The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, John McPhee 1973

McPhee takes on a rather challenging task in his fifth book of non-fiction–how to tell an interesting story about the development of an unorthodox aeroship.  Up until the final 30 pages or so, I thought he had finally failed but he managed to pull this one out of the fire, and, in the tradition of making fascinating the story of oranges or the pine barrens of New Jersey, the reader actually is in the grip of a suspenseful tale as the Aereon 26 takes flight for its maiden and ultimately only flight.  This is the tale of a handful of driven men who wanted to build upon the work of Solomon Andrews, the mayor of Perth Amboy, NJ at the time of the Civil War who is believed to be the inventor of the dirigible.  These airships enjoyed a period of great success in the first 30 years of the 20th C ferrying passengers and freight across the country and the oceans until the explosion of the Hindenberg in 1931.  That disaster marked the beginning of the end of the dirigible program for commercial and naval aviation until Monroe Drew, a Presbyterian minister in Trenton and at Princeton University became enthralled with the notion that a flotilla of dirigibles had the potential to bring supplies and Christianity to the entire world.  Unfortunately Drew had the habit of alienating his funders and his  co-workers who actually knew something about aerodynamics, and he was finally sidelined when another Princeton religious zealot, William Miller took over the Aereon corporation.  When the initial prototype crashed in the wind without ever leaving the ground, Miller recruited a team of experts and consulted an early computer to design a dirigible that would carry great weight with minimal drag.  The result the Aereon 26 made its one and only flight on Feburary 24, 1971 reaching an altitude of 250 feet and flying for 30 minutes around the airfield.  Miller’s team went their separate ways and no new investors could be found.  Today, the Aereon 26 sits under a tarp at an airfield in rural NJ.  How McPhee made this into a story for the general reader speaks to his talent, but at the end of the day, 150 pages of dense type was probably more than I needed to know about this particular mini-chapter in the history of manned flight.

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