Massive floating airship carriers deploying squadrons of fighters – a scene from some fantastic grade-B thriller? Well, maybe. But back in the mid-1930′s it wasn’t all that far fetched. The Navy, in the midst of transformational experimentation with aircraft carriers, was well into the trials with lighter-than-air ships. Of these, the USS Akron and USS Macon were the most intriguing, being the largest of the Navy’s airships and equipped to carry a small compliment of fixed-wing aircraft.
In the late 1920’s early 1930’s, the future of heavier-than-air craft was still being determined. In particular, large, long-range aircraft that could be used to scout for enemy vessels. Those that were available were generally seaplanes with limited range and endurance (recall that Lindbergh’s flight was in 1927). A potentially viable alternative was the lighter-than-airship, or zeppelin. These mastodons of the air could cruise for days on end, enabling coverage of significant chunks of area. In 1929, the Navy contracted with the Goodyear-Zeppelin company in Akron, Ohio for the construction of the 6.5Mcu ft rigid airship, USS Akron. This was to be the lead ship in a two ship class (USS Macon was the sister airship). Akron was launched (floated) on 8 August 1931 and commenced her maiden flight on 23 September 1931. She was commissioned 27 October 1931.
To demonstrate the capabilities of the airship, Akron departed Lakehurst to work with the Scouting Fleet on a search exercise on the morning of 9 January 1932. Proceeding to the coast of North Carolina, Akron headed out over the Atlantic, tasked with finding a group of Guantanamo Bay-bound destroyers. Once she had located them, she was to shadow them and report their movements. Clearing the North Carolina coast at 0721 on 10 January, the rigid airship proceeded south. Bad weather prevented her from sighting the destroyers she was to find (she missed contact with them at 1240, although they sighted her) but she continued on, eventually shaping a course toward the Bahamas by late afternoon. Heading northwesterly into the night, Akron then changed course shortly before midnight and proceeded to the southeast. Ultimately, at 0908 on 11 January Akron succeeded in spotting the light cruiser USS Raleigh (CL-7) and a dozen destroyers, positively identifying them on the eastern horizon two minutes later. Sighting a second group of destroyers shortly thereafter, Akron was released from the evolution about 1000, having achieved a “qualified success” in her initial test with the Scouting Fleet.
Akron and her sister ship USS Macon (ZRS-5) (the latter still under construction) were regarded as potential “flying aircraft carriers”, carrying air groups composed of parasite fighters for reconnaissance use. On 3 May 1932, Akron cruised above the coast of New Jersey with Rear Admiral George C. Day, President of the Board of Inspection and Survey, on board, and for the first time tested the “trapeze” installation for handling of aircraft while airborne. The pilots who carried out those historic “landings,” first with a Consolidated N2Y trainer and then with the prototype Curtiss XF9C-1 Sparrowhawk fighter, were Lieutenant Daniel W. Harrigan and Lieutenant Howard L. Young. The following day, Akron carried out another demonstration flight, this time with members of the House Committee on Naval Affairs on board. During this operation the same fliers gave the lawmakers a demonstration of Akron‘s ability to handle aircraft.
Crash of the Akron
On the evening of 3 April 1933, Akron cast off from her moorings to operate along the coast of New England, assisting in the calibration of radio direction finder stations, with Rear Admiral Moffett embarked. Also on board were: Commander Harry B. Cecil, the admiral’s aide; Commander Fred T. Berry, the commanding officer of Lakehurst‘s Naval Air Station; and Lieutenant Colonel Alfred F. Masury, USAR, a guest of the admiral, a vice-president of the Mack Truck Co., and a strong proponent of the potential civilian uses of rigid airships.
As she proceeded on her way, Akron encountered severe weather which did not improve as she passed over Barnegat Light, New Jersey at 2200 (10:00 PM) on 3 April. Wind gusts of terrific force struck the airship unmercifully around 0030 (12:30 AM) on 4 April, and pushed her down toward the sea. She crashed tail first and then sank in the stormy Atlantic. The German motorship Phoebus in the vicinity saw lights descending toward the ocean at about 0023 (12:23 AM) and altered course to starboard to investigate, thinking she was witnessing a plane crash. At 0055 (12:55 AM) on 4 April, Phoebus picked up Lieutenant Commander Herbert V. Wiley, Akron’s executive officer, unconscious, while a ship’s boat picked up three more men: Chief Radioman Robert W. Copeland, Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Richard E. Deal, and Aviation Metalsmith Second Class Moody E. Ervin. Despite desperate artificial respiration, Copeland never regained consciousness and died on board Phoebus.
Although the German sailors spotted four or five other men in the stormy seas, they did not know that their ship had chanced upon the crash of Akron until Lieutenant Commander Wiley regained consciousness half an hour after being rescued. Phoebus combed the ocean with her boats for over five hours in a dogged but fruitless search for more survivors of aviation’s biggest single tragedy to that date. A Navy blimp, J-3, sent out to join the search, also crashed, with the loss of two men.
The United States Coast Guard cutter Tucker (CG-23), the first American vessel on the scene, arrived at 0600 (6:00 AM) and took on board the Akron survivors and the body of Copeland, thus releasing the German motor vessel. Among the other ships which relentlessly combed the area for more survivors were the heavy cruiser Portland (CA-33), the destroyer Cole (DD-155), Coast Guard cutter Mojave, and the Coast Guard destroyers McDougal and Hunt, as well as two Coast Guard planes. Most, if not all of the casualties had been caused by drowning and hypothermia, as the crew had not been issued with life jackets and there had not been time to deploy the single life raft on the ship, the crash left 73 dead, and three survivors.
Loss of the Macon
On February 12, 1935 the Macon ran into a storm off Point Sur, California. During the storm, she was caught in a sudden updraft which caused structural failure of her unstrengthened upper tailfin (damaged in an earlier accident and still being repaired). Trailing cables punctured the rear gas cells and the resulting gas leakage prompted a discharge of ballast. Control was lost and, tail heavy and with engines running, the Macon rose past the pressure height and kept going until enough helium was vented to cancel the lift. It took her 20 minutes to descend from 4,850 ft and, settling gently into the sea, Macon sank off the California coast. Only two crewmembers from her complement of 76 died, thanks to the warm conditions and the introduction of life jackets and inflatable rafts after the Akron tragedy. The two that perished did so needlessly: one jumped ship after it had lost most of its altitude but was still high above the ocean surface; the other drowned while swimming back into the wreckage to try to retrieve personal belongings.
Macon, having completed 50 flights from her commissioning date, was stricken from the Navy list on February 26, 1935. Subsequent airships for Navy use were of a nonrigid design to make them less vulnerable to meteorological phenomena.
Aftermath of the crashes
Akron’s loss spelled the beginning of the end for the rigid airship in the Navy, especially since one of its leading proponents, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, perished with her, as did 72 other men. As President Roosevelt commented afterward: “The loss of the Akron with its crew of gallant officers and men is a national disaster. I grieve with the Nation and especially with the wives and families of the men who were lost. Ships can be replaced, but the Nation can ill afford to lose such men as Rear Admiral William A. Moffett and his shipmates who died with him upholding to the end the finest traditions of the United States Navy.
Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk
The Sparrowhawk followed on the heels of the 1928 contract for the Akron and Macon. When those massive airships were designed, there was hangar space designed in from the start for four aircraft to be launched/retrieved by means of a trapeze/skyhook arrangement. The Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) issued a specification for a very small aircraft designed to fit through the arbitrarily chosen size of the airship’s hangar entrance. Three prototypes (1 each) were forwarded by Curtiss, Berliner-Joyce and General, but all proved to be too large save the Curtiss XF9C-1. Following testing in early 1931, the XF9C-1 was fitted with a skyhook and transferred to Lakehurst, NJ for trials with a modified airship, the Los Angeles. On 27 Oct, the first successful in-flight capture was completed, using a specially designed trapeze designed by BuAer.
That same month, Curtiss flight trials on a modified version of the XF9C. The prototype trials showed early promise and later in October, six F9C-2 aircraft were ordered. The first F9C-2 flew on 14 April 1932 and the first “hook” was 29 June 1932 onboard USS Akron. By September 1932, all six Sparrowhawks had been delivered to the Navy and began operating as scouts. The USS Akron would be lost in 1933 in a storm off the New Jersey coast with the loss of all but three, but no Sparrowhawks were lost. Flight ops off Macon continued through 1935 when Macon too was lost, this time off Monterey on the West Coast. Four of the Sparrowhawks were lost with Macon, but fortunately loss of life was kept to only two, but four of the Sparrowhawks were lost. The remainder were subsequently retired after another two years. One example remains and is owned by the National Air and Space Museum.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) succeeded in locating and surveying the debris field of the Macon in February 1991, and was able to recover artifacts from it. The exploration included sonar, video, and still camera data, as well as some artifact recovery.
In May 2005 MBARI returned to the site as part of a year-long research project to identify archeological resources in the bay. Side-scan sonar was used to survey the site.
A more complete return with including exploration with remotely operated vehicles took place in September 2006, which included researchers from MBARI and from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Video clips of the expedition were made available to the public through the OceansLive Web Portal, a service of NOAA.
The 2006 expedition was a success, and revealed a number of new surprises and changes since the last visit, ~15 years ago. High-definition video and more than 10,000 new images were captured, which will be assembled into a photomosaic of the wreck.