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Glendale and airship dreams

October 13, 2010|By Pat Grant

Glendale, the airship capital of the world! That was the dream of a brilliant, self-taught inventor by the name of Thomas B. Slate.

Selecting Glendale as the site of the Slate Aircraft Company in 1925, his futuristic portrayal of an efficient and comfortable means of passenger travel between Los Angeles and New York, as well as the profit potential of the venture, convinced many prominent Glendale residents to become stockholders. Intrigued by his commitment to name the first airship built "The City of Glendale," the City Council leased a large tract of land to Slate at the new Grand Central Air Terminal.

The innovations incorporated into Slate's rigid-frame airship were designed to overcome various flaws that had hampered conventional dirigibles. With a hull shaped like an elongated egg, constructed of a lightweight aluminum alloy and powered by a steam-driven blower in its nose, the craft would be capable of transporting 30 passengers and crew at 100 miles per hour on 1,200-mile legs. With stops at major cities, the trip from Glendale to New York would take 36 hours. Airfare would be approximately the same as that of railway Pullman service.

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The 80-foot-long cabin would offer comfortable sleeping accommodations and a dining salon. One of the more innovative conveniences was an "elevator-and-anchor" system that would allow three passengers to disembark to the ground from a height of 500 feet. A landing platform for the elevators' cable descent was to be erected on the roof of the Glendale Hotel.

Operating out of a large trench intended to serve as a windbreak, prototype construction began in 1926. Eleven weeks into construction, Santa Ana winds lifted the framing out of the trench, totally destroying it. Undeterred, Slate and company erected a huge hangar to house the next assembly effort.

On Dec. 19, 1929, "The City of Glendale" was wheeled out of the hangar for its maiden cross-country flight; 2,000 requests for seats on the flight had been received. Thousands of spectators crowded the airfield in anticipation. But the fates would have it otherwise.

Minutes before departure, as hydrogen gas was being pumped aboard, the pilot noticed that one of the safety valves had stuck. The airship was being over-inflated. Police ordered the crowd back as rivets popped, the hull bulged and escaping gas was heard. No one was hurt.

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