Mooring Airships on the Empire State Building?

One oft-told story involves the use of the Empire State Building as a mooring mast for airships like the Hindenburg.  It sounds plausible. The spire of the Empire State Building certainly resembles a mooring mast, and if King Kong is not scaling the building, it appears that there’s plenty of room to moor. And no self-respecting steam- or diesel-punk would forgo the chance of mooring his airship at the Art Deco splendor of the Empire State Building.

However, oft-told stories can take on a life of their own in the cold and windy light of day.

The 1930s were the heyday of lighter-than-air dirigibles with the German airships Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg flying travelers around the globe in luxury that could only be compared to that of the most opulent hotels or glamorous trains.  Although the US and Britain had no commercial airships, they advanced the capabilities of military airships over time. Airships on the transatlantic route generally landed at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey which had the facilities needed to maintain and service the ships. However, Lakehurst is quite some distance from the passengers’ typical destination of New York City.  So, having a landing spot closer to New York would be a great benefit for transatlantic flights.

Composite photograph showing how the Navy airship Los Angeles would appear moored to the Empire State Building.

At about the same time that the Graf Zeppelin was starting passenger flights, New York real estate moguls were vying with each other to build the world’s tallest building. The two main competitors were two Art Deco gems—the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. Over time the buildings’ publicly disclosed designs increased in height repeatedly. At one point, the Chrysler Building architects designed a spire to be built inside the framework and raised suddenly for maximum PR effect.  This stunt brought the height of the Chrysler Building to within only 4 feet that of the Empire State building, which could easily be surpassed by a further smaller spire.  So, the architects of the Empire State Building then designed and built a 200-foot spire to be used as a mooring mast for airships, solving two problems at once: providing a Midtown airship port, and securing the Empire State Building as the tallest building on Earth.

The publicity by the Empire State side was hyperbolic. The photograph above, showing the US Navy airship Los Angeles attached to the mooring tower, was a complete fake. Even so, the builders touted that a passenger disembarking on the spire would be at street level seven minutes later. Seemingly not much more difficult than taking a cab ride.

Of course, no one bothered to consult with the experts as to the practicality of the idea. Dr. Hugo Eckener, Germany’s chief expert in dirigibles, stated that the idea was impractical, and after visiting the Empire State Building, diplomatically said the idea needed further study. In addition, the effects of mooring an 800-foot long airship on the structural integrity of the building itself never seems to have been considered.

Mooring an airship to a standard mast requires many crewmen manning many ropes on a wide open space. Considering the rapidly shifting 30 mile-per-hour winds at the peak of the Empire State Building, the difficulty in mooring to the top of a skyscraper can be understood. On disembarking, the first step could be a very long one. The Navy blimp J-4 attempted, and failed, to moor at the spire. Eventually, the idea was totally dropped when a more practical use was found for the mast—radio broadcasting.

US Navy blimp J-4 approaching the mast on the Empire State Building.

While operating an airship mooring mast at the top of the Empire State Building was always more of a PR stunt than a serious consideration, that doesn’t stop steampunks from running with the idea. In fact, the dieselpunk fantasy movie “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”, features an airship mooring at the top of a future/alternate past Empire State Building. I had forgotten it did, and now I’ve bumped it up on my Netflix queue to watch the film again and be inspired by the possibilities.

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