Moments and Milestones: The Unknown Aeronaut

Moments and Milestones: The Unknown Aeronaut

Snow Bird
The Snow Bird's record flight showed the capabilities of airships - but the Navy's lighter-than-air program was doomed. NASM (SI NEG: #7A46289)

“LeMay and Navy Blimp Man Get Harmon Air Prize,” read the headline in the November 13, 1958 New York Times. The writer knew General Curtis LeMay was a household name. The Air Force vice chief of staff was a World War II hero. But few would recognize the name Jack Hunt, the Navy’s “blimp man.” In those days, the National Aeronautic Association awarded three Harmon Trophies each year, for outstanding aviator, aviatrix, and aeronaut (a balloon or dirigible pilot). Hunt, the unknown aeronaut, won it for setting a record that has never been surpassed. On March 4, 1957, he and a crew of 14 took off in a U.S. Navy blimp, the Snow Bird, from South Weymouth Naval Air Station, in Massachusetts, and flew across the Atlantic, then south along the coastal waters of Europe and Africa to the easterly trade winds, then back to a landing at NAS Key West, Florida, on the evening of March 15. The Snow Bird had been aloft for 264.2 hours without refueling and had flown 9,448 miles, breaking the existing marks for endurance and distance.

Like the German zeppelins under famed airship master Hugo Eckener, the Snow Bird flew the weather patterns and hunted for tailwinds. At one point in its flight, headwinds on the southerly track that the blimp took to find the trade winds made the crew wonder whether there was enough fuel to complete the flight. By shutting down one engine, they saved enough fuel to ensure they’d reach Key West.

The remarkably sophisticated Snow Bird was a ZPG-2 nonrigid airship, among the largest the Navy ever had built. ZPGs were designed for extended anti-submarine patrolling or as radar pickets stationed offshore to protect the U.S. eastern seaboard. A million cubic feet of helium buoyed each one, and a complex system of clutches allowed either engine to drive both propellers. ZPGs could refuel from fleet oilers (on its record trip, the Snow Bird didn’t) and dip down to scoop up seawater as ballast to replace the weight of burned-off fuel (which it did).

The record flight was intended to show off the ZPGs’ capabilities. But the big airships were doomed.

In 1962, just five years after the historic flight, the Navy shut down its lighter-than-air operations forever. Jack Hunt took the Harmon Trophy presented to him by President Dwight Eisenhower and went to Daytona Beach, Florida, to become the founding president of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where he will always be a household name. Since then, the Harmon Trophy has had a tumultuous history, and many years passed with no award presented. Today, the aviator and aviatrix trophies reside in the National Air and Space Museum. The original of the aeronaut trophy was lost in Germany but later found and returned to the Smithsonian. And since the late 1990s, the NAA has presented the sole remaining active Harmon award to an aeronaut.

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