On 01 April by MS in , , , ,    No comments

Most people who walk down Vaniman Street or Preston Avenue don’t give a thought to where they got their names. But those names loom large, not only in the history of Goodyear, but in the early history of flight.

Back when Goodyear was just getting started, Frank Seiberling wasn’t planning to be limited to the tire business. Goodyear was at the forefront of many advanced technologies, and was fully staffed with some of America’s brightest engineers. These were the same men that built the neighborhood’s streets, planned for its water and sewer utilities, and ensured that Warren Manning’s innovative design became a reality. The company’s expertise in rubber made the construction of balloon and blimp envelopes a natural, and Seiberling’s enthusiasm for flight was the impetus needed to make sure Goodyear became a world leader in lighter-than-air flight.

So it was that when Melvin Vaniman, a noted aerial photographer who had taken up piloting airships, needed a new airship to make a second attempt at an Atlantic crossing, Goodyear manufactured the craft’s giant rubber gas bag. Vaniman—who never actually lived in Akron—had attempted a crossing in 1910, but was forced to ditch in the ocean due to an engine failure. Thankfully, he and his feline co-pilot “Kiddo” survived.

For his second attempt, Vaniman was happy to name the airship Akron at Frank Seiberling’s request, and in 1912 he set off from the Jersey shore near Atlantic City, this time, without his furry friend. Sadly, Vaniman would fail once again, but the second attempt cost he and his four crewmen their lives. Filled with over 11,000 cubic meters of hydrogen, the airship burst into flames and exploded — plunging the ship’s gondola over 750 meters to an inlet. Soon thereafter, Vaniman’s brave exploits would be immortalized by having one of the neighborhood’s streets named after him.

Just as Vaniman was attempting his first transatlantic flight, Goodyear engineer P.W. Litchfield was attending an airship meet in Paris, and on his way back to the US, bought new equipment in Scotland for spreading rubber on fabric and brought two Scotsmen back home with him to operate it. Soon, Goodyear was developing advanced balloon and airship designs, and the company was eager to test them out.

Preston and Upson commemorated on a card celebrating their balloon race victory
Onto this scene entered the two Ralphs—R.H. Upson and R.A. Preston—both talented and fearless engineers who worked in Goodyear’s Aeronautical Division. Confident enough to fly the same balloons and airships that came off their drawing boards, they quickly led the company into a leadership position, winning the International Gordon-Bennett Balloon Race in 1913 as well as many competitions across America.

Success breeds success, and in 1917 Goodyear became involved in the effort to build an all- new airship for the U.S. Navy, designated the B-Class. The contract was large enough that four other firms—including B.F. Goodrich and U.S. Rubber Co. (Later Uniroyal)—teamed up to get the job done. With its immense experience in lighter-than-air craft, Goodyear led the project, and engineers Preston and Upson played major roles in designing a brand new generation of advanced airships.

The two men were among the company’s most notable and respected employees. As there was already an Upson Street in the northern part of Middlebury, Preston was honored with having a street named after him in the new Goodyear Heights development. Ralph Upson soon made his home on the Heights, having his own house built on Shawnee Path using a company-approved design.

Just as young boys of the early 1960’s loved to follow space heroes named Shepard, Glenn and Grissom—boys of the early 1900’s closely followed the daring exploits of airship pioneers like Vaniman, Upson and Preston, which were highlighted in newspapers around the world. It’s nice to know they’ll always be remembered in Goodyear Heights.


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