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Naval Air Station, Richmond

Home of the 25 ships of ZP-21
(Patrol, Airship Squadron 21 and Airship Wing 2)

 

This page is maintained by volunteers and "Friends of Naval Air Station - Richmond"

 

World's Largest Blimp Base

Aircrews handling the L.T.A. crafts near Hangar #2In 1942, as World War II heated up and the United States became move involved, the U.S. government ordered a massive buildup in military facilities.

One of these facilities was Naval Air Station, Richmond. Commissioned September 15, 1942 the Navy started construction of a major airship or "LTA" air station took its name from the "Richmond Lumber Company" which had built a saw mill on the property around the turn of the century, to harvest and process the large stands of "Dade county pine", a type of pine tree noted for its high sap content which makes it almost totally impervious to insect and termite infestation and is so hard after drying and aging, that it is often worked with metal working tools.

NAS Richmond became the world’s largest blimp base. Located on about 2,500 acres of land (1,012 hectares) in the then near wilderness, 20 miles (30.6 km) southwest of the city of Miami, Florida's central business district. The Navy started construction of a major airship or "LTA" air station.

The need for the NAS Richmond facility came from the Nazi U-boat threat to Allied merchant marine. To provide anti-submarine patrol, rescue, escort and utility services in this area, Blimp Patrol Squadron ZP-21 arrived in October 1942.

The base grew quickly, using native timber and millions of board-feet of lumber shipped in from the Pacific-Northwest. Three large airship hangars and all of an active navy base's support buildings and barracks were soon completed. Over $13,000,000 was expended in the creation of the fully independent base which boasted three 16.5 story hangars over 1,000 feet in length.

The only recorded contact between a blimp and a submarine occurred on July 18, 1943 when Navy airship K-74 encountered Nazi U-134 in the Florida Straits. Shot down by anti-aircraft fire from the U-boat, the blimp sunk with loss of one life.

About The Hangars


The three airship hangars to be built at NAS Richmond were designed by naval engineer Arsham Amirikian, who designed a total of 15, nearly identical hangars for bases along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

Each of the three hangars were 157 feet (47,9 m) high to the bottom of the truss arch, 257 feet (78,3 m) wide to the inside of the truss span, and 297 feet (90,5 m) wide on the outside. Each hangar was 1088 feet (404,8 m) long and covered an area of about 7 acres (2,8 hectares). The doors at each end of each hangar were composed of 6 panels, rolling on steel railroad tracks imbedded in the concrete apron. Each door panel was 120 feet (36,6 m) high and 3.5 feet (1,2 m) thick and are considered the largest single door panels ever designed and built.

The hangars were built of structural grade wooden timbers (mostly Douglas fir) to conserve steel needed for the war effort. By using wood, each hangar saved over 4,000 tons (3,880 metric tons) of much needed steel which went to building tanks, airplanes, etc. All fabrication was done in shops. Mill order lists, shop drawings, template work, and pre-cutting was accomplished and the finished pieces of the "hanger kit" were sent to treatment plants to be made fire resistant.

The hangar trusses were of a revolutionary type of construction. Each hangar consisted of 51, timber, hingeless, arch trusses on 20 foot (6,1 m) centers. To build the trusses, a traveling scaffold was constructed on top of 18 standard railroad flat cars. 3 cars on each of 6 rails running the length of each hangar. The scaffold consisted of a large, step-tabled platform, with the difference between platform elevations corresponding to the lengths of the trusses which could be easily handled. The scaffold was roughly the size of a 14 story building 120' by 190' (36,6 m by 57,9 m).

The first 80 '(24,4 m) section of trusses were assembled on the ground and lifted into place. Next, 40' (12,2 m) sections for each side, were assembled on the first level of the platform and hoisted into place with booms and tackle mounted on the scaffold. Likewise, the next two sections were assembled in the same way. Finally, the crown or center piece was assembled on the top of the platform and hoisted into place with gin-pole derricks. In the early stages of construction, workers built 1.5 arch bays per day. With experience, the number climbed to 2.75 per day!

Each hangar required:

2,719,000 board feet of lumber (252.603,4 square meters) A board foot is a unit of lumber measure, one foot square and one inch thick.
79.5 tons (72,1 metric tons) of bolts and washers.
30.5 tons (27,6 metric tons) of miscellaneous ring connectors.
33 tons (29,9 metric tons) of miscellaneous structural steel.

Each scaffold was constructed of 375,000 board feet (34.838,64 square meters) of lumber and 30 tons (27,1 metric tons) of steel.


Rafters were added after all of the trusses were in place. The entire surface was then covered with tongue and groove sheathing from the outside. The roof covering covered an area of approximately 10 acres (4,1 hectares). After the sheathing was in place, a composition roofing paper was applied over a tacked, felt slip sheet. Men installing the roofing were suspended from staging platforms, working from bottom to top.


The huge doors at each end of the hangars were built from structural steel members and covered in fire resistant plywood. The doors "tucked" into the enormous concrete towers (one of which is still on the Gold Coast Railroad/NAS Richmond property). The doors rolled on carriages supported by steel rails on the bottom and steel door tracks on top. The upper track was supported by a box beam girder spanning the door opening.

Of course, the last question everyone asks... each hangar cost approximately $2,500,000.00 in 1942 dollars. If you had built these hangars, in 2002, each one would cost $27,684,049.00. Just imagine the cost of building these hangars today!

A major hurricane on September 14th and 15th of 1945 resulted in the destruction of the three “hurricane proof”
blimp hangars and the resultant loss of twenty-five blimps and 365 fixed wing aircraft parked in the hangars.


Click here for first hand account of that storm.

NAS Richmond ceased operations in November 1945 with portions of the facility becoming
Miami University, Miami Metrozoo, and assorted private and government applications.

The only remaining base-related building is, Building 25, the Headquarters Building.

 


 

 

 

Only door structures survived.

 

In late 1995, the decision was made to create an exhibit detailing the history and important role the base played during World War II. On 16 September, 1995, over 200 people assembled on the apron of what was Hangar 1, Naval Air Station, Richmond, to honor and commemorate the 50th anniversary of World War II. Colors were presented by Navy Sea Cadets. The invocation was by Mr. Ken Fox, former machinist mate, who was stationed at NAS Richmond. Ms. Maggi Cook read the Dade Heritage Trust resolution of support. Ms. Connie Greer presented a plaque, accepted for the veterans by LCDR. James Sinquefield (retired), former WWII blimp pilot. A speech by NAS Curator YN1 Anthony Attwood, USNR, was followed by a tour of the base by NAS Curators, Cesar Becerra and Alan Crockwell.

The groundbreaking was at the NAS boiler room. Handling the "Gold Shovel", were CDR Paul Reiman, USN, Commanding Officer, Navy Recruiting District, Mrs. Robertson, wife of W.W. II blimp skipper, Allan McElhiney, NAS Fort Lauderdale Curator, and Cole Crockwell, son of Alan Crockwell and future Navy Historian.

Also on hand were LCDR Tomas Zapata, USCG, LCDR Paul Gilson, Navy League, MSCM Bob Browdy, USN (Retired), LT Steve Lorcher, USN, Alex Durr, Association of Naval Aviation, and a host of other good folks!

The Grand Opening of the Naval Air Station, Richmond exhibit occurred 14 September, 1996.

 

                     Building 25 (1942)                                                                  Building 25 (1962)                                                                          Building 25 (1996)

Save the Blimp Base
From this Naval air station airships hunted U-boats in the Florida Keys.

By John Sotham
Air & Space Magazine, September 01, 2001

Just outside the fences of Miami's Metrozoo - a 740-acre park where sleek monorails glide above a faux African plain-sits a handsome two-story wooden building surrounded by tall grass. A few boards hang askew from its clapboard exterior, and the roof above its portico is held up temporarily with steel girders. To get here, we've threaded our cars through a forest of spindly pine trees to this reclaimed clearing, a journey that evokes an exciting sense of discovering something forgotten. Just outside the building's entrance, Navy Petty Officer John Smith yanks the cord on a portable generator, which coughs to life. A few lights flick on, and we head down a creaky hallway and enter a large storage room, where a slide projector sits on a table and overturned paint buckets serve as seats. It's hot in here.

We're inside what was once the headquarters of Naval Air Station Richmond, a blimp base hastily constructed in the early months of World War II. As the slide projector clatters, Naval Reserve Chief Yeoman Anthony Atwood narrates and two former crewmen, who launched on blimps near here, stand by to lend their voices to the story. The crewmen, Ford Ross and James Sinquefield, have joined a small band of enthusiasts organized by Atwood who want to restore the headquarters building and convert it into a museum.

As Atwood talks, his hands make shadows on the sepia-tinted photos flashing on the wall. "Richmond was eventually home to 25 K-series blimps, three hangars, and 3,000 men," he says. "The hangars were 16 stories tall, built of Douglas fir brought in by train. The blimps protected ship convoys in the Florida Straits, and [Richmond] was the headquarters for the fight against Nazi U-boats operating in the Caribbean."

Ford interrupts: "That's not a K-type blimp, Anthony, that's an M-type."

Atwood rolls his eyes. "Okay, okay, as I was saying...," he says.

The story proceeds, and the enthusiasm brims. Atwood, Ross, and Sinquefield tell me that except for this building, the only other above-ground remnant of the base is one of the massive hangars' corner pillars, which stands about 300 yards away. But other clues to the site's past are around, if you look carefully. Directly outside the building under the relentless sub-tropical undergrowth, Atwood's volunteers found a four-foot-wide Marine Corps emblem the Marines had placed next to NAS Richmond's flagpole. And the old ramp is in plain view-it's now part of the parking lot at the zoo. Families who've come for a nature experience exit their minivans where ground crew released the mooring lines that sent the lumbering blimps on their lonely patrols for German U-boats.

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, enemy submarines began bringing the war close to the U.S. mainland. In late 1941, a Japanese submarine shelled a highway outside Santa Barbara, California, and on the Atlantic coast, U-boats would sink 574 U.S. and Allied merchant ships in 1942. When the war began, the U.S. Navy had only 10 blimps capable of coastal anti-submarine patrols. Soon more than 200 would join the fleet.

Most of them were K-type airships, powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp engines, which gave them a top speed of 77 mph. Their envelopes were three-ply cotton bags impregnated with rubber or synthetic neoprene. The interior was coated with paraffin to make it leakproof. Most of the K-ships were 252 feet long and held as much as 456,000 cubic feet of helium. But when deflated, the five-ton envelope could fit into a shipping box 12 feet long, six feet high, and six feet wide.

Fleet Airship Wing Two was formed at newly built NAS Richmond to cover the Caribbean. On July 18, 1943, K-74 and K-32 lifted off their concrete pads and rose over south Florida for a routine patrol. K-74 was headed for the upper keys, while K-32 was to fly farther out to sea, turn south toward Key West, and finally head north again. Later that evening, both airships would be in position to keep watch over a tanker and freighter scheduled to pass from the Gulf of Mexico through the Florida Straits to the open Atlantic.

Blimp patrols were mind-numbingly boring, lasting as long as 12 hours. Armed with a single .50-caliber machine gun and four depth bombs hanging from racks beneath their control cars, the craft were hardly intended for heavy combat. Their crews were ordered to monitor the positions of friendly ship traffic and report any sightings of U-boats, which could then be attacked by warships, if any were in the area, or by fighters from Naval Air Station Key West.

K-74's skipper, Lieutenant Nelson Grills, commanded a crew of nine: co-pilot Jay Jandrowitz, navigator Darnley Eversley, mechanic J.L. Schmidt, bombardier Isadore Stessel, radiomen Robert Bourne, J.M. Giddings, and John Rice, gunner G. Eckert, and seaman J.W. Kowalski. As the craft took up its station over the straits, U-boat U-134 was running on the surface and recharging its batteries, its crew on deck enjoying the fresh night air. The blimp's crewmen first saw two blips on their radar, clearly the merchant ships they were monitoring. Then, near midnight, they saw a third blip. They moved forward to investigate. And there it was: a German submarine, on the surface and headed in the direction of the two merchant ships. There was no time to marshall aircraft to intercept the sub. Grills descended to 250 feet and opened the throttles to bring the blimp to its maximum speed.

"We were in a tough spot...," Grills told Anthony Atwood in 1997. "We decided that the best we could do was see if we'd draw fire. We felt that saving those ships was worth the blimp."

The German crew saw K-74 and opened up from the conning tower with a 20-mm cannon. Grills' crew returned fire. As the blimp passed over the submarine, the sub's deck gun shot up its envelope and damaged its engines, which caught fire. According to Atwood, the crew released their depth bombs, but as the airship's aft section passed by the submarine, K-74 took more fire and began to lose altitude. Within minutes, it settled into the waves and U-134 slipped away into the night.

The crewmen scrambled out of the control car's hatches and inflated their life preservers, but their raft floated away before they could board it. Within minutes, one of the merchant vessels K-74 had been monitoring cruised past, oblivious to the recent battle. Its sailors didn't see the blimp's crewmen in the water, clinging to each other to stay together. Radioman Bourne had managed to send a message to Richmond before the blimp went down, and by morning, a rescue aircraft spotted the men and directed a rescue ship to pick them up. But Isadore Stessel had become separated from the rest, and as he waved to the aircraft, he was attacked and killed by a shark. Grills had become separated too. It wasn't until later that evening, after spending close to 20 hours in the water and fending off another shark, that he was finally spotted by K-32 and rescued.

Grills and his crew were initially under a cloud of disapproval for attacking the sub against orders and for the loss of the blimp. But after the squadron commander interviewed the crew, Grills, and later the rest of the crew, received the Purple Heart. It wasn't until 1961-after analysis of German records revealed that K-74 had damaged U-134-that Grills received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Still, vindication for one member of the crew was slower in coming. It took 40 years for the Navy to give a commendation medal to Isadore Stessel's family. "It was a bunch of 19- to 20-year-old kids in a blimp risking their lives," says Saul Stessel, Isadore's cousin. "They did damage that sub-the radio contacts give evidence that the blimp hurt them and they could not submerge. It was [later] attacked by a Navy Avenger [torpedo bomber], and it got as far as Spain until it was attacked by a [Royal Navy] Liberator and sunk."

The shootdown of K-74 is the only recorded combat loss of a blimp during the more than 500,000 hours of patrols flown worldwide during the war.

The sawgrass is whipping through the open windows of a Hummer, the civilian version of the burly military Humvee. Alan Crockwell, an amateur historian who volunteers his time to a growing effort to preserve Richmond's headquarters building, guides the vehicle to a flat table of asphalt surrounded by pine trees. We've parked where one of Richmond's three blimp hangars once stood-massive 1,086-foot-long structures made of wood beams and hung with sliding iron doors, whose graceful roofs arced to 183 feet.

As the war drew to a close, the base's K-series blimps were joined by new M-series ships that the Navy tested here. But in September 1945, scarcely two months after the war was over, the base was called upon once again to face down an enemy lurking at sea-a hurricane tracing a lazy path through the Caribbean. At the time, hurricane prediction was a shaky science at best-all that was known was that the storm would likely strike the state, but it was unknown where it would come ashore. Military aircraft-Grumman F6F Hellcats, Corsairs, and P-51 Mustangs, among others-were flown from nearby bases and from the deck of the USS Guadalcanal to the refuge offered by NAS Richmond's sturdy and cavernous blimp hangars.

The storm came ashore on the mangrove-entwined coast of south Florida, cut a swath across southern Dade County, and tore through Richmond NAS. The hangars, which stood close together and were stuffed with blimps and hundreds of fighters and bombers, withstood the winds. But one of them caught fire, perhaps from a short circuit. Witnesses reported seeing the winds drive flames horizontal, and eventually all three hangars were ablaze, lighting the night sky with burning wood, aircraft, and fuel. When the rain stopped, only the smaller buildings and the hangars' concrete corner pillars were standing.

Crockwell kneels and picks up a few oddly shaped glass beads from the asphalt pad. Others are melted irregularly into the surface, interspersed with a few metal fragments.

"You can really get a sense of how hot the fire was," says Crockwell. "These beads are all that's left of the windows. We find a lot of other fragments of glass and metal around-pieces of aircraft and airships."

Crockwell motions to the overgrowth next to the pad. "One of the legends of the place is that after the war was over, they dug big pits and pushed the aircraft parts into them," he says. "It's enticing to think that somewhere out here there may be pits full of World War II aircraft parts. Some of the oral accounts tell us that after the fire, you could buy a P-51 for $50."

As the Navy cleared the wreckage of the base, a demolition team dynamited the concrete pillars. One refused to fall. Now one of the highest structures in southern Dade County, it's bristling with antennas and is the central relaying station for the area's 911 service. Blimps never returned permanently after the storm, but the base's helium plant continued to supply Navy airships for years. Richmond's other buildings served a variety of uses, such as providing classroom space for servicemen going to school under the G.I. Bill, and later as space for Naval and Marine Corps Reserve units. The end came in 1992, when hurricane Andrew leveled all except the headquarters and that single, stubborn pillar.

Today, Anthony Atwood and his volunteers hope to give the HQ building its final assignment, as the official all-service military museum and memorial of south Florida. Atwood, a former Navy recruiter on temporary recall at a reserve station, has made the salvation of Richmond's headquarters building and the memory of the blimps and crews that flew here his own crusade, and intends the story of NAS Richmond to be the subject of his master's thesis for an advanced degree in history.

The year before the city of Miami's centennial in 1996, Atwood says, "there was a lot of community consciousness raising, and being a community-activist-type person, I [wanted to organize] a commemorative event at the site of the old blimp base." To honor U.S. servicemen, Atwood put together a ceremony that attracted 300 people and raised an American flag where NAS Richmond's flagpole once stood.

Bolstered by the turnout, Atwood and a core of volunteers set up a display about the base at the nearby Goldcoast Railroad Museum. As the group began to publicize its efforts, members placed on display in the headquarters building artifacts they found nearby, including aluminum fragments from the blimps and structural parts of the hangars. More volunteers came forward, some of whom had been blimp crewmen or had served at the base as civilians, and gradually the idea of restoring the HQ building took hold.

"I'd like to see this as a federal institution-an ongoing museum for young and old alike," Atwood says. "We hope to see a veterans' memorial, nature trails behind the building, and a replica of the Vietnam [memorial in Washington, D.C.] wall."

Before restoration, however, a few problems with the building's location must be solved. Although the Army Corps of Engineers owns both the building and the land around it, nearby land is owned by the University of Miami, which has its own plans for expansion, and access to the old base is limited. The solution is to raise the building by hydraulic jacks and truck it about 350 yards to a plot of federal land accessible from the neighboring Metrozoo's main entrance road. Atwood has enlisted the help of several Florida politicians, including U.S. Senator Bob Graham and Representatives Carrie Meek and E. Clay Shaw Jr., to steer the project through the competing priorities of a major university, federal agencies, and one of the largest zoological parks in the nation. Mayor Paul Novack of Surfside, a town just north of Miami, has been a key ally. "In this place, the museum would be a natural buffer between the zoo and [nearby] development," Novack says. "And when the building is moved, the land behind it will be restored to a natural state."

"It's just the right thing to do," says Atwood, whose father hit the beach on D-Day during World War II and who has the conviction-and salesmanship-of a military recruiter. Even though negotiations have been long and complicated, they have resulted in what he calls "a strange coalition of environmentalists and military people slightly to the right of Attila the Hun."

Once the officials have inked the deal and the structure is moved to its new home and restored, NAS Richmond's headquarters building-survivor of war and at least five hurricanes-will return to service, reminding its visitors that long before exotic animals roamed nearby, blimps prowled the skies.

 


 

The NAS Richmond crew is: James Sinquefield, LCDR, USN (retired), our "Pilot"; YN1 Anthony Attwood, USNR, our "Navigator"; Cesar Becerra, our "Sparks"; Alan Crockwell, our "Gunner"; and Gold Coast Museum Director, Connie Greer, our "Ground Controller".

The Friends of NAS Richmond is an informal, non-profit association of aviation buffs, veterans, patriotic, community minded citizens, servicemen and women dedicated to preserving for future generations, the rich military heritage of historic South Florida.

If anyone has additional photos or information on NAS Richmond please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 This page IS NOT an official U.S. Navy site.