Wednesday, November 28, 2018

This month marks 100 years since Wilcox County's first 'airship' landing

An early U.S. Army 'airship'

I was looking through some old newspapers the other day and discovered that this month – November 2018 – marks a significant anniversary in Wilcox County’s history – the 100th anniversary of the first documented “airship” landing in county history.

One day last week, I was flipping through the Nov. 21, 1918 edition of The Wilcox Progressive Era, when my eyes fell on a big, bold headline that was hard to miss, “CAMDEN’S FIRST AIRSHIP.” Beneath that headline, it was reported that “on Saturday afternoon, an airship from Montgomery, Ala. flew over Camden for several minutes and alighted at the old Fair Ground. It was not on the program to stop here but descended for the purpose of securing gasoline. This is the first airship to pass over Camden and attracted considerable attention. There is no reason why Camden should not have a regular landing place and have the pleasure of frequent visits from them.”

News of this event, which came nearly 15 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, raises more questions than answers, but a close reading of this news item is very revealing. I think it’s safe to say that this historic event occurred on Nov. 16, which was the Saturday before Nov. 21, the day the newspaper was published. While the short article indicates that it took place in the afternoon, it doesn’t give the specific time.

Again, the vagueness of the article leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Did the landing take place around lunch or was it closer to dark? What time did it take off from Montgomery? What time did it depart Camden after getting fuel? What time did the aircraft arrive at its final destination?

The use of the term “airship” also probably jumps out at modern readers and likely conjures up images of a blimp or zeppelin. This would be correct by the modern definition of the term, that is, “a power-driven aircraft that is kept buoyant by a body of gas (typically helium, formerly hydrogen) that is lighter than air.” However, in the early days of aviation, this term likely applied to a fixed-winged plane, although there is a chance that it actually was a dirigible.

I think it’s extremely interesting that the article mentioned that the airship was from Montgomery, especially when you consider that this landing took place just a few days after the formal end of World War I. Just eight years before, the famous Wright Brothers opened one of the world’s first flying schools at what we now call Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery. This school was only open a short time, and during World War I, the facility was used as an aviation repair depot. While I don’t know for sure, I think it’s highly likely that the 1918 Camden airship originated from this facility.

The article also mentions that the Camden landing took place at the “old Fair Ground.” Where was this exactly? Was it on the same site where the Camden Municipal Airport is located today? Usually, but not in all cases, fair grounds in the old days were located a short distance from railroad tracks, which helped accommodate traveling circuses, carnivals and athletic teams. I think it’s also interesting that the article used the term “old” Fair Ground, which could indicate that there were newer fair grounds being used by the town in 1918.

Lastly, who was piloting the “airship” that landed in Camden on Nov. 16, 1918? Presumably, in these days of early aviation, the pilot was likely male, but was he alone? Was he a military pilot on some sort of training mission? Where did he go after departing Camden?

Once on the ground, who supplied the pilot with gasoline? Was it readily available at the Fair Grounds? How much fuel did he have to get to safely continue on his way to his final destination? 

In the end, I looked through editions of the newspaper that followed this historic landing, but found no further mention of the Nov. 16 landing. With that said, I’d love to hear from anyone in the reading audience with more information about this historic event. I’m especially interested in finding out where the “old Fair Grounds” were located and what type of aircraft was involved in Camden’s first documented “airship” landing.

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