When I lived in Sunnyvale, California, southeast of San Francisco, I was told about an historical event that involved a massive airship that, long ago, had been based at nearby Moffett Field. The relationship to the Naval Air base and the craft was its first claim to fame.
The U.S. Navy commissioned the construction of two rigid framed airships for testing and operation in the late 1920s and completed in 1933. They were the USS Akron and the USS Macon. Even though the sister ships were six-metres shorter than the hydrogen filled Hindenburg Zeppelin, they were the largest helium filled airships ever built.
The Macon was a very advanced vessel for its day and age. Its three internal support keels were made of structured “Duraluminum”. The special helium gas was contained within twelve “cells” constructed of gelatin-latex fabric material. Also within the hull, were eight Maybach, German manufactured, twelve cylinder, 560 horsepower gasoline engines that were connected to the outer propellers. The props featured an early version of thrust control, in that they could be tilted down or backwards for takeoff and landing needs.
The airship was designed as an aircraft carrier. It had a capacity for five “Sparrowhawk” biplanes to be carried inside the hull. The airplanes were launched and retrieved on a “trapeze” from the underside of the Macon.
The USS Macon enjoyed a more productive career than her sister ship, USS Akron. The Akron crashed into the Atlantic Ocean during a storm in 1933, while still under testing and evaluation.
Meantime, the Macon was returning to Sunnyvale from the East coast and needed to fly above bad turbulence at a mountain pass in Texas. A severe drop in altitude caused a rear girder ring to detach from some attachments. During the rest of the flight, the ring was reattached but the ring was judged damaged. Also, the four tailfins needed strengthening, too.
The complete repair was incomplete on February 12, 1935 when the Macon encountered a storm near Point Sur, California. Wind hsear snapped the upper tailfin from the previously damaged girder ring. Pieces of the fin speared the aft helium cells allowing serious gas leakage.
After a 20 minute crash drop, the Macon sank near Monterey Bay. Two men were killed, but 74 were saved due to life jackets and inflatable boats. The official cause of the accident was listed as “operator error”.
It was determined that if the airship had not been flown too high, it could have made the journey back to safety at Sunnyvale. To this day, the site of the wreck and debris field of the USS Macon is a secret within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Even though its exact location is a secret, the site is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Blue Jay of Happiness remembers the mention of the USS Macon in Indiana Jones and the Philosopher’s Stone by Max McCoy.