The USS Akron and the USS Macon were rigid airships that were similar to the German Graf Zeppelin and the ill-fated Hindenburg. Operating in the early 1930s, the Akron and her sister-ship the Macon were actually flying aircraft carriers. They were 785 feet long, and each carried five F9C-2 Curtiss Sparrowhawk biplanes. The Sparrowhawks were basically used as scout planes, but they could also serve as fighter planes to defend the airship from attack by enemy planes.
Rigid airships were constructed with an extensive internal metal framework that maintained the shape of the ship without being filled with gas. Blimps have no internal framework and their shape is maintained solely by the pressure of the gas. The German airships were filled with flammable hydrogen, which caused the disastrous explosion of the Hindenburg. The American airships were filled with non-flammable helium.
This was long before the days of radar and spy satellites, and the world’s navies had to guess the whereabouts of the navies of their enemies. The task of the Akron and the Macon was to use their scout planes to find the enemy’s navy. They could survey a vast expanse of ocean in a very short time.
If they had been in operation in 1941, the disastrous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor might have been prevented. The Japanese navy had sailed from Japan to Pearl Harbor without detection. Unfortunately, the Akron and the Macon had both crashed, and the navy had completely abandoned the rigid-airship program.
Since the slow-moving airship was extremely vulnerable to air attack, it was intended to be positioned far from the enemy forces. The five Sparrowhawks would do the scouting and then return to the mother-ship.
According to Airships.net, the hangar inside the airship was about 75 feet by 60 feet and 16 feet high. A T-shaped opening in the bottom of the airship allowed access to the hangar. A trapeze-like apparatus lowered each plane several feet below the bottom of the airship. When the plane’s motor was started, the plane disengaged from the hook on the trapeze and began flying.
When the flight was finished, the plane would perform the very delicate maneuver required to reattach the plane to the hook. It would then be hoisted into the hangar. Top speed of the airships was no more than 85 mph. A major problem was that in slowing the plane’s speed to that of the airship, the plane approached stalling speed and ran the risk of losing the airlift required to keep it flying.
The two airships performed many practice flights, but they never saw combat.
Photo One: USS Macon with Sparrowhawks circling below, waiting to be taken aboard.
Photo Two: Sparrowhawk about to hook onto the trapeze to be hoisted into the USS Akron.
Photo Three: Sparrowhawk hooked onto the trapeze of USS Akron.
Photo Four: Wing of Sparrowhawk photographed on the bottom of ocean at USS Macon crash site.
Photo Five: USS Macon flying over New York City in 1933.
According to the Naval Historical Center, on April 4, 1933, the Akron was caught in a strong storm off the New Jersey coast. As the airship was caught in updrafts and downdrafts, it crashed into the sea with 73 fatalities and three survivors.
On February 12, 1935, the Macon flew into a storm off the coast of California’s Big Sur. The wind blew off the top tailfin. The irony is that the Navy was aware of the structural weakness, and repair work had been only partially completed. Control of the airship was lost, and it slowly settled into the sea. Happily, the results were much different from the crash of the Akron. Two men were lost, but 76 were saved.
The crash of the Macon sounded the death knell of the rigid airship program. The military later used blimps for observation purposes, but the navy never again built any rigid airships. The majestic flying aircraft carriers were no more.
Interested readers may watch this fine National Geographic documentary titled “Flying Aircraft Carrier: Hooking Up”, which shows Sparrowhawks hooking onto the trapeze.
“USS Akron”/Naval Historical Center
“USS Macon”/Naval Historical Center
“USS Akron and USS Macon”/Airships.net
“Flying Aircraft Carrier: Hooking Up”/National Geographic