“first brief moment of freedom in the skies” — First Flight Commemorative Half Dollar Coin

Today, the First Flight Commemorative Half Dollar Coin remembers the first test flight of the navy’s ZR-1 dirigible, later named the Shenandoah.

After a delayed starting time, the ZR-1 rose and circled the naval air station at Lakehurst, New Jersey, during the evening of September 4, 1923.

The next day, newspapers heralded the event.

From the Gettysburg Times:


Giant Ship’s Flight Success

Navy Dirigible Sails over Lakehurst in Trial Trip. Requires Large Crew.

The rigid airship ZR-1 of the United States navy made its first trial flight over the naval air station here yesterday.

The first short trip of the big dirigible, which was filled with non-inflammable helium gas, was set for 1 P. M., but was postponed due to weather conditions.

The ZR-1 rose at 6:50 P. M. and the landing was made at 7:45. During the flight the great cigar-shaped envelope, filled with non-inflammable helium gas, studded along its sides with roaring engines, traveled slowly. At no time did it travel farther from the field than one mile. It circled the field several times.

Nearly 400 men were required to hold the giant ship as it was slowly dragged from the hanger. About 250 hung on the ropes, while the rest clung to the fore and aft cars.

The ship was slowly maneuvered over the field to the testing ground, about 1000 feet from the shed. Shortly after being taken from the hangar the holding ropes on the aft car broke and the stern rose rapidly in the air. The aft pilot, however, soon brought it under control, and the balloon once more rode on an even keel.

Just before the ropes were cast off one of the weather experts detailed to observe wind conditions released a smoke bomb. The large crowd which had gathered to watch the flight was greatly alarmed, thinking the gas bag was about to explode.

The mammoth ship rose rapidly to a height of 1000 feet and headed east for the Atlantic ocean. As it rose two airplanes, one representing the army and the other the navy, left the ground to accompany the balloon on its maiden voyage.


From the Lewiston Evening Journal:


Navy Dirigible ZR-1, Largest in the World, Supreme Achievement

The navy dirigible ZR-1, largest craft of its kind in the world, rests today in its great hanger, a supreme accomplishment. The anxious concern for months of those in charge of its completion were relieved in a fifty-five minutes test flight last evening, when the huge craft rose above the heads of the 2,000 spectators gathered to watch the maiden trip of the vessel.

Every cylinder of the giant balloon’s many engines, every ounce of lighting power, every member of the staff of men and officers in charge of the launching, functioned perfectly. The great ship rose majestically over the landing. The roar of its motors completely drowning the cheers of the spectators.

Rising quickly, the biggest balloon swung slowly around the field. The engines were at no time operated at more than half speed. The vessel traveled at a rate of 30 miles per hour. When about a mile from the field the gleaming hull turned back and headed for its home.

Dusk had fallen when the ship nosed toward the earth once more. Batteries of searchlights silvered the envelope. A circle of sailors waited for the leading guide line to be shot from the nose of the dirigible. Quickly they caught it and the ZR-1 was again a captive after its first brief moment of freedom in the skies.


The First Flight Commemorative Half Dollar Coin shows with an image of the Shenandoah, tethered at Tacoma, Washington in 1924.

First Flight Commemorative Half Dollar Coin