you an idea of how long ago he was involved in all of this.”

Vogel says America’s “lighter-than-air” aviators have been mostly forgotten by history, as has the original military purposes of airships – to patrol the oceans for enemy ships and serve as skyborne aircraft carriers. This eventually proved impractical, dangerous and often deadly.

Ian Ross, who studied Mayer and other airship officers for a book he wrote about Ross’ grandfather Herbert Wiley, says that a small group of Americans were at the heart of this country’s military airship program in the 1920s and 1930s.

“In the core of that were this handful of men, and the women they were married to, that really made the whole thing go,” Ross said. “They were extremely brave, because [the airships] were untested. I mean, think about the winds aloft and how these things are very fragile.”

And Roland G. Mayer, says Ian Ross, was one of these brave men.

Lee Corbin, a retired airline pilot and Air Force officer who lives in Pierce County, came across Mayer’s name several years ago when he was researching the 1924 Pacific Northwest visit of the US Navy’s Shenandoah, the first American-designed and built airship.

Corbin began digging into Mayer’s history, and found out that his family was owner of Seattle’s Washington Shoe Company, as well as the Mayer Shoe Company in their native Milwaukee.

Corbin says that Mayer graduated from the University of Washington with an engineering degree in 1917. This led directly to a job for Mayer and two classmates. Their employer was the airplane company that had been launched the year before by Bill Boeing.

The job with Boeing didn’t last for Mayer, but it turns out he was in pretty good company with the other two classmates who did stick around.

“What’s interesting is the three names” of the UW graduates who went to work for Boeing in 1917, said Lee Corbin. “Mayer was one of them, Claire Egtvedt was the other, and [the other one was] named Phillip G. Johnson.”

Incredibly, Egtvedt and Johnson would each go on to high-level leadership positions at Boeing.

“So there’s no telling what Mayer would’ve done” if he’d stayed, Corbin said.

But Mayer had other plans. Corbin says Roland Mayer worked at Boeing only for a few weeks before heading east to work as an engineer for the Navy in Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia, Mayer helped design and build the Shenandoah. He then became a Naval officer and was aboard when the airship headed off on its cross-country trip in 1924. One of the goals of the trip was to test the viability of flying the ship to the arctic.

“In order to test this theory of long-distance flight for a dirigible, they set up a planned trip to come up here [from Lakehurst, New Jersey] to Seattle by way of Fort Worth and San Diego,” Corbin said. “So they built three different mooring masts. One down in Fort Worth, which I think now is a parking lot for a warehouse down there. And they built one at what’s now called North Island Naval Air Station [near San Diego]. And I’m pretty sure that one is gone because of all the construction [from] when they were building the airfields.”

“But interestingly enough, the one that was built at [what was then known as] Camp Lewis is now on a portion of McChord Air Force Base, and it’s out in an area that was left undeveloped all these years,” Corbin said.

Corbin, with his Air Force connections, was able to investigate what remains of the mooring mast.

“There’s actually still a foundation down there if you know where to look you can find it,” Corbin said.

Photos that Corbin took show the concrete footing of the mast and the guy wires, as well as remains of the foundation of the shed built to service airships.

“The mooring mast was only used once,” Corbin said, referring to the arrival of the Shenandoah in 1924.

And the visit of the enormous craft was hugely popular with local residents. The Shenandoah was 680 feet long, and it was seen by countless people as it flew around Puget Sound during its day-long visit. Then, thousands of civilians converged on Camp Lewis to get a closer look at the airship when it spent part of the day tied to the mooring mast.

But airships weren’t exactly a safe and reliable form of travel. Less than a year after the Shenandoah visited Camp Lewis, the ship met its untimely end in a thunderstorm over the Buckeye State.

Roland Mayer’s grandson Kevin Vogel has studied airships and his grandfather’s role in their development and in the crash. He’s grateful to Lee Corbin for the research Corbin has shared with Vogel and with Vogel’s cousin Andrea Mayer, who lives in British Columbia.

“This era was a period in aviation that most people don’t know anything about, and it’s absolutely fascinating,” Vogel said.

Vogel says his grandfather, who passed away in the 1970s, didn’t talk much about his airship days, including the 1925 wreck.

“Actually, he was very close-mouthed about that timeframe and the incidents related,” Vogel said.

But from Corbin’s research and through his own reading, Vogel has learned exactly what role his grandfather played in the life – and death – of the ship.

“Basically, he was a keel officer of the Shenandoah and he was responsible for the engineering aspects of the ship,” Vogel said. “Anything that happened to that ship, if there was a motor that went out or something like that, he was responsible for getting the guys together to get it working again. That’s what he did.”

To hear author Ian Ross tell it, when the Shenandoah crashed, it was unlike any aviation tragedy before or since.

“It hit extreme turbulence over Ohio and broke into basically three pieces,” Ross said. “And the control car, with most of the officers, dropped away and fell to earth and killed everybody [inside],” Ross said.

“The upper section broke into two pieces, and both of those pieces floated to earth,” Ross said. “The rear section floated down and dragged across, and most of the people that were in that section survived.”

For the six crew members in the front section – the section where Roland G. Mayer found himself – it was a little more complicated.

“I personally believe very strongly that [Roland Mayer] played a vital role in the survival of that front section,” Ross said.

When the ship broke apart, the front section floated free and gained altitude, and the men aboard had to pilot it as if it were, essentially, a rudderless balloon.

Mayer’s grandson Vogel says that Roland Mayer and the other crewmembers somehow managed to decrease their altitude. Then, they dropped a line down far enough to touch the ground in the rural Ohio countryside.

“They dragged the line down on the ground and apparently it went over the roof of a farmer’s house and the farmer came out and they kept yelling to him to run ahead and tie the line off on a tree so it would hold the ship in place,” Vogel said. “Once that happened, someone shimmied down the line and asked the farmer to get a shotgun so they could start shooting the gas cells of the aircraft” to release the helium and bring the section of the ship safely down.

A total of 14 men died in the wreck of the Shenandoah, but remarkably, 29 survived.

After the crash, Mayer remained involved in the airship program, and even took part in long-distance balloon travel with famous balloonist “Tex” Settle. Mayer then served as an officer aboard the airship Los Angeles.

Rigid airships were ultimately made obsolete by advances in fixed-wing, heavier-than-air aviation, and several high-profile deadly disasters didn’t do much to promote their viability. Two additional Navy airships were destroyed in storm-related crashes in the 1930s. The Akron crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 1933 killing 73, and then the Macon crashed off the coast of California in 1935 killing two. Still, during World War II, the U.S. Navy used dozens of smaller, non-rigid inflatable blimps for patrol and reconnaissance.

When the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg exploded in flames on May 6, 1937, at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, Roland G. Mayer wasn’t there. Airship historian Dan Grossman says that Mayer was likely in Philadelphia, where the Navy had other aviation facilities.

“He was not there for the crash, I’m sure he kicked himself that he missed it, in a sense,” Grossman said.

Mayer is pictured at Lakehurst in a news photo taken the day after the tragedy, as a member of a hastily organized Navy-led inquiry into what happened. Dan Grossman says this group was only active for a few days before the US Commerce Department took over the official Hindenburg investigation that later published a report of its findings.

Though his airship days were over by the late 1930s, Roland Mayer spent several more years in aviation, eventually running Convair’s plant in Fort Worth, Texas where B-24 Liberator bombers were manufactured during World War II.

After the war, Mayer retired, and he and his wife bought a nearly 400-acre ranch north of Fort Worth.

Grandson Kevin Vogel says that Mayer didn’t dwell on his airship exploits.

“It’s not like he had mementoes all around the house of his Navy days. Not at all. It was like he had moved on,” Vogel said.

Though he was an early Boeing employee, aviation pioneer, Navy veteran, hero of the American airship era, and builder of World War II bombers, Roland G. Mayer left all that behind for pursuits much closer to the ground.

“He would’ve been perfectly happy if he had died on his tractor, out in the field tilling the soil,” Vogel said.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published May, 5, 2017

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Seattle man was a key figure in the airship era