USS Akron (ZRS-4)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
For the 1911 airship also constructed by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, also called the Akron, see Melvin Vaniman.
USS Akron (ZRS-4)
USS Akron (ZRS-4)
Akron approaches the mooring mast at NAS Sunnyvale
Manufacturer Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation, Springfield Township, Ohio
Manufactured 31 October 1929 (Commenced)
8 August 1931 (Launched)
Serial ZRS-4
First flight 25 September 1931
Owners and operators United States Navy
In service 27 October 1931 (Commissioned)
Last flight 4 April 1933
Flights 73
Total hours 1695.8
Aircraft carried Curtiss F9C 'Sparrowhawk', Consolidated N2Y-1, Waco XJW-1
Fate Crashed off coast of New Jersey, 3 April 1933
General characteristics (as built)
Class and type: Akron-class airship
Displacement: 7,401,260 cu ft (209,580.3 m3)
Length: 785 ft (239.3 m)
Beam: 133 ft (40.5 m) (hull diameter)
Draft: 146 ft 6 in (44.7 m) (height)
Installed power: 560hp per engine
Propulsion: Eight Maybach VL-II V12-cyl water-cooled, inline engines
two-bladed fixed-pitch, rotatable wooden propellers
Speed: 55 knots (102 km/h; 63 mph) (cruising)
69 knots (128 km/h; 79 mph) (maximum)
Range: 5,940 nmi (11,000 km; 6,840 mi) at 55 knots (102 km/h; 63 mph)
Complement: 60
Armament: 8 x.30-cal machine guns
Aircraft carried: Nominally up to 5.
In practice, maximum of 3
Aviation facilities: 1 aircraft launch trapeze, 1 fixed perch

USS Akron (ZRS-4) was a helium-filled rigid airship of the U.S. Navy which operated between September 1931 and April 1933. She was the world's first purpose-built flying aircraft carrier, carrying F9C Sparrowhawk fighter planes which could be launched and recovered while she was in flight. With an overall length of 785 ft (239 m), the Akron and her sister airship the Macon were among the largest flying objects ever built. Although the LZ129 Hindenburg and her sister ship the LZ130 Graf Zeppelin II were some 18 ft (5.5 m) longer and slightly more voluminous, the two German airships were filled with hydrogen, so the US Navy craft still hold the world record for helium-filled airships.[1]

The Akron was destroyed in a thunderstorm off the coast of New Jersey on the morning of 4 April 1933, killing 73 of the 76 crewmen and passengers. This accident involved the greatest loss of life in any known airship crash.

Technical description[edit]

Akron under construction in the Goodyear Airdock at Akron, Ohio in November 1930. Note the three-dimensional, deep rings.

The airship's skeleton was built of the new lightweight alloy duralumin 17-SRT.[2] The frame introduced several novel features compared with traditional Zeppelin designs. Rather than being single-girder diamond trusses with radial wire bracing, the main rings of the Akron were self-supporting deep frames: triangular Warren trusses 'curled' round to form a ring. Though much heavier than conventional rings, the deep rings promised to be much stronger, a significant attraction to the navy after the in-flight break up of the earlier conventional airships R38/ZR-2 and ZR-1 Shenandoah.[3] The inherent strength of these frames allowed Chief Designer, Dr Karl Arnstein, to dispense with the internal cruciform structure used by Zeppelin to support the fins of their ships. Instead, the fins of the Akron were cantilevered: mounted entirely externally to the main structure.[4] Zeppelin and other rigid designs used a single keel at the lowest point of the hull circumference but Arnstein gave the Akron three keels, one running along the top of the hull and one each side, 45 degrees up from the lower centreline. Each keel provided a walkway running almost the entire length of the ship. The strength of the main rings, the lower keels, and the fact that helium, instead of flammable hydrogen, was to be used, also allowed the designer to mount the engines inside the hull, improving streamlining.

The main rings were spaced at 22.5 m (74 ft) and between each pair were three intermediate rings of lighter construction. In keeping with conventional practice, 'station numbers' on the airship were measured in meters from zero at the rudder post, positive forward and negative aft. Thus the tip of the tail was at station -23.75 and the nose mooring spindle was at station 210.75. Each ring frame formed a polygon with 36 corners and these (and their associated longitudinal girders) were numbered from 1 (at the bottom centre) to 18 (at the top centre) port and starboard.[5] Thus a position on the hull could be referred to, for example, as "6 port at station 102.5" (the number 1 engine room).

While Germany, France and Britain used goldbeater's skin to gas-proof their gasbags, the Akron used Goodyear Tire and Rubber's rubberised cotton, heavier but much cheaper and more durable. Half the gas cells used an experimental cotton-based fabric impregnated with a gelatin-latex compound. This was more expensive than the rubberised cotton but lighter than goldbeater's skin. It was so successful that all the gasbags of the Macon were made from it.[6] There were 12 gas cells, numbered 0 to XI, using Roman numerals and starting from the tail.[7] While the 'air volume' of the hull was 7,401,260 cu ft (209,580.3 m3), the total volume of the gas cells at 100 percent fill was 6,850,000 cu ft (193,970.4 m3). At a normal 95 percent fill with helium of standard purity, the 6,500,000 cu ft (184,059.5 m3) of gas would yield a gross lift of 403,000 lb (182,797.7 kg). Given a structure deadweight of 242,356 lb (109,930.8 kg),[8] this gives a useful lift of 160,644 lb (72,866.9 kg) available for fuel, lubricants, ballast, crew, supplies and military load (including the skyhook airplanes).

Eight Maybach VL-II 560 hp (420 kW) gasoline engines were mounted inside the hull.[9] Each engine turned a two-bladed, 16 ft 4 in (4.98 m) diameter, fixed pitch, wooden propeller via a driveshaft and bevel gearing which allowed the propeller to swivel from the vertical plane to the horizontal.[10] With the engines' ability to reverse, this allowed thrust to be applied forward, aft, up or down.[11] It appears from photographs that the four propellers on each side were contra-rotating, each one turning the opposite way to the one ahead of it. Thus it would appear that the designers were aware that running the propellers in the air disturbed by the one ahead was not ideal. While the external engine pods of other airships allowed the thrust lines to be staggered, placing all four engine rooms on each side of the ship along the lower keel resulted in the Akron's propellers all being in line. This was to prove problematical in service, inducing considerable vibration, especially noticeable in the emergency control position in the lower fin. By 1933, the Akron had two of her propellers replaced by more advanced, ground-adjustable, three-bladed, metal propellers.[12] These promised a performance increase and were adopted as standard for the Makon.

The outer cover was of cotton cloth, treated with four coats of clear and two coats of aluminum pigmented cellulose dope. The total area of the skin was 33,000 sq ft (3,100 m2) and it weighed, after doping, 11,300 lb (5,100 kg).[13]

The prominent dark vertical bands on the hull were condensers of the system designed to recover water from the engines' exhaust for buoyancy compensation. In-flight fuel consumption continuously reduces an airship's weight and changes in the temperature of the lifting gas can do the same. Normally, expensive helium has to be valved off to compensate and any way of avoiding this is desirable. In theory, a water recovery system such as this can produce 10 lb of ballast water for every lb of fuel burned, though this is unlikely to be achieved in practice.[11]

The Akron could carry up to 20,700 US gal (78,000 L) of gasoline (126,000 lb (57,000 kg)) in 110 separate tanks which were distributed along the lower keels to preserve the ship's trim, giving her a normal range of 5,940 nmi (6,840 mi; 11,000 km) at cruising speed.[14] Theoretical maximum ballast water capacity was 223,000 lb (101,000 kg) in 44 bags, again distributed along her length, though normal ballast load at unmasting was 20,000 lb (9,100 kg).[13]

The heart of the ship, and her sole reason for existing, was the airplane hangar and trapeze system. Aft of the control car, in bay VII, between frames 125 and 141.25, was a compartment large enough to accommodate up to five F9C Sparrowhawk airplanes. In fact, two structural girders partially obstructed the Akron's aftmost hangar bays, limiting her capacity to three airplanes (one in each forward corner of the hangar and one on the trapeze). A modification to remove this limitation was pending at the time of the ship's loss.[15]

The F9C was not the ideal choice, being designed as a 'conventional' carrier-borne fighter. It was heavily-built to withstand carrier landings, downward visibility was not very good and it was something of a 'hot ship'. But the primary role of the Akron's airplanes was long-range naval scouting. What was actually needed was a stable, fast, lightweight scouting airplane with a long range,[16] but none existed capable of fitting between the structural members and into the airship's hangar, as the F9C could.

The trapeze was lowered through the T-shaped door in the bottom of the ship and into the slipstream, with an airplane attached to the crossbar by the 'skyhook' above its top wing, its pilot on board and its engine running. The pilot tripped the hook and the airplane fell away from the ship. On his return, he positioned himself beneath the trapeze and climbed up until he could fly his skyhook onto the crossbar, at which point it automatically latched shut. Now, with the engine idling, the trapeze and airplane were raised into the hangar, the pilot cutting his engine as he passed through the door. Once inside, the airplane was transferred from the trapeze to a trolley, running on an overhead 'monorail' system by which it could be shunted into one of the four corners of the hangar to be refueled and re-armed. Having a single trapeze raised two problems: it limited the rate at which airplanes could be launched and recovered and any fault in the trapeze would leave any airborne scouts with nowhere to land. The solution was a second, fixed trapeze permanently rigged further aft along the bottom of the ship at station 102.5 and known as the 'perch'. By 1933 a perch was fitted and in use. Three more perches were planned (at stations 57.5, 80 and 147.5) but these were never fitted.[15]

The Akron revived an idea used, and eventually rejected by the German Navy zeppelins during World War I: the spähkorb or 'spy basket'.[17] Intended to allow the airship to remain hidden in a cloud layer while still observing the enemy below, a small car, rather like an airplane fuselage without wings, could be lowered on a cable. The observer on board communicated with the ship by telephone. In theory, the spy basket could also be used for determining whether the air below a cloud layer was clear enough to allow a landing or if the murk reached all the way to the surface.

During the design stage, in 1929, the navy requested an alteration to the fins. it was considered desirable for the bottom of the lower fin to be visible from the control car. Charles E. Rosendahl had witnessed the Graf Zeppelin almost snagging her fin on power lines during her heavy take off from Lakehurst to start her round-the-world flight earlier that year. The design change would also allow direct vision between the main control car and the emergency control position in the lower fin. The control car was moved 8 ft (2.4 m) aft and all the fins were shortened and deepened. The leading edge root of the fins no longer coincided with a main (deep) ring and instead the foremost attachment was now to an intermediate ring at frame 28.75. This achieved the required visibility, improved low-speed controllability, due to the increased span of the control surfaces, and simplified stress calculations, by reducing the number of fin attachment points. The designers and the navy's inspectors, led by the very experienced Charles P Burgess, were entirely satisfied with the revised stress calculations. However, this alteration has been the subject of much criticism as an "inherent defect" in the design and is often alleged to have been a major factor in the loss of Akron's sister ship, the Makon.[18]

Construction and commissioning[edit]

Construction of ZRS-4 was begun on 31 October 1929 at the Goodyear Airdock in Springfield Township, Ohio by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation.[19] Because it was larger than any airship previously built in America, a special hangar was constructed[20] Chief Designer Karl Arnstein and a team of experienced German airship engineers instructed and supported design and construction of both U.S. Navy airships USS Akron and USS Macon.[21]

On 7 November 1931, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, the Chief of the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics, drove the "golden rivet" in the ship's first main ring. Erection of the hull sections began in March 1930. On 10 May, Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams chose the name Akron (for the city near where it was being built) and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Ernest Lee Jahncke announced it four days later, on 14 May 1930.

Sample of the duralumin from which the frame of USS Akron was built.

On 8 August 1931, the Akron was launched (floated free of the hangar floor) and christened by Mrs. Lou Henry Hoover, the wife of the President of the United States, Herbert Clark Hoover. The maiden flight of the Akron took place around Cleveland on the afternoon of 23 September with Secretary of the Navy Adams and Rear Admiral Moffett on board. The airship made eight more flights — principally over Lake Erie but ranging as far as Detroit, Michigan, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Columbus, Ohio — before being flown from Akron to the Naval Air Station (NAS) at Lakehurst, New Jersey, where it was delivered to the Navy and commissioned on Navy Day, 27 October, with Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Rosendahl in command.

History of service[edit]

Maiden voyage[edit]

On 2 November 1931, the Akron cast off for a maiden voyage as a commissioned "ship" of the U.S. Navy and cruised down the eastern seaboard to Washington, D.C. Over the weeks that followed, some 300 hours aloft were logged in a series of flights, including a 46-hour endurance flight to Mobile, Alabama, and back. The return leg of the trip was made via the valleys of the Mississippi River and the Ohio River.

The maiden voyage of the Akron on 2 November 1931, showing her four starboard propellers. The engines' water reclaiming devices appear as white strips above each propeller. The emergency rear control cabin is visible in the lower fin.

Participation in a search exercise (January 1932)[edit]

Film of Akron operating over Chesapeake Bay in early 1932, including footage of the ship mooring to the airship tender USS Patoka

On the morning of 9 January 1932, the Akron departed from Lakehurst to work with the Scouting Fleet on a search exercise. Proceeding to the coast of North Carolina, the Akron headed out over the Atlantic where she was assigned to find a group of destroyers bound for Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Once these were located, the airship was to shadow them and report their movements. Leaving coast of the North Carolina at about 7:21 on the morning of 10 January, the airship proceeded south, but bad weather prevented sighting the destroyers (contact with them was missed at 12:40 EST, although their crews had sighted the Akron) and eventually shaped a course toward the Bahamas by late afternoon. Heading northwesterly into the night, the Akron then changed course shortly before midnight and proceeded to the southeast. Ultimately, at 9:08 am on 11 January, the airship succeeded in spotting the light cruiser USS Raleigh (CL-7) and 12 destroyers, positively identifying them on the eastern horizon two minutes later. Sighting a second group of destroyers shortly thereafter, the Akron was released from the evaluation about 10:00 a.m., having achieved a "qualified success" in the initial test with the Scouting Fleet.

As the historian Richard K Smith wrote in his definitive study, The Airships Akron and Macon, "...consideration given to the weather, duration of flight, a track of more than 3,000 mi (4,800 km) flown, her material deficiencies, and the rudimentary character of aerial navigation at that date, the Akron's performance was remarkable. There was not a military airplane in the world in 1932 which could have given the same performance, operating from the same base."[22]

First accident (February 1932)[edit]

Akron was to have taken part in Fleet Problem XIII, but an accident at Lakehurst on 22 February 1932, prevented her participation. While the airship was being taken from her hangar, its tail came loose from its moorings, was caught by the wind, and struck the ground.[23] The heaviest damage was confined to the lower fin area, which required repair. Also, ground handling fittings had been torn from the main frame, also necessitating repairs. Akron was not certified as airworthy again until later in the spring. Its next operation took place on 28 April, when she made a nine-hour flight with Rear Admiral Moffett and Secretary of the Navy Adams aboard.

As a result of this accident, a turntable with a walking beam on tracks powered by electric mine locomotives was developed to secure the tail and turn the ship even in high winds so that it could be pulled into the massive hangar at Lakehurst naval air station.[24]

Testing of the "spy basket"[edit]

Soon after returning to Lakehurst to disembark its distinguished passengers, Akron took off again to conduct a test of the "spy basket"—something like a small airplane fuselage suspended beneath the airship that would enable an observer to serve as the ship's "eyes" below the clouds while the ship itself remained out of sight above them. The first time the basket was tried (with sandbags aboard instead of a man), it oscillated so violently that it put the whole ship in danger. It proved "frighteningly unstable", swooping from one side of the airship to the other before the startled gaze of Akron‍ '​s officers and men and reaching as high as the ship's equator.[17] Though later improved by adding a ventral stabilizing fin, the spybasket was never used again.[25]

Experimental use as a "flying aircraft carrier"[edit]

F9C Sparrowhawk in Akron‍ '​s hangar. This aircraft was one of four lost with USS Macon on 12 February 1935.

Akron and Macon (which was still under construction) were regarded as potential "flying aircraft carriers", carrying parasite fighters for reconnaissance. On May 3, 1932, Akron cruised over 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 in-flight handling of aircraft. The aviators who carried out those historic "landings"—first with a Consolidated N2Y trainer and then with the prototype Curtiss XF9C-1 Sparrowhawk—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; this time, Lieutenants Harrigan and Howard gave the lawmakers a demonstration of Akron‍ '​s ability to handle aircraft.

"Coast-to-Coast" flight and second accident (May 1932)[edit]

Cover carried on the May 1932 "Coast to Coast" flight and later autographed by the only three survivors of the April 1933, crash of USS Akron.

Following the conclusion of those trial flights, Akron departed from Lakehurst, New Jersey on 8 May 1932, for the American west coast. The airship proceeded down the eastern seaboard to Georgia and then across the southern gulf states, continuing over Texas and Arizona. En route to Sunnyvale, California, Akron reached Camp Kearny in San Diego, on the morning of 11 May and attempted to moor. Since neither trained ground handlers nor specialized mooring equipment were present, the landing at Camp Kearny was fraught with danger. By the time the crew started the evaluation, the helium gas had been warmed by sunlight, increasing lift. Lightened by 40 short tons (36 t), the amount of fuel spent during the transcontinental trip, the Akron was now all but uncontrollable.

Still pictures from 11 May 1932, incident: the two pictures on the left and the picture at far right are of Seaman Cowart; the picture second from right shows Henton and Edsall before their fatal fall

The mooring cable was cut to avert a catastrophic nose-stand by the errant airship which floated upward. Most of the mooring crew—predominantly "boot" seamen from the Naval Training Station San Diego—released their lines although four did not. One let go at about 15 ft (4.6 m) and suffered a broken arm while the three others were carried further aloft. Of these Aviation Carpenter's Mate 3rd Class Robert H. Edsall and Apprentice Seaman Nigel M. Henton soon plunged to their deaths while Apprentice Seaman C. M. "Bud" Cowart held on to his line until being hoisted on board the airship an hour later.[26] The Akron moored at Camp Kearny later that day before proceeding to Sunnyvale, California. The deadly accident was recorded on newsreel film.

West Coast flights[edit]

Over the weeks that followed, Akron "showed the flag" on the West Coast of the United States, ranging as far north as the Canadian border before returning south in time to exercise once more with the Scouting Fleet. Serving as part of the "Green Force", the Akron attempted to locate the "White Force". Although opposed by Vought O2U Corsair floatplanes from "enemy" warships, the airship located the opposing forces in just 22 hours — fact not lost upon some of the participants in the exercise in subsequent critiques.

Akron over Lower Manhattan.

In need of repairs, Akron departed from Sunnyvale on 11 June bound for Lakehurst, New Jersey, on a return trip that was sprinkled with difficulties, mostly because of unfavorable weather, and she arrived on 15 June after a "long and sometimes harrowing" aerial voyage.

The Akron next underwent a period of voyage repairs before taking part in July in a search for the Curlew, a yacht which had failed to reach port at the end of a race to the island of Bermuda. The yacht was later discovered safe off Nantucket.[27] She then resumed operations capturing aircraft on the "trapeze" equipment. Admiral Moffett again boarded Akron on 20 July, but the next day left the airship in one of her N2Y-1s which took him back to Lakehurst after a severe storm had delayed the airship's own return to base.

Further tests as "flying aircraft carrier"[edit]

Akron entered a new phase of its career that summer engaging in intense experimentation with the revolutionary "trapeze" and a full complement of F9C-2s. A key element of the entrance into that new phase was a new commanding officer, Commander Alger Dresel.

Third accident (August 1932)[edit]

Another accident hampered training on 22 August when Akron‍ '​s tail fin became fouled by a beam in Lakehurst's massive Hangar No 1 after a premature order to commence towing the ship out of the mooring circle. Nevertheless, rapid repairs enabled eight more flights over the Atlantic during the last three months of 1932. These operations involved intensive work with the trapeze and the F9C-2s, as well as the drilling of lookouts and gun crews.

Among the tasks undertaken were the maintenance of two aircraft patrolling and scouting on Akron‍ '​s flanks. During a seven-hour period on 18 November 1932, the airship and a trio of planes searched a sector 100 mi (87 nmi; 160 km)[citation needed] wide.

Return to the fleet[edit]

Officers of USS Akron Air Group, 1933 (l to r): Lt(JG) Robert W. Lawson, Lt Harold B. Miller, Lt Frederick M. Trapnell, Lt Howard L. Young, Lt(JG) Frederick N. Kivette

After local operations out of Lakehurst for the remainder of 1932, Akron was ready to resume operations with the fleet. On the afternoon of 3 January 1933, Commander Frank C. McCord relieved Commander Dresel as commanding officer, the latter becoming the first commanding officer of Akron‍ '​s sister ship, Macon, whose construction was almost complete. Within hours, Akron headed south down the eastern seaboard toward Florida where, after refueling at the Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Opa-locka, Florida, near Miami, the next day proceeded to Guantánamo Bay for an inspection of base sites. At this time the N2Y-1s were used to provide aerial "taxi" service to ferry members of the inspection party back and forth.

Soon thereafter, Akron returned to Lakehurst for local operations which were interrupted by a two-week overhaul and poor weather. In March, it carried out intensive training with an aviation unit of F9C-2s, honing hook-on skills. During the course of these operations, an overfly of Washington DC was made 4 March 1933, the day Franklin D. Roosevelt first took the oath of office as President of the United States.

On 11 March, Akron departed Lakehurst bound for Panama stopping briefly en route at Opa-locka before proceeding on to Balboa where an inspection party looked over a potential air base site. While returning northward, the airship paused at Opa-locka again for local operations exercising gun crews, with the N2Y-1s serving as targets, before getting underway for Lakehurst on 22 March.

Loss[edit]

Franked USS Akron penalty cover with 1933 Memorial Day cachet autographed by its only three survivors, and postmarked at Lakehurst on June 24, 1933, the day Macon first arrived there.

On the evening of 3 April 1933, the Akron cast off from the mooring mast to operate along the coast of New England, assisting in the calibration of radio direction finder stations. Rear Admiral Moffett was again on board along with his aide, Commander Henry Barton Cecil, Commander Fred T. Berry, the commanding officer of NAS Lakehurst, and Lieutenant Colonel Alfred F. Masury, U.S. Army Reserve, a guest of the admiral, the vice-president of Mack Trucks, and a strong proponent of the potential civilian uses of rigid airships.

The Akron soon encountered severe weather, which did not improve when the airship passed over Barnegat Light, New Jersey[28] at 10:00 pm as wind gusts of terrific force struck its massive airframe. The airship was being flown into an area of lower barometric pressure than at take-off, which caused the actual altitude flown to be lower than that indicated in the control gondola. Around 12:30 a.m. on 4 April, the Akron was caught by an updraft, followed almost immediately by a downdraft. Commander McCord — the captain — ordered full speed ahead, ballast dropped. The executive officerLieutenant Commander Herbert V. Wiley — handled the ballast and emptied the bow emergency ballast. Coupled with the elevator man holding the nose up, this caused the nose to rise and the tail to rotate down. The descent of the Akron was only temporarily halted, whereupon downdrafts forced the airship down farther. Wiley activated the 18 "howlers" of the ship's telephone system, a signal to landing stations. At this point, the Akron was nose up, between 12 degrees and 25 degrees.

The engineering officer called out "800 feet" (240 m), which was followed by a "gust" of intense violence. The steersman reported no response to his wheel as the lower rudder cables had been torn away. While the control gondola was still hundreds of feet high, the lower fin of Akron had struck the water and was torn off.

The Akron broke up rapidly and sank in the stormy Atlantic. The crew of the nearby German merchant ship Phoebus saw lights descending toward the ocean at about 12:23 a.m. and altered course to starboard to investigate, with her captain believing that he was witnessing an airplane crash. At 12:55 a.m., the unconscious Commander Wiley was pulled from the water while the 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. Erwin. Despite artificial respiration, Copeland never regained consciousness, and he died aboard the Phoebus.

Although the German sailors spotted four or five other men in the water, they did not know their ship had chanced upon the crash of the Akron until Lt. Commander Wiley regained consciousness half an hour after being rescued. The crew of the Phoebus combed the ocean in boats for over five hours in a fruitless search for more survivors. The Navy blimp J-3 — sent out to join the search — also crashed, with the loss of two men.[29]

The cruiser USS Portland was one of a number of ships that undertook the search for survivors from the Akron

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Tucker — the first American vessel on the scene — arrived at 6:00 a.m., taking the airship's survivors and the body of Copeland on board. Among the other ships combing the area for survivors were the heavy cruiser Portland, the destroyer Cole, the Coast Guard cutter Mojave, and the Coast Guard destroyers McDougal and Hunt, as well as two Coast Guard aircraft. The fishing vessel Grace F from Gloucester, Massachusetts, also assisted in the search, using her seining gear in an effort to recover bodies.[30]

Most casualties had been caused by drowning and hypothermia, since the crew had not been issued life jackets, and there had not been time to deploy the single life raft. The accident left 73 dead, and only three survivors. Wiley, standing next to the two other survivors, gave a brief account on 6 April.[31]

Aftermath of loss[edit]

Akron‍ '​s loss spelled the beginning of the end for the rigid airship in the US Navy, especially since one of its leading proponents, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, was killed with 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." The loss of the Akron was the largest loss of life in any airship crash.[32]

The USS Macon and other airships received life jackets to avert a repetition of this tragedy. When Macon was damaged in a storm in 1935 and subsequently sank after landing in the sea 70 of the 72 crew were saved.

The songwriter Bob Miller wrote and recorded a song, "The Crash of the Akron", within one day of the disaster.[33]

Assessment[edit]

For numerous reasons, in the opinion of US naval aviation historian Richard K Smith,[34] the Akron never got the chance to show what she was capable of. Initially, the idea had been to use her as a scout for the fleet (just as the German Navy zeppelins had been used during World War I), with her airplanes being simply useful auxiliaries, capable of extending her range of vision or of defending her against attacking enemy aircraft.[35] Gradually, in the minds of the more forward-thinking officers familiar with airship and scouting fleet operations, this was reversed: she and the Macon came to be regarded as aircraft carriers, whose sole job was to get the scouting airplanes to the search area and then to support them in their flights.[36][37] The mothership herself should stay in the background, out of sight of enemy surface units, merely acting as a mobile advanced base for the airplanes which should do all the actual searching.[38] Any aircraft carrier could do this but only an airship could do it so quickly: her speed was at least twice that of a surface ship, enabling her to get to the scene or be switched from flank to flank quickly. But this was an experimental ship, a prototype, and it took time for this doctrine and suitable tactics to evolve. It also took time to develop the techniques of navigating, controlling and coordinating the scouts. At first, developments were hampered by inadequate radio equipment[39] and by the difficulties encountered by the scout pilots in navigating, scouting and communicating from their cramped, open cockpits.[40]

Some politicians, some senior officers and some sections of the press seemed predisposed to judge the airship experiment a failure, without regard to the evidence. Smith cites several examples of this.[41] Even within the Navy's Bureau of Aeronatics, many opposed spending so much on a single asset.[34] Smith also asserts that political pressure from within the navy and elsewhere led to the ship being pushed too early to attempt too much.[42] Little allowance seems to have been made for the fact that this was a prototype, experimental system and that tactics for its use were being developed 'on the hoof'. As a result, the airship's performance in fleet exercises was not all that some had hoped and gave an exaggerated impression of the ship's vulnerability while failing to demonstrate her strengths.[43]

Sadly, time ran out for the Akron before she could prove her worth. The Macon was on the verge of achieving much, building on what had already been done, but fate prevented this. The two ships never had the chance to develop their operational doctrine and tactics further, especially when operating as a pair, as had originally been intended.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Smith, Richard K (1965). The Airships Akron & Macon: Flying Aircraft Carriers of the United States Navy. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute. p. 210. ISBN 0-87021-065-3. 
  2. ^ Smith (1965). p 181
  3. ^ Smith (1965). p 187
  4. ^ Smith (1965). pp 161 & 189
  5. ^ Smith (1965). p 191
  6. ^ Smith (1965). p 196
  7. ^ Smith (1965). pp 182 & 191
  8. ^ Smith (1965). pp 181 & 183
  9. ^ Hook 1976. p. 47
  10. ^ Summit Memory. U.S.S. Akron – Propeller. Retrieved 2008-07-22
  11. ^ a b Smith (1965). p 193
  12. ^ Smith (1965). p 75
  13. ^ a b Smith (1965). p 182
  14. ^ Smith (1965). pp 180-183
  15. ^ a b Smith (1965). p 67
  16. ^ Smith (1965). pp 27 & 201
  17. ^ a b Smith (1965). p 55
  18. ^ Smith (1965). p 197
  19. ^ "Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation, Facts About the World's Largest Airship Factory & Dock". via Akron-Summit County Public Library. Retrieved 2008-11-15. 
  20. ^ "A Nine Acre Nest For Dirigibles" Popular Science Monthly, September 1929
  21. ^ Smith (1965). pp 7, 8, 34 & 161
  22. ^ Smith (1965). p 51
  23. ^ Sudden Gale Akron at Lakehurst NJ 1932/02/22, Universal Newspaper Newsreel, 1932, retrieved 20 February 2009 
  24. ^ "Walking Beam Docks Giant Air Ship", April 1932, Popular Science
  25. ^ Smith (1965). pp 133-135
  26. ^ "USN Aircraft-USS Akron (ZRS-4) - Events". History.navy.mil. Retrieved 24 March 2014. 
  27. ^ "Sport: Cruise of the Curlew". Time. 18 July 1932. Retrieved 27 May 2010. 
  28. ^ "Forgotten U.S. airship crash recalled 80 years later". NJ.com. Associated Press. 13 March 2013. Retrieved 24 March 2014. 
  29. ^ "David E. Cummins, Lieutenant Commander, United States Navy". Arlington National Cemetery. Retrieved 20 February 2009. 
  30. ^ Gloucester Times. April 1933
  31. ^ Commander Describes Akron Tragedy While Navy Search Goes On 1933/04/06, Universal Newspaper Newsreel, 1933, retrieved 20 February 2009 
  32. ^ "10 Worst Airship Disasters in History". Retrieved 2013-03-03. 
  33. ^ "Come All You True People, a Story to Hear". Newsweek. Retrieved 2008-01-25. 
  34. ^ a b Smith (1965). p 171
  35. ^ Smith (1965). p 177
  36. ^ Report by Senior Aviator, HTA Unit to CO, Akron ZRS4/A4-3, 15 December 1932, Record Group 72, BuAer General Correspondence (1925-1942), Box 5592, US National Archives
  37. ^ Smith (1965). pp 51 & 107
  38. ^ Smith (1965). pp 28 & 29
  39. ^ Smith (1965). pp 49 & 51
  40. ^ Smith (1965). p 69
  41. ^ Smith (1965). pp 51, 53, 55, 59 etc
  42. ^ Smith (1965). p45 et al (especially p 56)
  43. ^ Smith (1965). pp 59, 171 et al

References[edit]

  • Hook, Thomas, Sky Ship: the Akron Era. Annapolis, Md: Airshow Publishers, 1976.
  • Robinson, Douglas H, and Charles L. Keller. "Up Ship!": U.S. Navy Rigid Airships 1919–1935. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute, 1982. ISBN 0-87021-738-0
  • Shock, James R, U.S. Navy Airships 1915-1962, Edgewater, Florida: Atlantis Productions, 2001. ISBN 0-9639743-8-6
  • Smith, Richard K, The Airships Akron & Macon: Flying Aircraft Carriers of the United States Navy., Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute, 1965. ISBN 0-87021-065-3
  • Department Of The Navy, Naval Historical Center. USS Akron. Retrieved 5 May 2005.

External links[edit]

This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.

Coordinates: 39°27′7.8″N 73°42′27.00″W / 39.452167°N 73.7075000°W / 39.452167; -73.7075000