USS Akron (ZRS-4)

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USS Akron (ZRS-4)
RoleNaval patrol airship
National originUnited States
ManufacturerGoodyear-Zeppelin Corporation
DesignerKarl Arnstein,
First flight23 September 1931
StatusLost, 3 April 1933
Number built1
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For the 1911 airship also constructed by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, also called the Akron, see Melvin Vaniman.
USS Akron (ZRS-4)
RoleNaval patrol airship
National originUnited States
ManufacturerGoodyear-Zeppelin Corporation
DesignerKarl Arnstein,
First flight23 September 1931
StatusLost, 3 April 1933
Number built1

USS Akron (ZRS-4) was a helium-filled rigid airship of the U.S. Navy that 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 was the greatest loss of life in any known airship crash. During its accident-prone 18-month term of service, the Akron also served as a flying aircraft carrier for launching and recovering F9C Sparrowhawk fighter planes.

With lengths of 785 ft (239 m), 20 ft (6.1 m) shorter than the German commercial airship Hindenburg, Akron and its sister airship the Macon were among the largest flying objects in the world. Although the Hindenburg was longer, it was filled with hydrogen, so the two U.S. airships still hold the world record for helium-filled airships.[citation needed]

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.[1] Because it was the largest airship to be built in America at the time, a special hangar was constructed[2] and a team of experienced German airship engineers, led by Chief Designer Karl Arnstein, instructed and supported design and construction of both U.S. Navy airships USS Akron and USS Macon.[3][clarification needed]

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 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.

The airship's frame was built of the lightweight alloy duralumin. Once completed, the Akron could store 20,000 US gal (76,000 L) of gasoline, which gave it a range of 10,500 mi (9,100 nmi; 16,900 km).[4] Eight Maybach VL-2 gasoline engines were mounted inside the hull.[5] Each engine turned one twin-bladed propeller via a driveshaft which allowed the propeller to swivel vertically and horizontally.[6] The prominent vertical "slots" in the hull were meant to capture the motors' exhaust gas and allow the water vapor therein to condense out for reuse as buoyancy compensation ballast water (since in-flight fuel consumption continuously lightens an airship's weight).

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.

For determining whether the air below a fog bank was clear enough to allow a landing, the Akron had a unique feature somewhat like the spähkorb (spy basket) on World War I German zeppelins. A small weather station containing a radio transmitter was lowered on a cable and reported back to the Akron whether the fog reached all the way to the ground.[7]

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]

On the morning of 9 January 1932, the Akron exited 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."[citation needed]

First accident (February 1932)[edit]

The Akron was to have taken part in Fleet Problem XIII, but an accident at Lakehurst on 22 February 1932, prevented the participation of the Akron. 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.[8] 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. The 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 Akron even in high winds so that it could be pulled into the massive hangar at Lakehurst naval air station.[9]

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. Fortunately the basket was "manned" only by a sandbag as it proved "frighteningly unstable", swooping from one side of the airship to the other before the startled gazes of Akron's officers and men. It was never tried again.

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 the trained ground handlers nor the specialized mooring equipment needed by an airship of Akron's size were present, the landing at Camp Kearny was fraught with danger. By the time the crew started the evaluation, the heat of the sun's rays had warmed the lifting helium gas, and the expenditure of fuel (40 short tons (36 t)) during the transcontinental trip had further lightened the airship, making the Akron 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 and Akron floated upward. Most of the mooring crew—predominantly "boot" seamen from the Naval Training Station San Diego—let go of their lines. One man was carried 15 ft (4.6 m) into the air before he let go and suffered a broken arm, while three others were carried up even farther. Aviation Carpenter's Mate 3rd Class, Robert H. Edsall, and Apprentice Seaman, Nigel M. Henton, plunged to their deaths. A third man, Apprentice Seaman, C. M. "Bud" Cowart, had grasped desperately to his line and made himself fast to it before he was hoisted aboard Akron an hour later.[10] Nevertheless, the Akron moored at Camp Kearny later that day and then proceeded 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.[11] 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 Macon's first captain. 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 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.

Fourth accident and loss (April 1933)[edit]

Franked USS Akron penalty cover with 1933 Memorial Day cachet autographed by its only three survivors, and then posted from Lakehurst on 24 June 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[12] 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.[13]

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.[14]

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.[15]

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.[16]

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.[17]

See also[edit]



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