Friday, August 4, 2017

Remembering the Airship USS Akron

Among the most familiar images to Americans was the crash of the Hindenburg zeppelin in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937, killing 36 of the 97 people aboard.  It was not, however, the greatest airship disaster.  That was the destruction of the USS Akron in a storm off the New Jersey coast on April, killing 73 of the 76 crewmen and passengers aboard.  Representing the greatest loss of life in any airship crash, today the accident is little remembered.

In its heyday, the Navy’s airship Akron was highly publicized resulting in a number of images and artifacts. The Akron and her sister ship the Macon were among the largest flying objects ever made.   While the German zeppelins were larger, they were filled with hydrogen.  The Navy craft hold the world record for helium-filled airships.  A photograph shows the interior of the huge hangar where the Akron and Macon were constructed.  Called the Goodyear Airdock, it was constructed in 1929 at an equivalent cost today of $26.4 million.  When it was built it was the largest structure in the world without interior supports.  It encompassed 364,000 square feet of space, an area equal to eight football fields placed side by side.

It is there that the Akron, shown here under construction, was built. The airship was 785 feet long and had a hull diameter of 133 feet and a height of 146 feet, six inches.  The skeleton was formed of a new lightweight alloy called “duraluminun 17.”  

Zeppelin and other rigid designs used a single keel at the lowest point of the hull circumference but the Akron boasted three keels, one running along the top of the hull and one on each side, 45 degrees up from the lower centerline. 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. Goodyear was extraordinarily proud of the Akron issuing a postcard showing the airship protruding from its airlock.

The city of Akron, indeed all of Ohio, was proud of this flying behemoth.  A postcard depicts the ship flying over the skyline.  Akron has had many nicknames, one of which is "City of Invention”.  The third would include this airship.  She was the world’s first flying aircraft carrier, with the capacity for holding F9C Sparrowhawk fighter-reconnaissance planes in its belly.  Using a crude hooking system, the planes could be launched and recovered while the Akron was in flight.

Another photo showed the Akron floating over New York City in 1933.  It was powered by eight Maybach (German) in line engines hitched to two wooden propellers, each of which was two bladed.  The airship was capable the making 63 miles an hour cruising speed and a maximum speed of 79 miles an hour.  Its fuel capacity was 20,700 gallons weighting 126,000 pounds.  That gave the airship a range of 6,840 miles without refueling.  

The Akron’s first transcontinental flight in May 1932 was recognized with a special envelope marking the occasion.  Leaving from Lakehurst, it took more than 44 hours to reach San Diego, slightly faster than delivery by train.  The cover shown here gives no clue to what happened on its arrival. Since neither trained ground handlers nor specialized mooring equipment were present, the landing at Camp Kearny was a dicey proposition. By the time the crew started the descent, the helium gas had been warmed by sunlight, increasing lift. The mooring cable had to be cut to avert a catastrophic nose-stand by the airship which then floated upward. Most of the mooring crew—predominantly “boot camp” seamen—released their lines although four did not immediately let go.  Two of them plunged to their death, two others, although injured, were saved.

This was just a foretaste of what was to come.  On the night of April 3, 1933 the Akron was on a routine operation along the Atlantic Coast  with a rear admiral aboard when it encountered severe weather.  Heavy winds struck its sides, causing the airship to plunge toward the ocean.  A strong gust tore lower rudder cables away causing the nose of the vessel to pitch up and the tail down.  Upon striking the water the lower fin was torn away as the Akron broke up rapidly and sank in the wave-tossed Atlantic.  The crew had not been issued life jackets and end had come so quickly that life rafts could not be deployed.  The accident left 73 dead, the admiral among them, and only three survivors.  President Franklin Roosevelt called it “a national disaster.”  On Memorial Day 1933 the Navy Department issued a special “In Memoriam” cover.

The loss of the Akron marked the beginning of the end for the airship in the U.S. Navy.  When its sister dirigible Macon was damaged in a storm two years later and sank, the program ended.  This time, however, the crew had been issued life jackets and 70 of the 72 aboard were rescued.  Although today “Snoopy” may sail the Metlife blimp over the Superbowl, the use of manned airships for military purposes long has been over.

Other mementos of the Akron that may be of interest to collectors are paperweights and desk ornaments issued when the airship was still a matter of national pride.  Goodyear used a blob of its dualuminum 17 to fashion a replica of the Akron’s dock that completely fails to convey the immensity of the structure.  There also are other replicas of the giant balloon that come up for sale from time to time, two of them shown here.

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