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Charmed Life

Unhappy Hookers

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 11/27/2002

Dec. 7--the Day That Will Live in Infamy--will soon be upon us. This year the date marks the 61st anniversary of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

Now, if only hookers had surrounded Hawaii on that day in 1941, the air assault might never have occurred.

Of course, I'm not talking about what you might think I'm talking about. I'm referring to a legitimate military theory put forth by a 79-year-old Hampdenite who happens to be a hooker expert. Thom Hook is his name (no, really), and to clear up the snickering, in this case "hooker" refers to small U.S. Navy biplanes that were designed to fly to and from mammoth, helium-filled zeppelins. (The planes literally hooked onto these floating aircraft carriers.) Though zeppelins were first developed by the Germans (who used them to bomb London in the first world war) the U.S. military also experimented with these mammoth crafts (which are differentiated from balloonlike blimps by their rigid, internal metal frameworks). Hook has chronicled this country's brief--and largely tragic--foray into dirigible development in three self-published books, most recently Flying Hookers for the Macon: The Last Great Rigid Airship Adventure, published last year.

Stepping inside Hook's cluttered living room, it takes only a nanosecond to conclude that the hearty senior, who keeps fit with weekly tennis matches, is a rabid aviation enthusiast. Model airplanes and dirigibles dangle from fishing line overhead, oil-painted renderings of vintage aircraft are stacked on tabletops, and a huge drawing of a dirigible decorates the front window shade. Hook himself wears a Goodyear blimp belt buckle. He dates his interest in flying machines to his boyhood days at the Eastern Shore's Gunston Boarding School (now a day school) near Centreville. A few of his fellow students' fathers were naval aviators, and young Hook was impressed whenever they'd fly in for a visit--bumping their planes down in an adjacent cornfield, or splashing amphibious crafts into the nearby Corsica River. And there were other skyward marvels.

"Sometimes we'd get the big airships to fly over the school, and everybody would run out and look at these things that were three or four times as big as blimps," Hook says.

Color blindness prohibited Hook from pursuing a military aviation career; he did, however, perform statistical compilation for the Army Air Corps during World War II. After the war, Hook began a career in public relations. In the early '70s, while working for the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, research for an employee magazine article sent him to the Smithsonian's venerable castle building. "It was like going into someone's attic," Hook says. Amid the historic clutter was a bulging box of photos of the U.S.S. Shenandoah, the first U.S.-built airship. Then and there, Hook became hooked on zeppelin history and began tracking down that era's surviving airmen to record their tales.

Hook's Shenandoah Saga came out in 1973, describing the 680-foot long airship that debuted in 1922, after having being largely reverse-engineered from a downed World War I German airship. "It was basically a German zeppelin, but we stretched it and made it as long and thin as pencil," Hook says. Another major modification was the use of helium as the lifting agent, instead of the highly flammable hydrogen, which Germans employed. The lumbering Shenandoah was the marvel of its day, though a short-lived one. In 1925, the "floating pencil" broke apart in rough weather over Ohio, killing 14 of its 43-man crew.

Undaunted, the Navy went back the drawing board, and came up with sister ships the U.S.S. Akron, launched in 1931, and the U.S.S. Macon, which hit the skies two years later. Both were a whopping 785 feet long--think two and a half football fields--and both were designed as aircraft carriers. The airborne leviathans could carry up to five biplanes in their bellies. A hook beneath the zeppelin snagged incoming aircraft and then hauled them aboard. Conversely, the same mechanism was used to launch planes.

"Planes would be lowered on a trapeze like an acrobat," Hook says. "The plane would be started and, after unhooking [from the zeppelin], it would go into dive to get up to speed." A hairy maneuver to be sure, but no one was ever killed flying in and out of a zeppelin. Would that the same could be said of simply flying in the airships.

In April 1933, the Akron crashed, tail first, into the Atlantic after encountering a storm off the New Jersey coast. Incredibly, as a weight-saving measure, no life jackets were carried aboard, and there was only one life raft. As a result, only three members of the 76-man crew survived the downing--the deadliest zeppelin crash in history.

Less than three weeks later--with the news of the Akron's demise barely off the front pages--the Macon made her maiden voyage. The bad news is that, two years later, she also crashed in the ocean, this time the Pacific. The good news is that this time there were life vests and rafts aboard, so 81 of the 83-man crew survived. The U.S. zeppelin program, however, did not. And German airship development died out two years later, with the fiery crash of the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg, which killed 36.

So how could these problematic beasts have saved the day at Pearl Harbor? Essentially by serving as lookouts. The Navy zeppelins were designed as reconnaissance vessels. "The Pacific is vast, and the Navy wanted to know who might be at our back door," Hook says. In the age before helicopters, supersonic spy planes, and satellites, this was a heady task. The airborne aircraft carriers--which cruised at 80 MPH and could stay aloft for four-day stretches--seemed like a solution.

"I may be stretching history," Hook says. "But if the airship had been out there and really gotten into scouting, maybe the Japanese wouldn't have come and done their dastardly deeds."

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