The Akron first
flew on September 2, 1931. It was wrecked in a storm off the New Jersey
coast on April 4, 1933, and only three of the 76 men on board survived.
The Macon first flew on April 21, 1933. It perished over the
Pacific Ocean on February 12, 1935, with only two of the 83-man crew dying
in the crash.
Following the loss of the
ZR-1, Shenandoah, in September of 1925 the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics,
with Admiral William A. Moffett as its chief, recommended a comprehensive
program of rigid airship development. This plan called for the
construction of two large rigid airships and a West Coast LTA base. The
navy's General Board was less enthusiastic, however, and when the matter
was referred to them they recommended only one rigid airship, and only if
the funds were provided outside the navy's normal appropriations.
This token nod to the
rigid airship was unacceptable to Admiral Moffett who in response had a
House bill introduced which called for a replacement ship for the
Shenandoah built with funds from the regular navy budget. Congressional
hearings followed and resulted in the navy's Five Year Aircraft Program,
which included authorization for two large rigids, becoming law on June
24th, 1926. Appropriations, however, were not made available until 1927.
In that year design submissions for a large rigid airship scout were
requested. The winner of the competition was Goodyear-Zeppelin's entry.
Coincidentally with the
construction of the LZ-126, Los Angeles, for the U.S. Navy, the Zeppelin
Company's head Dr. Hugo Eckener entered into an agreement in October 1923
with the Goodyear Corporation. Under the agreement the Goodyear-Zeppelin
Company of Akron, Ohio, was to be given North American rights to the
Zeppelin Company's patents as well as key Zeppelin personnel to bring the
Zeppelin Company's long experience in rigid airship design and
construction to the New World. In exchange, the Zeppelin company was given
ten percent of Goodyear-Zeppelin's stock and the knowledge that no matter
what the Zeppelin Company's future would be in the uncertain economy of
post-war Germany, the rigid airship would have a future.
The noisy protest of the
American Brown Boveri Electric Corporation, however, caused another
competition to be held in 1928, but the result was the same.
Goodyear-Zeppelin, under the direction of Dr. Karl Arnstein, one of the
thirteen key personnel of the Zeppelin Company sent to America, had
created an innovative design for the largest airship yet constructed.
Goodyear-Zeppelin's design called for a ship of 6,850,000 million cubic
feet, 785 feet long with a maximum diameter of 132 feet, 11 inches. The
ship was full of innovations. Rather than standard Zeppelin main rings,
the ship had much sturdier deep main frames which dispensed with the miles
of radial wiring which reinforced the Zeppelin main frames. In addition,
the ship had three keels, as opposed to the one which had been standard up
to that time. One keel was placed along the top of the ship, with the
remaining two 45º below the horizontal. These provided unparalleled access
to all parts of the ship as well as tremendous strength. The lessons of
the Shenandoah and R-38 had been well learned.
USS Akron under construction in the Goodyear-Zeppelin
airdock in Akron, Ohio
The most innovative
feature of this design was the ability of the airship to launch, retrieve,
and service five aircraft for scouting purposes. Approximately one-third
of the way aft was an internal hangar, approximately seventy-five feet
long, sixty feet wide, and sixteen feet wide. Through a T-shaped opening
in the floor of the hangar a trapeze could be lowered onto which the ships
five airplanes could be launched and retrieved from "sky hooks" attached
to the top of the airplanes. Operating as the airship's eyes, these scout
planes extended the scouting area tremendously. More importantly, they
allowed the vulnerable airship to remain far from an enemy's carrier based
The crew's quarters were
on either side of the airplane hangar and included a mess, galley,
washroom, and sleeping quarters for both officers and enlisted men. The
crew's quarters were heated by the cooling water from the engines, a first
in rigid airships. A small control car was built into the hull fore. An
emergency control station was provided in the lower fin.
ZRS-4's lower fin, with emergency control station visible
at the bottom of the leading edge
Because the ship was
designed from the outset for inflation with non-flammable helium-a gas
which then only the U.S. had in quantity-the ship's eight 560 hp Maybach
VL-2 engines were installed within the hull along the two lower keels.
They each drove a propeller at the end of a sixteen foot outrigger. As the
engines were reversible and the outrigger could swivel the propeller
through an 90 degree arc, thrust could be delivered in any direction for
Akron's propellers were mounted on outriggers that could
swivel through a 90-degree arc. Along with the reversible engines, this
arrangement allowed the propeller's thrust to be delivered in any
Construction of the new
ZRS-4, later christened the Akron, began on November 7, 1929 at the
new Goodyear-Zeppelin Airdock in Akron. Assembly was similar to that of
other airships. The main rings were assembled on the floor of the hangar
and hoisted into place then connected by longitudinals. The exterior of
the airship was then covered with cotton fabric and doped.
Several small changes were requested by the navy, but only one
significant. This involved the fins. In. Dr. Arnstein's original design
the ships fins were long and slender, attached to three of the ships main
frames. However, this design would not allow the captain in the control
car to see the lower fin and check his ship's trim. Thus a design
change-Change Order No. 2-was made, shortening and deepening the fins and
moving the control car back eight feet. As a result the fins were now only
attached to two main frames. The new fins also negated the design loads
figures, which were later found to be too low. However the navy opted to
leave the design unmodified.
By late summer 1931 the Akron was complete, and was christened on August
5. On September 23rd, with Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Rosendahl in
command the Akron took to the skies for the first time.
On September 23, 1931 the
Akron lifted off from the Goodyear-Zeppelin airfield at Akron, Ohio on its
maiden flight. This flight was the first in a series of ten test flights
which totaled 124 hours 11 minutes. These test flights included a
thirteen hour flight to her home base, the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst,
New Jersey, where she arrived at dawn on October 22 and was brought into
Hangar Number One next to the Los Angeles. One week later the Akron was
commissioned as a vessel in the United States Navy.
USS Akron, shortly after arriving at NAS Lakehurst for the
first time (October 22, 1931)
At Lakehurst the Akron's
arrival was the culmination of several years work. Since the contracts
were signed for the Akron and her yet to be constructed sister ship in
1928 activity at the base had increased precipitously. Men would have to
be taught to fly the new airships, so training at Lakehurst increased
accordingly. By the time the Akron arrived at Lakehurst there were some
three hundred enlisted men and twelve officers, including base commander
Captain H. E. Shoemaker, assigned to the base, plus seventy enlisted men
and twelve officers of the Los Angeles. The Akron brought with her an
additional seventy-five enlisted men and sixteen officers, plus her
airplane pilots and mechanics. The many men at Lakehurst had done much
work in anticipation of Akron's arrival.
Captain H.E. Shoemaker, commander of NAS Lakehurst at the
time of Akron's arrival
When the navy acquired its first rigid
airship, the ZR-1, Shenandoah, docking and undocking was accomplished by
assembling hundreds of men to "walk" the ship into and out of the hangar.
While improvements in ground handling had been made with the Los Angeles,
a dramatic improvement would be needed for the great new airship.
The arrival of Akron prompted the navy to develop new
techniques in airship handling
The system which the navy
developed was a complicated but successful one. To move the ship into and
out of the hangar, the nose was attached to a low mast which rode on two
pairs of rail road tracks. The lower fin of the ship was then attached at
reinforced points to a stern or "Bolster" beam, so named for its inventor,
Lt. Calvin Bolster (CC). The stern beam resembled a long flat car. It
weighed eighty-five tons and ensured that the ship remained well
controlled as she was entering and leaving the hangar. The mobile mast
and stern beam were attached by flexible connectors.
Akron and Hangar No. 1 at Lakehurst, as viewed from the air
When the ship left the
hangar at Lakehurst it was brought to a "hauling up circle" just outside
the western doors. There the ship's stern was moved by a small locomotive
so that the ship faced into the wind. With the ship pointed into the wind
the stern beam was removed. She was then brought to the "mooring out
circle" farther from the hangar where the ship could weather-vane into the
wind on a taxi wheel on the lower fin. From the mooring out circle the
ship could safely depart. The system worked well, and there was only one
major incident, in February 1932, when the lower fin broke free of the
stern beam and weather-vaned into the wind, banging into the ground
With the navy now in
possession of a large, modern rigid airship specifically designed to act
as a naval scout it seemed that the lighter than air was about to prove
its tremendous value for scouting. On November 2, 1931, Akron made her
first flight as a commissioned vessel in the U. S. Navy, a round trip
flight to Washington with Admiral Moffett and a group of journalists
aboard. The next day the Akron made a short demonstration flight to show
the large rigid's ability to carry out emergency airlifts. She carried
207 people aboard and set a world record. While these public relations
flights did help to improve the public's opinion of rigid airships, they
did little to impress the rest of the navy. To do that the Akron would
have to prove herself with the fleet.
Her first chance to do that came in January 1932. On the ninth she
departed Lakehurst for Cape Lookout, North Carolina where she had orders
to be at dawn on the tenth. That day she was to search for an "enemy"
consisting of a squadron of destroyers. Despite passing within fifteen
miles of the "enemy" she failed to spot them on the tenth. Resuming her
search again at dawn on the eleventh she soon found the destroyers and was
shortly thereafter released from the exercise.
The Akron's lacklustre performance did not impress the rest of the navy,
but it should not have come as a surprise. The Akron had as of yet no
airplanes; indeed she didn't even have a trapeze from which to launch and
retrieve airplanes. This constituted a serious handicap. Due to equipment
delays and the damage sustained to the Akron's lower fin in February it
was not until July that the Akron's HTA (heavier-than-air) unit was fully
This delay did have some advantages. Hook-on experiments with the Los
Angeles had been going on for some time and were now considered quite
routine. Thus when the Akron's airplanes arrived there were very few
problems. Indeed, it was the consensus of the airplane pilots that a
landing to a trapeze was easier than a conventional landing.
The arrival of the HTA unit highlighted the differences of opinion as to
how airships should be handled. The HTA pilots believed that the large
rigid was vulnerable to attack by an enemy's carrier-born airplanes and,
therefore, the Akron should serve as a flying aircraft carrier. Her
airplanes would do all the scouting while the airship kept away from the
enemy. The officers and crew of the Akron believed otherwise. In their
opinion the Akron was a scouting airship which happened to carry
airplanes, primarily for defence. Experience was to prove the HTA pilots
correct in their evaluation.
Aircraft carried aboard Akron greatly extended the
airship's scouting range
On May 8, 1932 the Akron
departed Lakehurst for California with two airplanes, the XF9C-1 and the
N2Y. Neither were particularly suited to scouting, but the Akron would
have to make do. On May 11 the Akron landed at the auxiliary base at Camp
Kearney, near San Diego to land and refuel. She then headed to the still
incomplete air station at Sunnyvale.
In 1932 Akron flew from Lakehurst to California to take
part in tactical exercises.
Most of her flights in
California were public relations flights to satisfy the great demand for
views of the ship. The ship did make some flights with the fleet,
however. Between June 1 and 4 Akron took part in fleet exercises. Again
she had no airplanes. The Akron found the "enemy," but this time the
"enemy's" cruisers responded by attacking the Akron with their seaplanes.
The Akron was "shot down" multiple times. The Akron's commander,
Charles Rosendahl, thought it "perfectly apparent" that had she had her
planes aboard the Akron could have fended off the attackers. Perhaps he
was right, but the Akron's poor performance did nothing to polish her dull
image. The report on the fleet exercises heaped harsh criticism , albeit
criticism from a bitter critic of the airship, Adm. Frank H. Schofield.
The Akron arrived back at Lakehurst on June 15.
At Lakehurst on June 22 Comdr. Alger H. Dresel relieved Rosendahl as
commander. At the same time Comdr. Frank C. McCord reported to the Akron
for duty under instruction as her prospective commanding officer. On
January 3, 1933 McCord became the Akron's commanding officer. The same
day Akron departed for the expeditionary mast at Opa-locka, near Miami,
Florida. While there the ship made a quick trip to Cuba. The purpose of
this trip, and another to Panama in March, was to explore the possibility
of a winter mooring site for the Akron away from the North-eastern
winters. The consensus was that such a site would aid the Akron greatly,
allowing it to fly more during the winter.
On the evening of April 3,
1933, the Akron departed Lakehurst for a routine training flight. There
was nothing in the weather forecast which would indicate trouble. It was
with no sense of apprehension that the Akron cast off at 7:28 P.M. Yet
within hours the ship had been enveloped in a severe cold front. McCord
had the ship turned east to ride out the storm at sea off the New Jersey
coast. Just after midnight the air became quite turbulent and the Akron
was carried downward. Drooping of emergency ballast fore and full speed
on all engines stopped the descent at seven hundred feet. The Akron soon
returned to its cruising of sixteen hundred feet. Two to three minutes
later the Akron was caught in another down draft. With the altimeter
reading eight hundred feet the ship lurched sharply, as if a strong gust
had hit it. The rudder man then reported no response from his wheel. The
men in the control car braced for impact with the ocean. Wiley, the only
survivor from the control car, saw the waves below him and was washed out
of the control car moments later.
There had been no impact of the lower fin with the sea before the control
car hit the ocean. The reason for this apparent anomaly was that the fin
was already in the ocean. The lurch which all had assumed was a gust, and
which the altimeter would seem to insist was just that, was actually the
lower fin hitting the water. No one realized the severity of the low
pressure system through which the Akron was flying. The low caused her
barometric altimeter to read as much as several hundred feet higher than
the actual altitude. The Akron had literally been flown into the sea.
Of the 76 men on board Akron on April 3, 1933, only three
survived the wreck. (pictured left to right: Moody Erwin, Lt. Cmdr.
Herbert Wiley and Richard Deal)
The Akron carried no life
jackets and only one rubber raft. Most men never got out of the
foundering ship, and of those who did only three survived exposure to the
chilly north-Atlantic waters. Seventy three men perished. The tragedy
was compounded the next day when the blimp J-3 crashed while looking for
survivors, going down with two members of its crew. The navy had lost the
finest airship in the world and seventy-five men. It was the beginning of
the end for naval lighter-than-air.