USS LA Flights to Bermuda & Caribbean Flights

The following article is reprinted with permission from April 1968's edition of  "The Airpost Journal", the Official Publication of the American Air Mail Society.

By R. K. Keiser

     The rigid airship ZR-3, re-christened in this country as the U.S.S. Los Angeles, was built in Germany and flown to the U.S. in October 1924. The U.S. Navy offered the Zeppelin people an extra $100,000 if Dr. Eckener would fly her over. They really wanted this ship!   

     After she arrived the first thing the U.S. Navy did was to empty her of hydrogen and fill her with helium the Shenandoah. Since helium is heavier than hydrogen, this reduced her lift, and therefore, her fuel capacity and range. During the time of the partnership between the two airships they shared the same helium, so only one ship was flyable at a time. I could be proved wrong in this state­ment if anyone has a picture of the two in the air at the same time after the hydrogen was removed from the Los Angeles. (Except for the World War I period it is unusual to have a picture of two "rigids" together. The Graf Zeppelin visited England and was photographed with the R-100 or the R-101 – a good picture!)

     It is surprising that even with the use of helium, no smoking was permitted on board the Los Angeles. Why? Were the fumes of the fuel so intense? I have never heard helium fumes mentioned. Maybe the Navy was just not sure that helium was non-combustible. The Hindenburg, filled with hydrogen, allowed smoking in one room. Possibly this ship is not a good example, as look what happened to her!

     In February 1925, a flight of the Los Angeles was scheduled to Bermuda. Mail to be carried was to be sent to New York and marked "Airmail by Airship Los Angeles from Lakehurst, N.J." About 2,500 pieces were carried, all but a few of which were cancelled at New York. At the last minute some were cancelled at Lakehurst. I have never seen the latter cancellation, but always be on the lookout for it. It is nearly always the better one; to an airship cover collector the airship base cancellation is more desirable ­whether it is scarce or not.

     Commanded by Captain George W. Steele, the ship lifted off on February 21, 1925, for her rendezvous with the tender Patoka.

     The Patoka was fitted with a 120­ foot high mast to moor the airship. The mast at Lakehurst was 165 feet high, and therefore, somewhat safer since there was less chance of her tail hitting the ground or water.

     The Los Angeles arrived at Bermu­da during a storm. Her bag got wet and heavy. Though "top brass" acted as if they could land her if they want­ed to, they chose not to do so. It would have been very hazardous. She cruised around awhile, then dropped her mail in the Governor's gardens, and did not pick up any mail as in­tended. What happened to this mail? I never saw any of it and would like to secure a piece of this prepared mail, which perhaps was held for the delayed return flight in April.

     After dropping the mail, the airship flew back to Lakehurst. It took thirty-three hours for the round trip although it only took 12 hours to cover the dis­tance to Bermuda one way. Three hundred U.S. Marines and sailors pulled her down and put her in her shed. One of these ships needed an Army or Navy to handle it! There was only two hours supply of fuel left when she docked - cutting it rather close. It had been planned to refuel on the Patoka. What would they have done if she had not made it to Lakehurst? An emergency landing of one of these large ships is difficult to conceive. Anyway, the main reason she did not carry more fuel was due to the loss of lift, which occurred when the helium was exchanged for hydrogen.

     The Los Angeles sustained rather unusual damage on this flight com­pared to her other flights. It reported­ly came about like this. She had a water recovery system so that as she expended fuel, water could be recov­ered from her engine exhaust and her total weight would remain substan­tially the same. If she became lighter, she would fly higher or else helium would have to be valved off. Of course, water freezes, so calcium chloride was added to the water as an anti-freeze. It was claimed that this calcium chlor­ide solution dripped on the ship's hull plates and corroded them. This seems like extremely accelerated corrosion and does not ring very true. In any event it took a month to replace the corroded plates after her return.

Roessler USS Los Angeles Flight Cover

1925, April 21- USS Los Angeles Bermuda flight cover tied with red Air Mail Service, New York, April 15, 1925 cancel and sent to R.O. Clifford on A.C. Roessler cacheted cover.

     On April 16 she was flight tested to check out her repairs. The Secretary of the Navy also ordered her to fly by "Rum Row" to photograph the boats that were bringing in whiskey (this was during the prohibition per­iod.) She found twenty-four boats; some of the boat crews were "nervous Nellies" and threw the "hooch" in the sea. This is the only recorded instance in which the Los Angeles acted like the U.S. Coast Guard!

     She was now ready for her second trip to Bermuda. The same arrange­­ments were made for mail as for the February flight. The weather was rather blustery and she waited almost a week before leaving. When she ar­rived at Bermuda she moored to the Patoka in spite of a 35 m.p.h. wind. Newspaper accounts said she had ten bags of mail (the bags must have been small for there was apparently the same amount of mail carried on her first trip). Six bags went to Hamilton and four to the Patoka - where did it go from there? No mail is listed that made the round trip.

     The Los Angeles did not remain in Bermuda more than a few hours. She turned about and this time carried mail back to the States. Of course this mail was franked with Bermuda stamps, 21hd per letter. The return covers carried either of two types of cachets. I have one cover with no ca­chet. The AAM Catalogue says the ca­chet is black, but I have one that is purple. There was also mail from the Patoka, franked with U.S. stamps, for the return trip. I would like to see and obtain one of those covers. Three sacks of mail, weighing one hundred pounds, made the return trip. The Los Angeles arrived at Lakehurst safely; this trip was much more suc­cessful than the first. She now had or­ders to fly to Puerto Rico. The weath­er was again bad and she waited un­til May 3 to lift off. Captain Steele was her commander on all of these flights. She flew to Puerto Rico with 36 crew members, four passengers and 200 pounds of mail. The mail on these flights was spoken of as her car­go - expensive cargo! The Patoka was waiting for her and she moored fast. The Los Angeles stayed in Puer­to Rico only a few days and then made an excursion to St. Thomas, dropping some newspapers to the Governor.

     Her return flight to Lakehurst was uneventful although she did have to valve 10,000 cu. ft. of helium in order to come down. Helium at this time cost $55/1000 cu. ft. She carried only two sacks of mail. It is rather mad­dening to have to guess how many covers were in the two sacks.

1925, April 23 - USS Los Angeles Bermuda Reeturn flight cover postmarked Hamilton, Bermuda April 16, 1925 sent to A.C. Roessler by R.O. Clifford.

     The amount of mail carried on these trips is relatively small - only a couple of thousand covers per trip. Even in 1911 at Garden City over 40,000 covers were flown on the famed pioneer flight. What IS most unusual about this mail is the rate: 2c. For a 2c stamp you could have an oceanic flight, the first airmail to Bermuda and Puerto Rico, and in one case "drop mail" included as well! Today you can buy these covers for a few dollars, but I do not see them offered for sale too often. In one English auction catalog a year ago it was inferred covers were worth $15-$20. I can readily see that they are worth that much, but the demand must be very slight. Certainly collectors should pick up any covers cancelled on the Patoka.

      Around this same time, to get ready for the airship era that never realIy arrived, mooring masts were erected at Camp Lewis, Fort Worth, San Diego, Pearl Harbor and Detroit. Picture post cards of these masts belong in a LTA collection. Do picture postcards exist showing these masts?