Aug 18

‘The Stern Hit the Water with a Jar’

Tuesday, August 18, 2015 9:53 AM

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Literally a flying aircraft carrier, the USS Macon (ZRS-5) featured a hangar that accommodated four scout planes.

Literally a flying aircraft carrier, the USS Macon (ZRS-5) featured a hangar that accommodated four scout planes.

For the first time since 2009, undersea explorers, with support from the NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, today are investigating the secret wreck site of the U.S. Navy airship Macon (ZRS-5). Remote-controlled vehicles from Robert Ballard’s exploration vessel Nautilus are mapping the site, located within Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and evaluating the condition of the remains of the airship and her F9C-2 Sparrowhawk scout planes.

The future of the Navy’s ambitious rigid-airship program was uncertain even before the 785-foot Macon crashed on the night of 12 February 1935. The USS Shenandoah (ZR-1) had gone down in 1925, and 73 crew members and passengers—including the head of the Bureau of Aeronautics, Rear Admiral William Moffett—lost their lives in the 1933 crash of the Akron (ZRS-4). The loss of the Macon therefore effectively ended the program and the Navy’s hopes of using the great airships as fleet scouts.

What follows is an account of the crash of the Macon from the mid-March 1935 issue of Our Navy magazine.

When the USS Macon plunged into the water of the Pacific a few miles off Point Sur, California, late on the afternoon of February 12, it probably ended, for some time to come at least, the Navy’s experiments in the use of lighter than air craft in connection with Fleet activities. The loss of the Macon following so closely upon the heels of the Shenandoah and the Akron disasters gave opponents of the dirigible a chance to vent their feelings in an “I told you so” manner. . . .

From the testimony brought out at the Court of Inquiry at which nearly all surviving members of the crew testified it appears that the loss of the Macon was due to structural collapse. Lieutenant Bolster testified that the cause of the catastrophe “was a failure of the structure, either in the fins themselves or at the point where fins were attached to the hull.” It was also revealed that a similar collapse had been only narrowly avoided when the Macon flew across Texas last year and that all of the repairs then ordered had not been made.

Lieutenant Commander H. V. Wiley, commanding officer of the Macon, told a very vivid story of how the Macon crashed.

The commander, one of the three survivors of the Akron disaster, said that when the trouble developed the Macon was about three miles off Point Sur. A short jar was felt and it developed that the wheel had jerked out of the elevator man’s hand. The ship took a bow-up inclination and rose, the commander said, and the elevator man apparently had lost control.

Commander Wiley said that he received immediately a telephone call from aft that the No. 1 call was cone. All ballast and emergency fuel in the after part of the ship were dropped. Gas was valved out of the forward gas cell in an effort to regain control.

The inclination of the ship had reached twenty-five degrees and ascended rapidly.

“The engines were slowed immediately, the ship took the up angle,” said Commander Wiley, “in order to keep from ascending too high and to relieve the strain on the structure caused by the operation of the rudder and elevators at the high air speeds.

“I surmised that the structure was damaged over No. 1 gas cell in the locality of the fins, and endeavored to relive the strain on that part of the ship’s structure. Reports were soon received that the ship’s outer covering was gone over No. 1 and No. 2 gas cells, and although occasionally the inclination was reduced considerable [sic] it could not be kept to a small angle.

“Meanwhile the ship began to descend from 4,000 feet and even down to 3,000 feet. I expected to get the ship under control with the one rudder that was reported functioning.

“From about 3,000 feet down the ship descended at an average rate of 300 feet per minute, and in spite of dropping all ballast and endeavoring to drop airplanes from the airplane hangar, the descent continued. The angle of inclination which had gotten as low as 10 degrees again increased as the stern hung down toward the water.

“At 1,000 feet the order was given to stand by to abandon ship although the emergency signal to the crew had been given immediately after the casualty. About three minutes after the casualty I had told the radio to send out the SOS.

“The stern hit the water with a jar, and I told everyone to get out of the control car and jump before the control car submerged.

“Everyone was out before I climbed out a window and poised to jump. As soon as we were in the water the rubber lifeboats which the crew had prepared were floating and we swam to them.

“After getting into a boat and assembling five boats we picked up a number of men out of the water and endeavored to stay close to the airship as several men were observed still aboard on top and in the nose.

“The ship sank slowly stern first, crumbling from the action of the swell. We had a number of flares and a number had been dropped overboard from the control car.

“The People in the bow fired several signal rockets which attracted the cruisers which were in the vicinity. “

“We were picked up with dispatch and great credit is due to the command of the cruisers and their personnel for their expeditious and efficient work.”

 

To watch the Nautilus team’s exploration of the Macon, go to: www.nautiluslive.org

 

To read “Ships That Were Lighter Than Air,” Norman Polmar’s history of the U.S. Navy’s rigid-airship program from the June 2011 issue of Naval History, go to: http://www.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/2011-05/ships-were-lighter-air