USS Akron

Painting with all the colours of the wind, USN airships created tragic landscapes.

Today marks the return of our most prolific contributor: Stacy Danielle Stephens.  She’s the author of our beloved article on the Hindenburg and this time, she’s discussing airships built in the US.

Wreckage of USS Shenandoah Viewed By Locals in 1925

Launched in August, 1923, USS Shenandoah was moored at Lakehurst on January 16th, 1924, awaiting the approach of bad weather, to test how well it could tolerate high winds. The crew and command staff soon realized this was a bad idea; the ship was preparing to cast off and flee the storm when a 78mph wind removed the covering of a tail fin, rolled the ship, then tore it loose from the mast, rupturing the first forward gas cell and perforating the second. The ship departed Lakehurst backwards, helpless in the wind. The crew spent the next nine hours regaining control and making emergency repairs midair and returning to Lakehurst early the next morning.

Shorter airship mounts with Breakaway Mast

In response to this incident, the USN changed to shorter masts with breakaway mounts.

On September 2, 1925, USS Shenandoah departed Lakehurst for St Louis, the first leg of a midwestern promotional tour. Early the next morning, over southeastern Ohio, the ship encountered violently shifting lateral winds amid a strong updraft. The crew could not control the ship, which rose until decreased external pressure ruptured a gas cell, causing a brief rapid dive until the updraft lifted the ship again, repeating the process several times until the ship broke apart. While the bulk of the ship came down at once, the bow remained aloft, and crewmen there were able to later bring it down like a simple balloon.

Uss Los Angeles Airship Over Manhattan

USS Los Angeles over Manhattan; date uncertain.

Launched in 1924, USS Los Angeles was the only USN rigid airship to be formally decommissioned, in 1932.

On August 25th, 1927, while moored at the mast in Lakehurst, USS Los Angeles was pushed to eighty-five degrees from horizontal. There were no injuries to the crew, and minimal damage to the ship. This was the nearest USS Los Angeles ever came to disaster. It flew longer and farther than all other USN rigid airships combined, and never caused even a single death or serious injury. Perhaps not coincidentally, it had been built in Germany.

USS Los Angeles over Philadelphia with USS Akron in the distance

USS Akron over Philadelphia, PA, with USS Los Angeles in the distance, circa 1931-2

Launched in 1931, USS Akron was first damaged by wind in February, 1932, coming out of the hangar at Lakehurst. A tail fin was smashed, and some landing-rope fittings torn loose.

On May 11, 1932, during a failed landing attempt at an underequiped and inadequately staffed field, two men were killed and another injured after the mooring line severed. They held onto their ropes, and were carried up with the ship as the wind took it away. A fourth man who hadn’t released his rope had the presence of mind to secure himself to his rope, and wait there until the crew pulled him aboard.

Just after midnight, April 4, 1934, USS Akron encountered a violent storm east of Atlantic City, New Jersey, and was blown tail-first into the sea. 73 of the 76 men aboard were killed.

USS Macon over New York City

USS Macon over New York City, 1933

Launched in 1933, USS Macon successfully demonstrated the usefulness of an airship, when operating with small fixed-wing aircraft and a surface task force, in performing recon, but also highlighted the vulnerability of airships in these same circumstances. Lessons learned from Shenandoah’s misfortunes had been applied to the Macon’s design, as well as its operations, but it, too, was caught in a storm, off Point Sur, California, on February 12, 1935, and was brought down by it. By this time, life boats and life jackets were standard equipment on USN airships, and only two of the crew were lost.

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