The Height Climbers

...the Wanderling

Back in the late 1950s, just out of high school, I got a job with a company that designed and built the breathing equipment for the U-2, the then super-secret high altitude spy plane. Because of the nature of the secrecy surrounding the plane, working there required me to obtain a confidential clearance. Because of that clearance I met a person called "Harry the Man," who, at that time was considered to be the top-rated high altitude breathing equipment specialist in the world. Top-ranked generals and pilots from all over the world would come by to pay him homage. Kelly Johnson of the Lockheed Skunk works was his friend as well as Howard Hughes. Harry had reached that high-exalted position in the late 50s, early 60s because of World War I Zeppelins.(see)

On August 4, 1914, when Harry the Man was eight years old or so, the British entered World War I with a declaration of war against Germany. To protect their island nation from the traditional sea borne naval attack the British did everything they could to keep the German surface fleet bottled up. To bypass the English blockade the German High Command switched to underwater warfare using submarines and to the sky using giant rigid airships built by the German airship genius Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. At the start of the war the German navy had only one fully operational rigid airship, the L-3. Typical of the time she had a capacity of 795,000 cubic feet, a top speed of forty-seven MPH, and a maximum ceiling of 6,000 feet.

On the night of January 19, 1915 two German navy Zeppelins carried out the first successful bombing run against British soil. One of the ships was the L-3. Both craft bombed from an altitude of 3,000 feet and both returned safely. On May 31, 1915, ten months into the war, the first Zeppelins showed up over London. In August 1916 two-million cubic feet mid-level ships operating at 13,000 feet went on line. It wasn't until September 2, 1916 that the British pulled the first airship out of the sky over England in direct air-to-air combat. To beat the sting of fighter aircraft and increased British anti-aircraft ground defenses the Zeppelin company began to develop a special series of rigid airships called Height Climbers that routinely operated at altitudes above 20,000 feet. Cruising at seventy MPH and beyond the top-out range of British fighters, crew members fought oxygen depravation, dizziness, bitter cold, snapped oil lines, congealed oil, frozen radiators, and cracked windows.

As the trench war on the western front bogged down, to bring the British to their knees, the Germans turned more and more of their attention to high altitude bombing. On the night of October 19, 1917 they launched a massive eleven ship raid against England using nothing but height climbers. The ships were so far above the earth their engines couldn't be heard by observers on the ground. Following the raid nearly half of the eleven climbers were destroyed, ironically none over England. As the ships dropped altitude to come in over Germany, French and British fighters such as the Zeppelin Killer Sopwith Camel together with Nieuport 11s with overwing-mounted Lewis and Hotchkiss guns, swarmed like bees around an invaded hive, and joined with ground fire, tore four of them to shreds. One airship, the L-55, flew unscratched over the western front by not dropping altitude. After bombing Birmingham from 20,000 feet the L-55 turned toward home. Nursing a faulty engine the Zeppelin commander decided to avoid allied fighters over the continent by maintaining altitude. Dawn found the ship in France at over 20,000 feet. The rising sun increased the temperature of the gas and immediately the ship began to rise. She reached 24,606 feet before the captain and a few men were able to force her into a downward angle. The crew began to revive and frozen engines thawed out as they reduced altitude. Low on fuel and with a damaged engine the L-55 slowly crashed in central Germany, but not before setting the all time airship altitude record, including the amount of hours surviving crew members spent above 20,000 feet.

On January 5, 1918 a series of explosions blew up all the airship sheds at Ahlhorn, Germany. Four Zeppelins were destroyed, all them height climbers. Low on ships, on August 8, 1918, the Germans launched their last Zeppelin raid against England. Just past sundown a British lightship reported several airships crossing overhead at extremely high altitude. A British fighter scrambled and caught the three behemoths cruising in the dark at about 17,500 feet. Straining the aircraft's ceiling the pilot attacked the lead ship, lacing her three-hundred foot bow with two drums of tracers. Within seconds fire engulfed the airship, the heavy metal superstructure crashing through the clouds in a trail of hydrogen-fed flames. Immediately the other ships dropped ballast and increased their altitude by several thousand feet. Every time the British pilot nosed up his De Havilland DH-4 to bring his twin front mounted Vickers to bare the plane would stall and nose back down. The two height climbers escaped. The rigid blown out of the sky that night was the L-70. Not only a height climber, the L-70 was the most advanced of a special breed of extremely long range Zeppelins. She and her commander's next mission was to lead the other two ships, the L-53 and L-65, across the Atlantic and bomb the city of New York, then return without stopping. The British pilot and his twin Vickers altered the flow of history that night, with all of it's attendant ramifications and potential outcomes. The L-53 was shot down six days later on August 11, 1918.(see)

De Havilland DH4 with Front-Mounted Twin Vickers
and Rear Cockpit Double-Mounted Lewis Guns

The long-range Height Climber L-65, designed
to bomb New York City

The Treaty of Versailles contained terms that all intact airships would be turned over to the allies. On June 23, 1919 German crew members destroyed all remaining craft they could get their hands on. One of the ships destroyed, the L-65, was the last of the three-ship triad intended for the New York raid.

Destroyed or not, with the end of the war the Treaty of Versailles required the Germans to abandon all military and naval aviation by October 1, 1919, including the construction of Zeppelins. The secret of the height climbers and high altitude survival would have ended then except for an interesting twist of fate. Not wanting to lose their talent pool and construction expertise the Zeppelin company unwillingly formed a partnership with the american-based company Goodyear, creating the Goodyear Zeppelin Corporation of Akron, Ohio. On October 6, 1928 the U.S. Navy contracted with the corporation for two rigid airships. Hundreds of americans worked and trained with former German wartime engineers in the construction of the two ships. Harry the Man was one of the americans, but not by chance.

The Height Climber L-49 as captured by the French,
almost intact.

Bow-on view of the crashed and captured L-49.

Eleven years before, on October 2, 1917, the German Zeppelin L-49 was captured almost intact by the French. French and American engineers swarmed all over the craft measuring and testing every single millimeter. Based on a L-30 design, the L-49 was thought to be a mid-level ship, sixty-two MPH, 13,000 foot ceiling, with ten machine guns. It was actually a height climber. On August 9, 1919 the U.S. Navy approved plans to build, in America, a rigid airship based almost exactly on the L-49 design. Assembled in Lakehurst, New Jersey from parts fabricated at the naval aircraft factory in Philadelphia, under supervision of the Bureau of Aeronautics, the completed ship, the ZR-1, was christened the Shenandoah.

The Shenandoah's maiden flight was September 4, 1923. On September 2, 1925, 28,000 miles and two years later, the Shenandoah left her mooring in Lakehurst on a routine demonstration flight headed west toward St. Louis, Missouri. Early in the AM of the following day the craft was just north of the small town of Ava, Ohio, about twenty-five miles east of Zanesville. At 5:58 AM the Shenandoah was caught in a severe thunderstorm. The airship broke up into several sections killing fourteen of the forty-three crew members, scattering the craft all over eastern Ohio. The crash brought airships to the attention of a wide-eyed young Harry the Man (then Boy), in his late teens living in the buckeye state with his mother and father. His dad and he visited the crash site and Harry fell into a trance with the awe of it all.(see)

Between the time I was no longer under my uncle's care and I met Harry the Man for the first time I was living with my grandmother. During that in between period, as a young teenager still in high school, I went from learning about submarines and U-boats from my Merchant Marine Friend, who had barely survived a U-boat attack on his ship in World War II to learning first hand about Zeppelins and World War I from a man, who eventually became my spiritual guide and Mentor. He lived in the house next door and as I got to know him I found out he had participated in the war as a pilot. An American, he joined the military through Canada and by age 18 at the time of the Armistice was flying for the British against the Germans. His best friend, who had taught him everything about flying and survival, was shot down and killed saving his life and I could tell, even after all those years, he was still deeply affected by it. One day I asked him about some scars I saw on his shoulder that looked like burn marks. He simply replied, "Jousting with dragons." Later I would figure out he meant doing battle with the giant hydrogen filled airships.

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Unknown to the French and American engineers at the time the height climbers were made from thinner gauge material and, except for the machine guns, stripped of armaments and even one engine. They did not realize they were being specially built in response to mounting losses and were super risky to fly, being very much on the edge of sound structural rigidity. The Americans copied the L-49 almost exactly not knowing how close the Germans had pushed the boundaries of minimal structures and a major reason she, the Shenandoah, broke up in bad weather.

NOTE: Click first gif below to see location map of crash site, click second gif for enlarged picture of wrecked craft showing the front section of the Shenandoah, September 3, 1925. Photo is from a 9 X 37.5 gelatin silver print by R.S. Clements courtesy of PAN US GEOG - Ohio, no. 25 (E size) P&P:


A couple of years later, after Harry caught wind two rigids were being built by the Goodyear Zeppelin consortium in Akron, he applied for a job. He was put to work on the pressure systems that inflated the ships and kept the pressure constant. Working side-by-side with German engineers experienced with height climbers and high altitude Harry was taken.

The first of the two new airships, the ZRS.4, named the Akron, was commissioned October 27, 1931. The second airship, the ZRS.5, named the Macon, was commissioned June 24, 1933. On April 4, 1933 the Akron broke up off Barnegat Light, New Jersey. The Macon crashed in the Pacific off Point Sur, California February 11, 1935. The Akron and the Macon ended the U.S. military involvement with rigid airships and the Akron Goodyear plant turned to making non-rigids. That ended Harry's interest in airships, but not in high altitude breathing equipment.

The Germans had discovered maintaining ships higher than 16,000 feet for four hours or more caused severe headaches, nausea, and vomiting. Crew members became exhausted and gasped for air. They grew inefficient, apathetic, and collapsed at their posts. To help resolve the situation the German navy began issuing bottles of compressed oxygen. The problem was that the breathing apparatus that regulated the gas flow was extremely primitive and the oxygen was contaminated with glycerin and other impurities. Crew members who used it experienced nausea for days afterwards. Harry knew there was a better way. With what he had learned from the German engineers he began to experiment on his own

During the summer of 1932 Howard Hughes was working incognito as a co-pilot and baggage handler on the Fort Worth to Cleveland, Ohio run for American Airlines under the assumed name of Charles Howard. It is from Hughes slumming that Harry related the first of two versions on how they met. In the first version Hughes just happened to wander into the hanger were Harry was working. Harry said he was unaware the man was Hughes even after he followed him around all day asking questions about high altitude breathing equipment. In the second version Harry said Sherman Fairchild, head of Fairchild Aviation, suggested Hughes stop by Cleveland or Akron and look him up. I think it may be a combination of the two, although I have a third version.

On October 31, 1927 Howard Hughes began shooting a motion picture he was producing called Hell's Angels. Four million dollars later, on May 27, 1930, the movie opened. Hell's Angels took place in World War I and centered around the members of the British Royal Flying Corps battling Zeppelins over London. Hughes built massive sets of interiors and exteriors of the airships. To ensure accuracy, Hughes, fastidious to reality almost to the point of paranoia, brought in genuine Zeppelin engineers from Akron. They brought charts and plans and Hughes ended up with exact replicas, right down to the last nut and bolt. What intrigued Hughes the most was stories of the height climbers. It is my opinion the engineers brought Harry the Man to Hughes attention.

Hughes H-1 Racer

In 1934 Hughes had experienced some success racing a modified Boeing Model 100A, a civilian version of an Army P12 pursuit biplane. Thinking he could do better, Hughes decided to design and build his own plane. The craft, designated the H-1 Racer, was a remarkable piece of engineering. A monoplane, it featured retractable landing gear, flush rivets, an oversize constant speed propeller and a close-fitting bell shaped fully cowled engine, taken together, all fairly innovative stuff in those days. Hughes idea was to crack the world speed record. In September 1935 he did just that, officially clocked at 352.3 MPH, surpassing the old record by a full thirty-eight MPH. Crossing the last pylon he ran out of gas, pancaked into a beet field located in an area in California that would eventually become Orange County, bent the propeller, destroyed the landing gear, and broke up a good part of the fuselage and underside.

Immediately he started rebuilding the plane for an attack on the transcontinental record, using a basically untried and unproved ace in the hole: High Altitude.

To operate in the rarefied air of the upper atmosphere Hughes had his racer, which he had renamed the "Winged Bullet," equipped with a supercharger, larger wings, and an oxygen supplied high altitude breathing system. Not to leave his breathing in the hands of just anybody, he sought out the very best. Thus entered a youthful Harry the Man. Throughout the year 1936 Hughes and Harry tested and refined the plane and it's various systems. For his effort Hughes was honored with the prestigious Harmon International Trophy, primarily for his work in high altitude flight. On January 20, 1937 Hughes and the H-1 easily lopped two hours off his own transcontinental record set one year earlier, January 13, 1936, using famed aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran's Northrop Gamma. Despite all the work Harry and Hughes put into the mostly winging it breathing equipment and the continuing insistance by Hughes for the system being ever more light weight, the prototype-like oxygen mask failed and Hughes almost, but DID NOT, black out. Because of the the redundancy the two put into the system and the training Hughes went through under Harry's guidance, of which dropping altitude if necessary was part of the training, the flight ended in success --- for both.

In an oblique sort of way the German Zeppelin engineers along with Hughes and Harry's experiments contributed significantly to the success of the U.S. and allied high altitude bombing effort in the European theater during World War II, while it is said the Japanese air force turned out almost carbon copies of the H-1 racer for their infamous Zero fighters used against the Americans with near unequaled success in the Pacific theater. A plaque in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. where the H-1 is displayed attests to the fact. For more on the H-1 Racer and Zero controversy please see:


"I eventually landed a job with a seemingly innocuous little aerospace firm with a huge reputation in El Segundo. However, after a short while with the firm, for reasons unknown to me, I was moved within the company from working as a technical illustrator which I was good at and knew how to do to working directly under the auspices of a person everybody called 'Harry the Man,' a job that encompassed no drawing or drafting skills or anything else that I had in my youthful repertoire of skills. Harry the Man was the top-rated high altitude breathing equipment specialist in the world and worked exclusively on U-2 oxygen systems. The first time I ever saw him he reminded me a great deal of Captain Marvel's arch rival and foe the evil scientist Dr. Sivana --- albeit not his personality or demeanor necessarily --- but his looks, bald head, glasses, lab coat and all."(source)










Howard Hughes, Da Vinci, and Flying Machines

Again and again I am asked what is my source surrounding the alleged World War I Zeppelin attack against the city of New York? My primary source is attributed to the works of historian Aaron Norman as cited in his 1968 book The Great Air War (pp.408-9).

As Norman presents it, toward the end of the war Korvettenkapitan Peter Strasser approached Admiral Reinhard Scheer at his HQ in Berlin with documents, maps, and drawings outlining a plan and substantiating it's feasibility of a bombing run on New York using a triad of specially built long range Zeppelins, type L-70, of which one was already constructed and flying, with two more under construction.

According to Norman, Reinhard told Strasser to leave the papers only to send them back the next day marked in pencil 'R.S, Nein.' Strasser did not leave it at that, initiating and participating in an attack against England a short time later using the L-70. For whatever reason, the L-70, a height climber, under his command came in at a reduced altitude and was easily detected and picked off by British planes, killing Stasser in the process.

Some people have stated they have not been able to find other references regarding Stasser and Reinhard in relation to suggested attacks against New York other than Norman's allegations of such. So too, neither did he footnote his source. Norman's book has passed scrutiny as being historically accurate, being held up as a classic standard relative to the air war in Europe during World War I. Although Norman's specific source is not cited beyond his own presentation, given the quality and credibility of the rest of his book there is no reason to discard what he has to say. We can only hope that in the future Norman's source or a secondary source confirming the contact between Stasser, Reinhard and a potential Zeppelin attack against New York surfaces.

More than once New York had been in the crosshairs of the German military. First in World War I and again under a variety of methods in World War II. Except for Fate intervening they came close --- and their methods for their planned attacks were within reason.

In World War II it was no longer Zeppelins but long range fixed wing bombers, most notedly the massive six-engined Ju 390, and again, just at the end of the war.

It has been reported that a Ju-390 left Europe coming in over Canada crossing into U.S. airspace to photograph defense plants in Michigan only to exit out over the Atlantic sometime after noon on August 28, 1943 by coming in behind any east-facing aircraft detection systems and passing directly over New York above the Empire State Building.(see)


The above link will take you to a complete free online version of "HELL'S ANGELS" while below is a review of the movie as it appeared in VARIETY:

BRIEFLY: 1930, WWI- Howard Hughes made this epic about 2 Americans who join the RFC. Made with up to 87 biplanes and 80 pilots (including Roscoe Turner), although some reports say no more than about 40 aircraft at one time.

Types included 5 Thomas-Morse Scouts S4.C (as "Camels"), 3+ SE.5, Sikorsky S-29 ("Gotha"), this crashed killing a stuntman) 8 Fokker D.VII, 2 Jennies ("Avro 504") Snipes?, Camels? DH.4. Many Travelair 2000/4000's ("Fokker") Many crashes both planned and accidental, 3 of them were fatal. DH.4, Travelair camera plane. Models. Some people have thought that WWI French flying ace (45 kills) Charles Nungesser, who had been doing stunt flying for films in Hollywood, was one of the stunt pilots killed in the filming of Hell's Angels. He wasn't. Nungesser disappeared May 8. 1927 on a flight attempt across the Atlantic a few weeks before Charles Lindberg's successful flight.

NOTE Although it has been claimed that famed aviatrix, barnstormer, and stunt pilot Pancho Barnes did stunt work for Huges in Hell's Angels she did not. Her role for the film was much more technical: to capture authentic audio of planes by flying past tethered balloons with sound equipment attached to them.

Filmed at several 1920's Los Angeles Fields- Caddo (Van Nuys), Inglewood, Chatsworth, Riverside, Encino, Santa Cruz, Glendale and Oakland in the San Francisco area.

The first half of the film (60 minutes) builds up to a Zeppelin raid on London which runs two reels and is given a big screen. A German youngster brought up in England purposely misdirects the bombing into a lake, British planes pursue, part of the Zep crew is called upon to abandon ship to lighten the dirigible, they jump and the climax is one of the Royal Flying Corp’s youngsters sending his plane through the big bag from above.

The way this final destruction is pictured will get a gasp from any audience. No film has yet had anything like it. Meanwhile, that German kid spotted in a suspended gondola to direct the Zep’s bombing, has been suddenly cut loose because he’s impeding the homeward escape and the big drum can’t retrieve him fast enough. The story has previously designated his as an Oxford pal of the Rutledge brothers. Hence, there’s more than casual interest in the boy.

The three dramatic highlights of the Zep footage are claimed to be based on fact — the severing of the cable to the gondola (which probably is out for Germany); the crew volunteering to jump (minus parachutes) and the British kid plunging his plane through the big envelope. A French flyer did this over Paris.

Second half’s main display (59 minutes) is an aerial dog fight in which at least 30, maybe 40, planes simultaneously start diving and zooming at each other. The only things Hughes missed on this and would have had if they’d had ‘em, was a Grandeur camera. Continuity approach to this action is a captured German bombing plane which the British are going to fly back over the enemy lines to destroy an ammunition dump. The Rutledge boys offer to do it, Monte stepping forward after an emotional upheaval over being tabbed as yellow. The brothers reach and destroy the objective with the explosions figuratively rocking the screen and it doesn’t look miniature.

While this has been going on, 13 or 15 German planes have been flying above the bomber but paying no attention until the leader sees the depot being peppered, whence he signals to attack — and those planes start tail spinning out of a V-formation to take a crack at the bomber. Then coming from the other direction are what seem to be dual groups of about 10 planes each — British ships. The German squadron leader sights them, signals to his men to regain their formation and Hughes has mistakenly and abruptly cut off this shot after showing but four or five planes returning to position. It’s a beautiful maneuver for which the footage should have been allowed to run to sure applause. Thence the free-for-all interspersed by close-ups for the boys in action. One overly gruesome passage is that of a pilot being hit to then scream in terror and agony as his plane dives.

The complete VARIETY review can be found HERE
copyright © 1940 Variety


Every time I heard Harry tell the story of visiting the airship wreckage scattered all over that field in Ohio it reminded me of my Uncle taking me as a very young boy to visit the so-called crash site associated with Roswell, New Mexico. My uncle wanted to see if there was any truth behind the so called Hieroglyphic Writing reported on some of the metal scraps, so we went there actually walking the then fresh debris field within days of the crash as described in FRANK EDWARDS: The Truth Behind the Veil

Although it was from discussions with Harry that I heard of the mysterious World War II bogies called Foo Fighters for the first time and he was willing to discuss the wartime event called The Battle of Los Angeles or the UFO Over L.A., wherein a giant Zeppelin-size object of unknown origin overflew Los Angeles and was able to resist the impact of over 1400 anti-aircraft rounds, when I tried to talk with him about the possibilities of the Roswell Incident he scoffed at the whole idea, saying it was all BS. He had arrived at that position through personal experience. From 1947 on there was a series of high altitude balloon tests under varying names such as Project Mogul and Project Gopher designated to accomplish a variety of goals. In 1952 or so Harry was called in to consult on Project Gopher wherein a reconnaissance balloon was developed to carry a 500 pound payload to more than 70,000 feet for up to fourteen days.

"The Project Gopher test flights faced unique security problems. Since the initial sightings of 'flying saucers' in June and July 1947, including the 'Roswell incident,' in which strange debris was found in New Mexico, the belief had developed among the general public that they were seeing alien spaceships and that the air force knew about it and was covering it up."(source)

The above quote is found in Shadow Flights (2000) by Curtis Peebles and is fairly typical. When I first met Harry the Man, because of his experience with the high altitude balloons of Project Gopher Harry threw his hat into the ring with the Air Force explanation of events, pooh-poohing the Roswell side of things. Since I semi-supported the Roswell side of things and he didn't, I pretty much never mentioned it to him again --- that is until the two of us were in the process of doing routine U-2 business at Edwards Air Force Base and taken to Area 51, in of which then Harry was assigned to investigate some mysterious parts. After that, for Harry the Man, things changed when it came to Roswell. See:



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Battle of Los Angeles or UFO Over L.A.?