Recently, I was reading a marvelous 1942 guide to D.C.: "Washington Is Like That," by W.M. Kiplinger. On Page 382, he writes of something I had no idea existed but just sounds wonderful: a blimp sightseeing tourist service! He says: "A few tourists go up in the air and look down on the capital as though it were a giant picture spread out on the floor. The helium-filled blimp Enterprise (now taken over by the Navy) normally carries 6,000 passengers a year while operating commercially on its 20-minute sightseeing trips." What more can you tell us about this incredible blimp experience?
— Mike Reis, Silver Spring, Md.
After the Hindenburg exploded while landing at Naval Air Station Lakehurst in New Jersey on May 6, 1937, killing 36 people, an airship might have seemed like something you'd want to stay away from. But as The Washington Post pointed out a week after the accident, the Enterprise — a 148-foot-long blimp manufactured and operated by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. — was filled with stable helium, not nasty hydrogen.
"The Hindenburg disaster has had no deterring effect on the business whatsoever," this paper wrote. Tourists were still eager to go for a ride. In fact, it was hard to imagine the city without the Enterprise, which had become "as much a part of the skyscape as the Washington Monument. . . . During the tourist season and when conventions are gathering in Washington, business always booms."
Paul W. Litchfield, president of Goodyear, was convinced that blimps were perfect for all sorts of things. A yachtsman, he envisioned them traversing vast stretches of land the way ships crossed the water. They could serve as reconnaissance platforms. They could be advertising platforms, too, both for Goodyear — whose name was emblazoned on the side of each blimp in huge letters — and firms that paid to have their messages flashed in lights. Plus, blimps had skins of rubberized fabric, which was good for business.
The Enterprise kept up a busy schedule during its time in Washington, from 1934 to 1941. It was stationed at a blimp hangar at Washington-Hoover Airport, where the Pentagon is today. (A blimp sibling called the Resolute occasionally replaced the Enterprise when the latter craft needed servicing.)
A blimp ride cost $3. That strikes Answer Man as rather expensive for the time, but as the control car could fit only six passengers, you were sure to get an intimate experience.
"Its lazy gait is ideal for sightseeing," wrote Post columnist Harlan Miller in 1938.
A year later, a pilot wrote that a blimp's-eye view was different from that of the regular fixed-wing airplanes he flew. It was expansive, unhurried.
"We stopped at 1,200 feet over the center field bleachers at the Washington ballpark, watching the Senators and the Chicago White Sox mingle," he wrote. "I could see the ball hit or thrown and a flyball to the outfield travels in a funny looking arc — a big arc viewed from the top."
The typical aerial excursion included such highlights as the Mall, the Capitol and Mount Vernon, but many tourists just liked looking at the District as if they were looking at a life-size map. A Post reporter remarked that tourists especially enjoyed seeing the city's traffic circles. "Look how those rings cut the streets up," visitors were wont to say. "No wonder we got lost this morning."
Goodyear made the Enterprise available for District traffic officials, who would ascend periodically to check vehicle flow. The Smithsonian used the blimp for aerial experiments.
The Enterprise participated in a famed rescue mission, too. In the bitter winter of 1937, the residents of Tangier Island, Va., found themselves cut off from civilization when the Chesapeake became choked with ice. Goodyear blimp pilot Karl Lange made a daring one-wheel landing on the frozen bay 200 feet from shore, allowing islanders to rush out and unload 1,100 pounds of food and medicine.
When World War II broke out, all of Goodyear's blimps came under the control of the U.S. Navy, which used them as training vessels and for patrolling the coasts in search of enemy submarines.
Goodyear got the Enterprise back in 1947. By then, however, Washington-Hoover Airport was gone, replaced by Washington National, and the blimp's home base had been moved to Hyde Field, near Clinton in Prince George's County, Md. That was too far away from the District to make sightseeing feasible.
In 2011, Goodyear donated the control car from the Enterprise to the National Air and Space Museum. It's on view as it undergoes restoration at the museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.
Today we can look down on Washington using the satellite view on Google Maps. Somehow, it's not the same.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.