Airship Docking Station on Top of the Empire State

If you’ve ever arrived in NYC via one of the major airports, you must have fantasized about landing miraculously in the middle of Manhattan instead.

Turns out that such a seemingly ridiculous idea was once actually considered. In the late 20s it was believed that cross-Atlantic travel would soon be executed using zeppelins or dirigibles. Thus the investors behind the Empire State Building decided that its top would serve as an ideal site for embarkation.

Dirigible Docked on Empire State Building, New York, 1930. In reality, no airship ever docked there, and the notion of the mast itself was a publicity stunt perpetrated by the building’s backers. The photograph is from the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop.” (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In this scenario, a dirigible would arrive and dock on top of the building at the specially built mooring station. It would then be quickly secured with ropes, after which passengers would disembark by walking single-file down a gangplank and into the tallest building in the world from its top floor. They would proceed to take the elevator down and find themselves in the middle of Manhattan a mere seven minutes after they landed.

Since the idea was rooted in a very practical desire to make the building more profitable, the developers went as far as actually constructing a mooring mast on top of the Empire State. However, even the best American engineers failed to figure out how to attach a zeppelin to the top of a 1250 ft-high building that regularly saw 50 mph winds, all the while making it a pleasant experience for the average cross-Atlantic traveller. Besides, the airship companies weren’t interested, deeming it impractical and even dangerous.

The one and only actual mooring occurred on September 1931 when a privately-owned blimp managed to dock for 3 minutes, but without unloading anything. Even jaded New Yorkers became transfixed watching the blimp maneuvering around the mast, a spectacle that brought pedestrian and vehicular traffic to a complete stand-still.

Over the mooring mast. Dirigible over Empire State Bldg. The blimp Columbia trying to pick up a sack of mail for delivery to outbound liner.

The age of trans-Atlantic zeppelins ended in 1937 with the Hindenburg disaster, when the largest craft of its type ever built burst into flames while landing in New Jersey.

However impractical, isn’t it such a beautiful, futuristic dream to be able to fly up to a skyscraper, walk to an elevator car, and find oneself in the heart of Manhattan in a matter of minutes rather than having to spend three hours inching away in a taxi from JFK Airport to Grand Central? Out of the many crazy, innovative ideas conjured up throughout history of New York, this one didn’t work out. But if it did, wouldn’t it be fantastic?

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