Kristine has a B.A. in Journalism from Penn State University and an M.A. in Liberal Studies from the University of Michigan.
The destruction of the German zeppelin The Hindenburg has gone down in history as the greatest airship disaster of all time. The fate of two airships belonging to the United States Navy, however, is lesser known but equally as tragic.
The U.S. Naval Airship Program
The United States Navy used airships as part of its fleet at the start of the 20th century. Two of its larger airships were the U.S.S. Akron (ZRS-4) and U.S.S. Macon (ZRS-5). Both were built for long-range scouting missions to support the operations of the U.S. naval fleet.
According to the article “The Graf Zeppelin, Hindenburg, U.S. Navy Airships, and Other Dirigibles” on the website Airships.net, they were often referred to as “flying aircraft carriers.” Each of these helium-inflated airships was equipped with hangers and regularly carried F9C-2 Curtiss Sparrowhawk biplanes.
Building the Airships
Construction began in November 1929 at the Goodyear-Zeppelin Airdock in Akron, Ohio. The designs of both the Akron and Macon were developed by Goodyear-Zeppelin engineer Karl Arnstein. His designs differed radically from those of previous airships.
According to Airships.net, these airships were unique because “Traditional zeppelin design featured a series of main rings built of a single braced girder, which were generally spaced 15 meters apart with unbraced rings in between. Arnstein’s design for Akron and Macon utilized a series of ‘deep rings,’ which were large triangular structures — similar to the keel — spaced 22.5 meters apart.”
This design meant the airships were heavier than the framework of traditional German zeppelins. Arnstein believed this would give the airships greater structural strength and would avoid an in-flight structural failure that caused the U.S.S. Shenandoah, an earlier version of an American airship, to go down during a storm in September of 1925, killing 14 crew members.
The innovative design meant that planes could be launched and recovered while the airships were in flight. This extended the range over which the Akron and Macon could scout the ocean for enemy vessels and greatly expanded defense operations, according to Airships.net.
Up to five aircraft could be stowed and serviced in flight. Planes were launched and retrieved by using a mechanism that resembled a trapeze, and aircraft would enter and exit the craft through a T-shaped opening at the bottom of the airship hull.
The Akron was almost as long as Hindenburg but contained one significant difference. According to the article “The USS Akron plunge into the ocean: an airship disaster worse than the Hindenburg tragedy“ on The Vintage News website, the U.S.S. Akron was filled with helium, a non-flammable gas. Unlike the Hindenburg disaster, which was caused by the use of highly-combustible hydrogen, helium would prevent the airship from catching fire in the event of an accident.
Originally, the Navy planned to use the airships as scouting vessels. Because of the size and bulk of the crafts, however, it was decided the airships would be better used to carry scouting planes. The Akron and Macon were capable of carrying the planes close to enemy territory, thereby extending the range of the scouting missions, according to Airships.net.
A Minor Incident
The first naval exercises were conducted by the Akron in January of 1932. The airship was able to stay aloft for several days and flew thousands of miles on its initial mission.
On February 22, 1932, the ship broke away from its handlers in front of a group of congressmen waiting to board a demonstration flight. Its lower fin hit the ground, causing damage to the airship.
Following two months of repairs, the Akron spent most of 1932 on trial flights, conducting practice operations with its fixed-wing squadron, and making goodwill missions to promote the airship program to government officials and the American public, according to Airships.net.
Early in 1933, the Akron operated with its fixed-wing aircraft squadron and made several long flights, including to both the Panama Canal Zone and Cuba. It was also featured in several publicity events, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration on March 4, 1933.
The Crash of the Akron
Shortly after midnight on April 3, 1933, the Akron left NAS Lakehurst for a routine mission to calibrate its radio direction-finding equipment. Under the command of Frank C. McCord and carrying 76 crew members and VIPs, including Naval Bureau of Aeronautics Chief Rear Admiral William Moffett NAS Lakehurst Commanding Officer Frederick T. Berry, the airship departed for its flight along the northeastern coast of the U.S, according to Airships.net.
Not long into the flight, the airship was hit by a series of strong updrafts and downdrafts just off of the New Jersey coast. Buffeted by the winds, the crew attempted to control the rise and fall of the ship by raising altitude. Unable to regain control, the ship’s tail struck the water, destroying its control surfaces and causing the Akron to crash into the ocean.
Tragic Loss of Life
Of the 76 crew members and passengers, the only survivors were two sailors and the Akron’s executive officer, Herbert Wiley. Most victims died from exposure to the Atlantic’s frigid water. The ship also lacked enough lifejackets for all aboard, according to Airships.net.
A German merchant vessel in the area witnessed the airship’s descent. The vessel managed to retrieve the three survivors. By the time vessel made it to the crash site, however, the Akron had sunk into the ocean, according to Thevintagenews.com.
The navy sent a smaller airship, the J-2, to search the area for more survivors. Brutal weather conditions, however, also caused J-2 to suffer a similar fate. After the crew lost control of the airship, it also crashed into the ocean and killed two of the seven crew members.
With a total of 75 people losing their lives, the crash of the Akron is considered the worst airship disaster in history, according to Thevintgenews.com. In the Hindenburg disaster of 1937, 35 lives were lost.
Investigating the Accident
Since the wrecks of both the Akron and the J-2 airships sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean with few surviving witnesses and no media present, authorities were able to downplay the incident in the press. The public at the time was not made aware of either the scope of the disaster or the scale of the loss of life, according to Thevintagenews.com.
Investigations attributed the crash to incorrect altitude readings given by the ship’s altimeter, which had been affected by low pressure in the storm. Captain McCord likely thought the ship was at a higher altitude than it actually was. However, investigators concluded that McCord should have been familiar enough with the ship’s barometric altimeter to better judge the ship's altitude.
According to the article “Forgotten airship disaster recalled 80 years later” on the website of USA Today, some of the crew members killed on the Akron had survived the crash of the USS Shenandoah less than a year before.
The Destruction of the Macon
The Akron’s airship twin, the U.S.S. Macon, would later suffer an accident of her own. The Macon’s tail was damaged in rough weather over Texas in April of 1934. Repairs of the fins were delayed while they were being redesigned.
On February 12, 1935, while on a west coast flight near Point Sur, CA, the unrepaired fin suffered an in-flight structural failure, separating from the fuselage. The ship’s three aft gas cells were damaged by the failure, causing a massive helium loss. With about 20% of the airship’s lift affected, the Macon attempted to rapidly ascend to an altitude of almost 5,000 feet, well above its pressure height.
Rather than preserve the remaining helium, the automatic gas valves opened and released even larger amounts of helium. The ship then began its rapid and irreversible descent into the Pacific Ocean.
According to Airships.net, “the decision to drop large amounts of fuel and ballast in the first two minutes after the initial casualty, before officers could fully evaluate the nature of the damage, and also the continued operation of the ship’s engines (perhaps without the knowledge or control of the officers in the control car). . . may have caused the nose-high airship to climb rapidly as the result of dynamic lift.”
Unlike Akron, however, the Macon was equipped with sufficient life jackets and rafts for all on board. Only two crew members were lost. The remaining 74 were rescued, according to Airships.net.
Continuing the Program
After the losses of the Akron and Macon, the military discontinued building rigid airships and concentrated on the construction of non-rigid airships, which were less expensive to build and operate, according to the article “Airships and Balloons in the World War II Period” on the U.S. Centennial of Flight website.
The U.S. Navy also commandeered operations of the program from the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1937, ending the shared responsibility for the airship program.
Airships were used throughout WWII. Only one airship, the K-74, was lost in battle when it was shot down by a German U-boat, according to Centennialofflight.net.
The program officially ended on August 31, 1962. At one point in the 1980s, the Navy considered reviving the airship program, but the funding was terminated by Congress in 1989, according to Centennialofflight.net.
Finding the Wreckage
The U.S. Navy launched a mission to explore the wreckage of the Akron in June of 2002, according to USA Today. According to Officer Dennis McKelvey on the NR-1 which explored the wreckage, not much of the airship was visible in the 120-foot deep water. McKelvey described seeing some metal on the ocean floor that resembled "ribs sticking out of the mud."
The wreckage of the Macon sits on the seafloor of the Pacific Ocean just south of San Francisco. It has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Airships.net. "U.S.S. Akron (ZRS-4) and U.S.S. Macon (ZRS-5)." https://www.airships.net/us-navy-rigid-airships/uss-akron-macon/
Rumerman, Judy. US Centennial of Flight Commission. “Airships and Balloons in the World War II Period.” https://www.centennialofflight.net/essay/Lighter_than_air/Airships_in_WWII/LTA10.htm#:~:text=During%20this%20period%2C%20the%20Navy,operate%20than%20the%20rigid%20ships.
USA Today. “Forgotten airship disaster recalled 80 years later.” March 31, 2013. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/03/31/forgotten-airship-crash/2040031/
Valjak, Domagoj. “The USS Akron plunge into the ocean: an airship disaster worse than the Hindenburg tragedy.” The Vintage News, Jan. 19, 2018. https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/01/19/the-uss-akron-disaster/?chrome=1
© 2022 Kristine Sorchilla Moore