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Navy Mechanic Kept Blimps Running as Crews Watched for Enemy Subs

Owned by the U.S. Navy, the MZ-3A is stationed at Naval Air Station, Patuxent River, Md. (PAX) and is operated under the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and Scientific Development Squadron ONE (VXS-1). (U.S. Navy photo)
Owned by the U.S. Navy, the MZ-3A is stationed at Naval Air Station, Patuxent River, Md. (PAX) and is operated under the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and Scientific Development Squadron ONE (VXS-1). (U.S. Navy photo)

FROSTBURG -- Paul Fitzgerald worked more than 60 years ago as a United States Navy mechanic on some of the largest aircraft ever flown by the military, commonly referred to as blimps.

"I just like to fly in them," said the Frostburg resident.

Fitzgerald was stationed at Glynco Naval Air Station in Brunswick, Ga., during the mid-1950s when blimps patrolled the Atlantic Ocean looking for enemy submarines. Now, Glynco is home to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, the largest law enforcement organization in the country.

Fitzgerald flew with a crew of nine others, including pilots and sonar personnel, nearly 4,000 feet over the ocean multiple times a week. A typical flight over the Atlantic could last up to nine hours. During all missions, Fitzgerald worked to keep two engines, each one he describes as "about the size of this room," running smoothly. Lucky for them, nothing went wrong.

"I never had much trouble with them, just adjust the carburetor while they're flying, make the engine run smoother when in flight," said Fitzgerald.

He had heard of blimps going down in the ocean, and if they did, it was quite dangerous getting out.

"If you ever did have to crash one of these in the ocean, the only thing you had was a life preserver, a knife and shark repellent, so what chance have you got," Fitzgerald said.

The knife was for cutting through the thick Goodyear rubber of the blimp and he said the rest can be left up to imagination. However, dangers didn't stop in the air.

"We used to fill the APU unit; they hung under the blimps when you were in the field, to keep them charged up, a lot like a generator. We had to fill them with gasoline. We were filling these units one day and the guy that was helping me forgot and set the gas can down on the battery and set it off. He threw the bucket of gas and it went everywhere. It went all over him. They had him on the ground with blankets to put him out. He was in the hospital real burnt. I didn't see him anymore after that," Fitzgerald said.

Glynco housed six naval blimps during the time of Fitzgerald's service at the station. Each blimp could hold 400,000 cubic feet of helium and averaged nearly 250 feet in diameter. Two gigantic blimp hangars were constructed out of Douglas fir timber and shipped to the base from Washington state, Fitzgerald said.

Each hangar measured about 1,058 feet long, 297 feet wide and 182 feet tall. "The hangars were so high you could see the clouds in them," Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald was honorably discharged from the Navy on Veterans Day 1961. He returned home to Western Maryland where he married and had seven children. But Fitzgerald brought back many fond memories of his flights.

"We would open the doors with our feet hanging out watching the dolphins on the ocean," he recalled.

The United States ended all airship flights at Glynco in 1958.

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