Friday, July 23, 2010

Amazing times in the history of Aviation - USS Macon

I hope to make this a regular thing.  I was blogging with a friend here Troy J. who has a feature similar to Paul Harvey's "Rest of the Story" and I thought there are so many amazing things in Aviation that no one has heard about.  The never built planes, the ones that did fly, but faded into obscurity.  Today's tale is one of those.

The USS Macon was the last of the US Navy's 5 big rigid airships.  From after World War One, till the 1960's the US Navy had an Airship program.  Lighter-than-Air was considered the future of aviation for most since other aircraft at the time lacked the range to perform many of the roles that the airships did.  The Macon was one of those and she was the last rigid Airship built for the US Navy.

Commissioned in April of 1933, she was the sister of the USS Akron which had crashed just a month earlier in what at the time was the greatest air tragedy in history till after the war.  Designed by a group of German airship designers brought over by the Goodyear company, the Macon and her sister were the largest aircraft in terms of volume ever built.  Although the famous German Zeppelin Hindenberg was longer, Macon was larger. Akron and Macon were built in what at the time was the largest buildings in the world, the great Goodyear Airdock in Akron, Ohio.  Construction started after the completion of Akron and she was the second of what was planned to be a whole class of scouting airships for the US Navy.

a video of the Macon on her test flights

What was unique about the Akron and Macon was that they were flying Aircraft Carriers.  In a compartment aft of the control car, there was a space for 5 small F9C "Sparrowhawk" fighters.  The fighters were launched and recovered by a unique "trapeze" set up on the ship.  They would fly up to a bar deployed from the hanger, hook on by the use of a large hook on the upper wing of the bi-plane fighter and lock on.  The bar would them be raised into the hanger which would then be closed.  The fighters were to protect the airship and provide for extending the patrol and scouting capabilities of the Airship.  The Akron never received her full complement of aircraft as funding was scarce in the depression era Navy.  The Macon went on to prove the doctrines of what patrol and long range scouting were in the Navy, which in the pre-radar days depended upon visual location of whatever ships were out there.  But tragedy always seemed to follow the airships and Macon proved to be no exception.

The Navy had a common practice of using the giant airship as a recruiting tool and the overland flights proved hard on the airship which had to clear mountains and so forth on its flights around the country.  During a flight in Arizona on one such trip, turbulence snapped several girders.  Rapid damage control prevented the airship from crashing, but the die had been cast.

Macon was scheduled for a fleet exercise immediately after this flight.  The damage was repaired, but some was put off till the next scheduled overhaul when gas cells could be deflated since helium was very expensive at the time and the Navy frowned on its loss.  So with damage to its rear upper fin temporarialy repaired, the Macon went on to participate in exercises off the coast of California.  Off Point Sur, she hit a storm which snapped her fin.  Being overweight, the airship had too many cells punctured to remain aloft and slowly sank into the water.  Unlike her tragic sister which lost all by three of her crew, the Macon lost only two crewman thanks to the warm California seas and the provision of rafts and life jackets aboard, a lesson learned from the crash of the Akron.  The hideous Irony was that Macon was commanded by the most senior officer to survive the Akron Disaster, Commander Herbert V. Wiley.

In 1991, the Monterey Bay Research Institute located the wreck and took many photographs of the framework at the bottom of the ocean.  Subsequent expeditions have surveyed the wreck and taken video of the site.

After the loss of the Macon, the US Navy shelved plans for follow-on airships to Macon, instead concentrating on Blimps and its fledgling Aircraft Carriers.  The US Navy was still a Battleship Navy and Aircraft were considered secondary. It took the Pearl Harbor Disaster to prove the military utility of aircraft.

The surviving artifacts of this era include a single example of the Sparrowhawk, in the Air ans Space Museum, and the huge Airdock hanger in Akron with a similar one located on Moffet Field in California, named after Admiral Moffett who was among those who died on the Akron.  Most of the veterans of that forgotten era have passed away and their achievements have been forgotten save for grainy newsreel footage and fading photographs.

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I am interested in CNG vehicles because they are good for the environment and aren't powered by dead Marines. I still have a little hope for the world. Read the musings and enjoy.