Great behemoths once roamed the skies over New England in World War II. They were blimps flown by the U.S. Navy out of Naval Air Station South Weymouth. Their ability to stay aloft for 24 hours made them valuable assets for a force that strained to rescue sailors and hunt for U-boats. The Weymouth base has since been abandoned, its future lost in commercial and residential development. But the 2,000-foot-diameter landing pad on the edge of the property is hard to miss. This is where the blimps came home after long patrols. They are a special part of naval history.
Weymouth is only 12 miles southeast of the city of Boston. Its proximity to the coast was of value to naval surveyors in the acquisition of land for a proper lighter-than-air base, although construction proved to be a challenge:
Its area of 1257 acres was almost completely undeveloped when the Navy acquired the site in 1941. Like nearby Cohasset, where a new naval magazine was established, it was an area of rocks, woods, and swamps. Development of the field required removal of peat to a depth of 20 feet in some places; in others, rock removal was necessary. Heavy building loads were supported on rock or piles, whichever the conditions of each foundation position required.¹
A dozen Goodyear-made blimps were based in Weymouth with some non-rigid airships sent to posts in other parts of the country. The envelope size of the blimps varied between classes from 404,000 ft³ to 425,000 ft³. Each blimp was flown by a twin-engine control car. They carried up to four depth charges and one 12.7-mm machine gun.
Landing a blimp required capturing one of its lines and attaching them to a moveable mast, or pulling the blimp into a massive hangar on the landing mat. Compared to fixed-wing propeller aircraft, these airships were simply enormous.
The vehicles were record makers in their very own class. In May 1944, the K-123 and K-130 completed the first trans-Atlantic crossing by non-rigid airships with a run that hopped from Weymouth to Newfoundland, and then from the Azores to French Morocco. In March 1957, Commander J.R. Hunt and his crew of 13 conquered another voyage of endurance from the same base:
A ZPG-2 airship, commanded by Commander J. R. Hunt, landed at NAS Key West, Fla., after a flight that began 4 March at South Weymouth, Mass., and circled over the Atlantic Ocean toward Portugal, the African coast and back for a new world record in distance and endurance, covering 9,448 statute miles and remaining airborne 264 hours 12 minutes, without refueling. For his accomplishment in commanding the airship on this flight, Commander Hunt was awarded the 1958 Harmon International Trophy for Aeronauts.²
Blimps could hold their own in storms and heavy ice conditions. They could search for minefields and cover for sub-hunting planes at night. They filled in the radar coverage over North America during the Cold War.
Blimps are still the darlings of military dreamers in the 21st Century. Some designers and commanders like the notion of keeping a surveillance platform over enemy territory, taking snapshots and video or eavesdropping on signals, for weeks on end. Some prototypes can carry huge amounts of cargo to forward positions. The dawn of unmanned aerial vehicles may eventually include such ships. However, a post-war environment and financial crunch have swept away the next generation of blimps until further notice.
NAS South Weymouth was later converted to a parking garage for retired aircraft, a training center, and a research facility. Navy blimps disappeared over Massachusetts by 1961. Even today, the vacant expanse of the Weymouth base is a reminder of how intrepid naval aviators, ground crews, and engineers contributed to national defense. Perhaps one day, if we’re lucky, the blimps will return to the sky again.
An excellent resource by Don Kaiser on Blimp Squadron 11, based at NAS South Weymouth in the 1940’s, can be found on his web site here.
If you happen to spin through Connecticut, then you’ll certainly want to see the ZNPK-28 blimp control car in the collection of the New England Air Museum.
¹ Building the Navy’s Bases in World War II: History of the Bureau of Yards and Docks and the Civil Engineer Corps, 1940-1946, Volume I, Naval History and Heritage Command.
² Naval Aviation Chronology 1954-1959, Naval History and Heritage Command.