American Air Mail Society Founded 1923

US Airships

Figure 1

Collecting U.S. Rigid Airship Post and Event Covers

Professor C. R. (Bob) Helms, Ph.D.

In this section we focus on the US rigid airship developed for the Navy in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  All four of the US rigid airships, the ZR-1 USS Shenandoah, ZR-3 USS Los Angeles, ZRS-4, USS Akron, and ZRS-5 USS Macon, were Zeppelins, built from modified Zeppelin designs.    However, unlike their German counterparts, they were military ships, and not intended for carrying passengers or mail.  Except for five flights of the Los Angeles and two flights of the Akron, flown mail is quite rare and scarce.  The majority of the covers related to the various flights are commemorative event covers, in some cases with quite beautiful and rare cachets.  Many of these covers were postmarked and cacheted on US Navy Ships, making this collecting area of interest to collectors of ship mail.

Figure 2

The US rigid airship era discussed here started with the first flight of the Shenandoah on September 4, 1923, and ended with the crash of the Macon of February 12, 1935.  Much of the collecting interest spans just this 12 year period, although many commemorative covers have been produced since, especially at the 50th anniversary of various events.

Early US Rigid Airships – the USS Shenandoah ZR-1 and USS Los Angeles ZR-3

The USS Shenandoah was active from 1923 – 1925.   was built in Lakehurst, NJ, but crashed on its 57th flight on September 3, 1925.  The Zeppelin Corporation built the USS Los Angeles in Germany, originally assigned the LZ-126 designation.  The LZ-126 made three flights in Germany prior to the delivery flight to Lakehurst in 1924.  The Shenandoah and Los Angeles were operating simultaneously for about one year.  However, the supply of helium was insufficient for both ships to be in the air at the same time.

Given that cachet making and event cover collecting did not become popular until well into the 1930’s it is not surprising that few event covers were made to commemorate the various flights of the Shenandoah or the Los Angeles.  The flown covers reported are typically rare and scarce.  A cov

Figure 3

er flown on the Shenandoah is shown (Fig. 1) from the transcontinental flight in October, 1924, from Lakehurst to San Diego (and return).  Note, the Lakehurst Naval Air Station postmark and the San Diego Receiver on October 11.  The cover also has a backstamp in Fort Worth on October 9th as it made an intermediate stop there.  Both flown and event covers (not flown) were prepared for the Shenandoah’s flight to the US Governor’s Conference in Bar Harbour, Maine, in July of 1925.  The flown covers are either postmarked in Lakehurst or Bar Habour.  We show one of the event covers prepared by A. C. Roessler (Fig. 2).

The delivery flight of the ZR-3 (later Christened the USS Los Angeles) took place on October 12, 1924, from Friedrichshafen to Lakehurst, touching down on the 15th.  We show an example of a flight cover for the delivery flight (Fig. 3).  It has a September 15, 1924, postmark and an informational postmark on October 10th and is backstamped in New York on the 15th.  We show an example of a cover flown on the Los Angeles’ flight to Bermuda on February 20, 1925(Fig. 4).  It has an interesting corner card/cachet from A. C. Roessler with an indication of how his name should be pronounced.

Figure 4

US Rigid Airships of the 1930’s – the USS Akron ZRS-4 and USS Macon ZRS-5

The USS Los Angeles remained active until May, 1932, overlapping operations of the USS Akron by 8 months.  Sufficient helium was available so they could be in the air at the same time.  We show a flown cover from the USS Akron (Fig. 5) with a combination cachet printed by A. C. Roessler and the purple cachet added by the Post Office Department.  We also show the back of the cover (Fig. 6); backstamps provide critical information about the cover’s actual trip.  The San Diego backstamp on May 11, 1932, coincided with the arrival of the Akron after her cross-country trip from Lakehurst.

The cover arrived back in New Jersey three days later, transported by other means.  The orange cachet also gives an idea of the size of the Shenandoah, Los Angeles, and Akron.  The Akron and Macon were both 785 ft. long, almost the length of three football fields, and with much larger diameter at over 130 ft.

The early 1930’s was at the beginning of a major collecting interest in cacheted covers.  Mellone’s Ullmann Photo-Encyclopedia lists over 500

Figure 5

event covers for the USS Akron.  When the Akron crashed early in the morning of April 4, 1933, cachet makers produced a large number of covers to mourn the loss.  We show one example, with hand painted cachet, signed by Secretary of the Navy Claude A. Swanson and Moody Erwin, one of the survivors of the crash (Fig. 7).  The cachet is of the period but was added after the cover was postmarked.  The collecting of covers with of the period autographs is quite popular.

Christened just one month after the crash of the Akron, the USS Macon was active for two years before it also crashed – this time in the Pacific.  The Macon did not fly any official mail, but the crew did carry mail from time to time.  These covers are quite rare and scarce.  We show one example (Fig. 8) from the delivery flight of the Macon from Akron to Lakeet makers also made many event covers for the USS Macon – over 3000 varieties exist.  Given the numerous exercises of the Macon with regular Navy ships, the mail clerk cancelled a number of these on board ships.  We show an example (Fig. 9) from the Cruiser USS Northampton (CA-26).  Note the double cachet by W. G. Crosby; smaller #6¾ size covers were also made with the green and black cachets.  The covers are signed by the pilot of one of the Northampton scout planes (she carried four planes and two catapults) and Leo Miller, the mail clerk, who was instrumental in preparing covers from the Northampton.

Summary, Conclusions, and Next Steps

Collecting the US Rigid Airship covers can be a lot of fun and intersects the space between air mail, Zeppelins, and US Navy ship’s covers.  The Mellone’s Photo Encyclopedia of USS Akron and Macon Event covers is a great place to start and has over 2500 listings.  The Michel Specialized Catalog has a listing of many of the covers flown on all four airships.  Other references are listed below.  There are a number of ASDA members who specialize in these covers.  A popular auction site has over 1200 covers listed at a median price of $20; 350 sold in the last 90 days at a median price of $7.00

Fig 7
Figure 9
Figure 8


Previous EditionsUseful LinksSection Contact
Mellone’s USS Akron and Macon C. R. (Bob) Helms, Ph.D
Michel Zeppelin Specialized Catalogue 2003