Episode 17

The rise of the Zeppelin and the Airship Roma disaster

The airship Roma and the Hindenburg have a very common and tragic history. America learned from the Roma crash and turned away from hydrogen filled airships...and Hindenburg learned the same lesson 15 years later.

Airship Roma Disaster (video)

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Transcript
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greetings and welcome to the talk with

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History Podcast I'm your host Scott here

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with my wife and historian Jen hello on

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this podcast we talk about history's

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continuing impact on us and our personal

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journey through YouTube as we continue

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to explore record and share our history

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walks with you

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now I'm going to guess that you the

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listener have probably seen Indiana

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Jones in the Last Crusade and if you

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haven't don't worry no spoilers here

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today

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but for those who have you probably

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remember that in the movie there's a

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classic scene where Indiana and his

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father board A zeppelin that's flying

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out of Germany as they try to escape the

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Nazis but

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did you know that America had actually

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hoped for something similar but never

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quite got there

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for some all too real reasons that we're

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going to talk about in today's podcast

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so Jen what are we talking about today

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today we're going to talk about the

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Airship disaster Roma okay so the Roma

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was an Airship that America purchased

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from Italy it was built in Italy

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and it took a maiden voyage I think the

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American ambassador took that maiden

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voyage to kind of test it out before it

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was purchased now Airship is basically

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kind of like a zeppelin just a little

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different we talk about this in the

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video yeah so we'll we can we can talk

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about that after I give a little okay um

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yeah so the Airship Roma so the Airship

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Roma

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it was purchased by America from Italy

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it's White's name Roma because it was

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built in Rome sure and the American

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ambassador took the maiden voyage trip

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with it from Rome to Naples back to Rome

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and everything seemed great good old you

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know testing was done and they said yeah

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we'll buy it and they spent a good

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amount on it I think what did we talk

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about in the

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I think by today's standards would be

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like two million dollars yes like it was

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it wasn't inflation stuff like that it

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was a hefty sum yeah and um

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but what happened was instead of flying

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it so they had purchased this Airship

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and we'll talk about the different types

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for transatlantic travel so back and

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forth across the island at the time yes

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it was the largest that the Americans

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had ever owned it was the largest and it

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could be good for that type of travel it

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was like a mile a minute and it could do

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something like that relatively safe fly

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up above the weather you'd be relatively

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safe

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but instead of flying it to America

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after purchasing they pack it up they

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take it apart they pack it up and then

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when it finally gets to America and they

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unpack it because it's taken across on a

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ship so of course not quickly

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the skin has mildewed and deteriorated

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and the engines never quite run right so

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they actually replace the engines and

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they don't even have it for very long so

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it's purchased in November of 1921 it

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actually crashes in February of 1922. oh

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my gosh so like a matter of four months

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it's in operation and even in those four

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months they had to replace the engines

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things were just going wrong with it and

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it and it was actually like a pretty

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decent deal like when I made this video

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I actually found old video clips of the

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Roma you know so so it was a big deal

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back then to get this over here this was

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a a big deal in aviation because we have

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both been to Bases where you see durable

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hangers and for militaries to build

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these huge durgeable hangers no you know

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that they put a lot of effort and money

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into this program yeah and that's why I

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think they try so hard to get it to

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survive but it just it's disaster after

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disaster so in the Aromas

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case

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it was filled with hydrogen yep just

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like the Hindenburg

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but uh and then well as I'll talk about

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the disaster that happens but the major

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change that happens with the Roma is

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that's when America changes its air from

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hydrogen to helium and you said that's

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largely because hydrogen's obviously

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flammable hydrogen's flammable but the

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big reason why they use it is because

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it's it's cheap cheap and you can find

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it pretty easily where helium is

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expensive and rare and I know we

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probably like and that's not rare you

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can go get balloons filled up but it's

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it's compared to hydrogen right it's

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rare and so it would just be easier to

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use it and I guess people just figured

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oh it won't light because we won't keep

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any Flames bite or anything hot by it

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but in every instance it usually it's

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coming down to the ground and ignites

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that's what happens in the Hindenburg as

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well so that's what happens in the Roma

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yeah it was interesting right you talk

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about you know us being in the military

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we've seen dirigible hangers and you

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know I'm seeing these videos and making

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you know I'm seeing old videos as I'm

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making the video for us for YouTube and

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you know I mean America had really

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invested and really said like Aviation

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is important this is the next step and

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we're going to do a lot towards it and a

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fun thing a fun little aside about I

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always think about this when I think of

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Zeppelin or dirigible hangers

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is if anybody's ever seen MythBusters

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yes the MythBusters out in California in

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the San Francisco area they used to use

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the the dirigible hangers at Moffett

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Fields all the time because it was a

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giant empty space where there was no

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wind I think they actually I think one

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of the things they try to do in one of

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the the hangers we saw was the lead

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balloon

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that one of the episodes they tried to

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do for MythBusters that they try to get

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like the thinnest lead kind of material

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they could to try and Float an actual

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lead balloon yes I don't remember what

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the outcome was I don't remember either

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but they used them often yeah they did a

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couple different experiments and that

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just and just thinking about that now as

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we talk about it like we were all in on

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Aviation yes I mean they're gigantic

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hangers when you think of a hanger today

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and you're like oh a Hanger's big but

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when you see a durable hanger you know

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for one aircraft you see a georgeable

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hanger yeah you know there's no

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questioning that's a dirtual hair yeah

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and it's interesting because I'm a Naval

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aviator and if you know anything about

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wings Naval aviator wings the dirgeable

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wings are just one side of the wing oh I

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don't think I knew that so it's we

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always would make fun because we never

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knew anyone who went the dirigible route

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I think that was very early 40s and 50s

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when this maybe even the 30s because by

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38 the program is pretty much squashed

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yeah

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so when they came out with that Wing but

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to come out with its own specific Wing

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that's cool lets you know how much the

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military was invested in that yeah yeah

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no it was just it was just kind of an

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interesting one the more I kind of dug

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into it the more I realized like this

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was this had a ton of national attention

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it did and honestly so we talk about Von

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Zeppelin who developed the idea in 1900

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it it's a very plausible idea right you

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get high enough you can drop bombs right

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from a high enough distance and you

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would be relatively and this is so Von

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Zeppelin was like the German Chancellor

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or somebody or other that came with the

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idea of like dropping bombs from a

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zeppelin for war get high enough and you

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can drop bombs and there really isn't

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anything

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at the time on the ground that someone

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could do to stop you right right there

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wasn't anything they could fire from the

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ground that that's what what was the

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remind me when like some of the earliest

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dirigibles and airships were well that's

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that's when they were I'd say from 1900

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to 1938 okay like the early 1900s okay

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and I thought it was I thought it wasn't

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even until the 20s no just longer than

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that it's all low again they're

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prototypes sure and things like that

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yeah

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thank you

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we would talk about the different types

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of durgibles so and I and I had I had

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fun with that yes right in the video if

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you if you see the video you'll you'll

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understand what we're talking about

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but there's there's three different

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basic types basic types and that it all

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comes down to frame right so a

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rigid Zeppelin dirigible has a

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rigid frame and that's is that what

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Hindenburg was exactly exactly so when

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you see the Hindenburg crash and you see

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the skin basically flame out yeah and

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you see the frame the frame on fire and

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then it falls and then it collapses you

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see the frame you see the square of the

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frame that is the Zeppelin it's a full

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framed Airship which means the skin is

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lying on that frame and then the air is

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filling up inside yeah and we have that

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clip in our video so the frame holds the

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shape

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now semi-rigid is what the Roma was and

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that means the Keel or just the bottom

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is rigid so hard and then you can attach

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like the where people stay and things

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like that the coach or whatever can

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Indiana Jones yeah you could attach that

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to the to the rigid bottom but the top

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and the shape is basically different

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kind of balloons or bladders inside the

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skin yeah so it's not necessarily like

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uniform and smooth yes right but it

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makes it look smooth yeah it's not I

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wouldn't say the skin is where the air

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is against you have different bladders

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inside there that are holding the air

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okay okay so it gives it more stability

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and strength but there's nothing rigid

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right and so then a blimp like the

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Goodwill blimp is all just a bladder but

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again different bladders inside minus

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like the control bottom part yes which

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is nothing is it's just attached again

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to the skin but again you're keeping

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different bladders inside of it

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to again give it more stability so it's

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not just the skin helium in the skin

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right and that's it you poke a hole and

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yeah that's it no it starts leaking out

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yeah like a little balloon

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swirling around to the ground they keep

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different like balloons inside of it

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okay to give it more stability I don't

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think I ever actually knew that I I

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think in my brain I just thought like

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it's one giant balloon I never honestly

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really thought about it that much no I

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think you can control filling it up and

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things like that and you probably can

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control leaks yeah in that regard as

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well so it makes more sense but those

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are the three different types of Airship

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so when like we talk about Randy in A

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Christmas Story yeah who gets the

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zeppeliness yeah so yeah it's it's the

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rigid and that that's exactly what the

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Hindenburg is and I think the hint when

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you if you ever see that crashing video

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it does a really good job of showing you

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what the frame I mean one it's in it's

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in our video if you go and look it up if

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you're listening you can look watch it

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in our video or you can just Google you

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know the Hindenburg crash and people

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have actually like colorized the video

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EO and they've they've made it HD and

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this that and the other and as much as

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you can for a video from from

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1937. Yes um which is pretty amazing

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yeah you see people running away and

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looking yeah it's pretty amazing so it

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was been to the Roma was meant to hold a

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hundred people oh that's a lot so just

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like in Indiana Jones right it's

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supposed to be transatlantic flights so

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somewhat comfortable flying right and

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now I think if I remember right in

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Indiana Jones I had like to tell like

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airplanes that dropped out of the bottom

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did they ever actually have something

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like that so I think the Macon the USS

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Macon which I think was the biggest

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which someone actually corrected us yes

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it's the biggest Airship that was ever

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owned by the United States was made to

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be an aircraft carrier okay that was its

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purpose so just like in the movie Nina

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Jones if it again if anybody's watched

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it right think about that scene where

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they're trying to escape right they were

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escaping out of Germany in the Zeppelin

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and then all of a sudden they realized

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they were caught so they go down to

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wherever the hangar your Bay is we'll

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call it that and they drop into an

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airplane and Escape by dropping out of

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an airplane out of a zeppelin yes but

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they make an like most airships in

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America met its demise off the coast of

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San Francisco yeah that us but didn't

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have as many casualties I think it only

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had two casualties I think at the time

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because they had just issued life

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jackets to everybody and it was

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relatively warm and it crashed well it

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was relatively controlled crap yeah that

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was I think there was there was two

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Corrections that we had to make

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so the Macon was the largest the largest

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and the largest disaster was the Akron

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that's right and that happened in in New

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Jersey yeah just like the Hindenburg

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yeah and I think that was in the upper

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upper numbers of the 60s the people that

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died another military it might have even

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been like in the 70s or something

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people because on the Roma you have 34

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casualties nine people will survive five

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yeah but 34 people will die but this was

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the first so this is 1922. uh the Akron

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I think will be in the 1930s I also

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think the the making is in the 1930s

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yeah this was like the first yeah well

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and at the time again this was the

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largest one we had just brought it over

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from you know overseas and this that and

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the other we're trying to push the

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envelope with Aviation and all that

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stuff and here it is like four months

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and they're making video of it right so

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this is video that's 15 years before the

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Hindenburg tons of video and they're

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showing they're showing you so basically

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what fails on the Roma is that Rudder

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box and they're they're showing close

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close-up footage yeah it's pretty I was

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actually pretty surprised that I got I

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was able to find on YouTube such clear

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video so you can see this box it looks

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basically like a bike like you would

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imagine just a rudimentary box but this

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is how you're controlling the Airship

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and that fails it basically goes

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sideways yeah and it just takes a nose

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dive and just takes a nose dive and

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people were just watching this and it

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happens right at the Norfolk base which

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is now the Norfolk International

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Terminal where all the shipping comes in

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and out of

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and it cracked it hits telephone lines

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before it hits the ground it's those

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telephone lines that ignite the hydrogen

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and then it takes like five hours to put

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the fire out so and they're different

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fire stations that respond and the

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marker that we go to in the video is at

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one of those fire stations yeah so

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that's why the marker is there it's not

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yeah it's and it's funny that we like I

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drive by it literally every day on my

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way to work and I had never known it was

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there so this is one of those kind of

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cool

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circumstances where there's history lip

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you know just right practically in our

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backyard that I'm driving by every

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single day on the way to work and you

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tell me where it is and I'm like oh yeah

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there's a Starbucks like 20 feet from

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there and then there's the fire station

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um and then you know a quarter mile

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around the corner is is my base so so it

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was purchased for a hundred and eighty

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four thousand so today it would be 2.7

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million yeah so a good chunk of change

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yeah not and

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so we talked about 34 people were killed

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eight were injured three escaped I

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thought a neat point that you brought up

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was like even today when construction

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crews are like digging or they're

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building a house or they still find

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pieces from the Roma they do screws or

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bolts or you know some sort of metal

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piece trying to think of this huge

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Airship crashing there's 400 and some

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feet long yeah 410 feet long 82 feet

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wide 92 feet high yeah like it's pretty

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big yeah and Langley still has a road

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named Roma Road

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after the Roma yes I think 400 feet

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that's that's a football field and more

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and then some right so think think of an

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entire football stadium essentially

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being filled up with an Airship yeah or

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with hydrogen yeah A flammable air yeah

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and back then they were probably smoking

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right they were probably sitting there

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smoking down below like ah this is just

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fun I mean everybody did right they

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didn't even think about it it's a safety

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hazard yeah um but the the room was

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largely forgotten now because the

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Hindenburg when people think of airships

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they think of the Hindenburg and after

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that Hindenburg crashes I mean people

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just lose their confidence well because

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because it's so clearly caught on camera

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I think that's really what it is right

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and we see that throughout history right

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whether it's Vietnam in the 70s and

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stuff like that so this was such a clear

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shot even by today's standards I mean it

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was like Center frame it goes Corner

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down so you're seeing the whole thing

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and it's just up in flame so you you

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just see the skin just disappear and

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Flame and then it just like this metal

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frame just melts I

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think it's night yes so it makes it like

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even more yeah it's just way over the

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top so talk about some especially back

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then yes like holy cow and I you know so

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doing this video made me think of

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where I've heard these words were like

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Led Zeppelin right so I like I Love Led

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Zeppelin so where do they come up with

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that name like is that an unflyable

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Airship yeah and then I thought about

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Red Hot Chili Peppers come and fly my

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Zephyr and that is is also like a

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zeppelin so and we think of airships is

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something fun and exciting you know we

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think about them now Around the World in

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80 Days or something they have those

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types we like to romanticize we like to

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romanticize but like at the time it's

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interesting that America had this the

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Roma disaster which was a pretty big

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news

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and so we switched from hydrogen to

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helium yeah and but the Germans I mean

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the the Zeppelin the uh the Hindenburg

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was German right so they obviously and

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that was in 1937 so this was 15 15 years

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later they didn't change they were

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sticking they were sticking with it

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um and then I'm sure they probably

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changed their mind you know after that

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one

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foreign this was just kind of such an

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interesting one it's a super super Niche

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and so I don't know how well this

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particular video ought to be perfectly

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honest will ever really do it's not

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going to be a high view video but it's

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super interesting it's super interesting

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and it's a part of Aviation that it gets

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explored and it's cool like I said

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you'll know when you see a dirgeable

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hanger and I don't think this is a

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question on Triple Pursuit that you and

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I both got because we had just been to

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the Empire State Building

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but the Empire State Building is a mast

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that's right durgibles yes they built it

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for that and they actually I think

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because they can tether off yes I think

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they actually did it one time yeah you

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know probably in the 20s when people

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still flew them yeah that guy probably

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got his wings he was running doing his

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calls right he's like okay we're gonna

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tether to the top of the Empire State

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Building yes but that's what that is

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it's a Mass for durable yeah that's

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that's really cool well again this this

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was a super fun one and this is a short

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video and I think this will be a shorter

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episode for us today but as you

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mentioned in the video Aviation has the

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saying that their manuals are Written in

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Blood and that's because of the

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experience and the crashes

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from the past like with the broma and

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the Airship Aroma crash was one of the

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earliest examples of that

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but don't forget that we can look back

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on these earliest of aviators and know

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that they were doing things that no one

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had ever done which is not something

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that everyone can say

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so again thank you for listening to talk

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with History Podcast and please reach

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A Historian and Navy Veteran talk about history inspired travels, their YouTube channel journey, and examine history through conversations with the curious, the explorers, and the history lovers out there

About your host

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Scott Bennie

Host of the Talk With History podcast, Producer over at Walk with History on YouTube, Editor of the Hashtag Historic newsletter.