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USS Akron (ZRS-4)

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ZRS-4 in flight, 1931
(An airplane is passing over her bow.)
Career Template:USN flag
Ordered: 6 October 1928
Laid down: 31 October 1929
Launched: 8 August 1931
Maiden flight: 23 September 1931
Commissioned: 27 October 1931
Fate: crashed in severe weather, 4 April 1933
General characteristics
Dead weight: Template:Convert
Useful load: Template:Convert
Length: Template:Convert
Diameter: Template:Convert
Height: Template:Convert
Volume: Template:Convert
Propulsion: Eight Template:Convert gasoline-powered engines, mounted internally
Speed: Template:Convert cruising, Template:Convert maximum
Range: Template:Convert
Complement: 89 officers and men
Armament: seven machine guns
Aircraft: four aircraft

USS Akron (ZRS-4) was a rigid helium-filled airship of the United States Navy that crashed off the New Jersey coast early on 4 April 1933, killing 73 crew and passengers. At 785 ft (239.3 m) long, 20 ft (6 m) shorter than Hindenburg, she and her sister, Macon (ZRS-5), were among the largest flying objects in the world. Although Hindenburg was longer, the two airships still hold the world record for helium-filled airships.

There was a hydrogen-filled airship built in Brigantine, New Jersey, in 1911 also named Akron. It caught fire a year later.[citation needed]


Construction and commissioning

Construction of ZRS-4 commenced on 31 October 1929 at Springfield Township, Ohio by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation, and on 7 November 1931, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, drove the "golden rivet" in the ship's main ring. Erection of the actual "hull" sections began in March 1930. On 10 May, Secretary of the Navy Charles F. Adams III chose the name Akron; Assistant Secretary of the Navy Ernest Lee Jahncke announced it four days later, on 14 May.

Once completed, Akron carried 20,000 USgal (75,800 liters) of gasoline, which gave her a range of 10,500 mi (16,900 km).[1] Eight gasoline engines were mounted inside the hull. Each turned one twin-bladed propeller via a driveshaft which allowed the propeller to swivel vertically and horizontally.[2] Template:Expand-sect

On 8 August 1931, Akron was launched (floated free of the hangar floor) and christened by Mrs. Lou Henry Hoover, First Lady of the United States. Akron conducted her maiden flight on the afternoon of 23 September, around the Cleveland, Ohio, area, with Secretary of the Navy Adams and Rear Admiral Moffett embarked. She made eight more flights — principally over Lake Erie but ranging as far as Detroit, Michigan, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Columbus, Ohio — before her delivery flight to the Naval Air Station (NAS) at Lakehurst, New Jersey, where she was commissioned on Navy Day, 27 October 1931, Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Rosendahl in command.

Maiden voyage

On 2 November 1931, Akron cast off for her maiden voyage as a commissioned "ship" of the United States Navy and cruised down the eastern seaboard to Washington. Over the weeks that followed, she amassed 300 hours aloft in a series of flights. Included in these was a 46-hour endurance run to Mobile, Alabama, and back. The return leg of the trip was made via the valleys of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

File:USS Akron in flight, nov 1931.jpg
Akron on her maiden voyage on November 2, 1931, four starboard propellers visible. The engines' water reclaiming devices appear as white strips above each propeller. The emergency rear control cabin is visible in the lower fin.

Participation in a search exercise, January 1932

On the morning of 9 January 1932, Akron cleared Lakehurst to work with the Scouting Fleet on a search exercise. Proceeding to the coast of North Carolina, Akron headed out over the Atlantic, tasked with finding a group of Guantanamo Bay-bound destroyers. Once she had located them, she was to shadow them and report their movements. Clearing the North Carolina coast at 0721 on 10 January, the airship proceeded south. Bad weather prevented her from sighting the destroyers she was to find (she missed contact with them at 1240, although they sighted her) but she kept on, eventually shaping a course toward the Bahamas by late afternoon. Heading northwesterly into the night, Akron then changed course shortly before midnight and proceeded to the southeast. Ultimately, at 0908 on 11 January, Akron succeeded in spotting the light cruiser Raleigh (CL-7) and a dozen destroyers, positively identifying them on the eastern horizon two minutes later. Sighting a second group of destroyers shortly thereafter, Akron was released from the evolution about 1000, having achieved a "qualified success" in her initial test with the Scouting Fleet.

As historian Richard K. Smith says in his definitive study, The Airships Akron and Macon, "...consideration given to the weather, duration of flight, a track of more than 3,000 mi (4,800 km) flown, her material deficiencies, and the rudimentary character of aerial navigation at that date, the Akron's performance was remarkable. There was not a military airplane in the world in 1932 which could have given the same performance, operating from the same base."

Accident, February 1932

Akron was to have taken part in Fleet Problem XIII, but an accident occurred at Lakehurst on 22 February 1932, preventing her participation. As the rigid airship was being taken from her hangar, the tail came loose from its moorings and, caught by the wind, crunched into the ground. The heaviest damage was confined to the lower fin area, and required repairs before the ship was ready to go aloft again. In addition, ground handling fittings had been torn out of the main frame, necessitating repairs to those vital elements as well. It was not until later in the spring that Akron was airworthy again, and, on 28 April, the rigid airship cast off for a flight with Rear Admiral Moffett and Secretary of the Navy Adams on board. This particular flight lasted nine hours.

Testing of the "spy basket"

Soon after returning to Lakehurst to disembark her distinguished passengers, Akron took off again to conduct a test of the "spy basket" — something like a small airplane fuselage suspended beneath the airship that would enable an observer to serve as the ship's "eyes" below the clouds while the ship herself remained out of sight above them. Fortunately, the basket was "manned" only by a sandbag, for the contraption proved "frighteningly unstable" swooping gracefully from one side of the airship to the other before the startled gazes of Akron's officers and men. It was never tried again.

Experimental use as a "flying aircraft carrier"

Akron, and her sister ship USS Macon (ZRS-5) (still under construction), were regarded as potential "flying aircraft carrier"s, carrying parasite fighters for reconnaissance use. On 3 May 1932, Akron cruised above the coast of [New Jersey with Rear Admiral George C. Day, President of the Board of Inspection and Survey, embarked, and for the first time tested the "trapeze" installation for handling of aircraft while airborne. The pilots who carried out those historic "landings," first with a Consolidated N2Y trainer and then the prototype Curtiss XF9C-1 Sparrowhawk, were Lieutenant Daniel W. Harrigan and Lieutenant Howard L. Young. The following day, Akron carried out another demonstration flight, this time with members of the House Committee on Naval Affairs on board. During this operation the same fliers gave the lawmakers a demonstration of Akron's ability to handle aircraft.

Journey from Lakehurst to the west coast, May 1932

File:XF9C 1 aircraft hooking onto USS Akron, May 1932.jpg
F9C Sparrowhawk successfully hooks on to Akron's trapeze, May 1932.

Following the conclusion of those trial flights, Akron departed Lakehurst on 8 May 1932, and set out for the west coast of the United States. The airship proceeded down the eastern seaboard to Georgia, then across the gulf plain and continued on over Texas and Arizona. En route to her base at Sunnyvale, California, she reached Camp Kearny, California, on the morning of 11 May, and attempted to moor. Since neither the trained ground handlers nor the specialized mooring equipment needed by an airship of Akron's size were there, the landing at Camp Kearny was fraught with danger. By the time she started the evaluation, the heat of the sun's rays had warmed her, and her engines had further lightened the airship by using Template:Convert of fuel during her voyage across the continent. As a result, Akron became uncontrollable.

Her mooring cable cut to avert a catastrophic nose-stand by the errant airship, Akron headed up. Most men of the mooring crew, predominantly "boot" seamen from the Naval Training Station at San Diego, let go their lines. However, one man was carried Template:Convert into the air before he let go and suffered a broken arm in the process. Three others were carried up even farther. Two of these men — Aviation Carpenter's Mate 3d Class Robert H. Edsall and Apprentice Seaman Nigel M. Henton — lost their grips and fell to their deaths. The third, Apprentice Seaman C. M. "Bud" Cowart, clung desperately to his line and made himself fast to it before he was hoisted on board Akron one hour later. See[3] Nevertheless, Akron managed to moor at Camp Kearny later that day and proceeded thence to Sunnyvale. The tragic accident was captured on newsreel.

West coast flights

Over the weeks that followed Akron "showed the flag" on the west coast, ranging as far north as the Canadian border before returning south in time to exercise once more with the Scouting Fleet. Serving as part of the "Green" Force, Akron attempted to locate the "White" Force. Although opposed by Vought O2U Corsair floatplanes from "enemy" ships, the airship managed to locate the opposing forces in just 22 hours — a fact not lost upon some of the participants in the exercise in subsequent critiques.

Akron over Lower Manhattan.

With Akron in need of repairs, the airship departed Sunnyvale on 11 June, bound for Lakehurst. The return trip was studded with difficulties — principally due to unfavorable weather. After a "long and sometimes harrowing" aerial voyage, she ultimately arrived there on the 15 June.

Akron underwent a period of voyage repairs upon her return from the west coast, and in July took part in a search for Curlew, a yacht which had failed to reach port at the end of a race to Bermuda. She then resumed operations with her "trapeze" and her planes. On 20 July, Admiral Moffett again embarked in Akron but the next day left the airship in one of her N2Y-1s, which took him back to Lakehurst after a severe storm delayed her return to base.

Further tests as "flying aircraft carrier"

That summer Akron entered a new phase of her career — one of intense experimentation with the revolutionary "trapeze" and a full complement of Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawks. A key element of the entrance into that new phase was the new commanding officer, Commander Alger Dresel.

Another accident

Unfortunately, another accident hampered her vital training. On 22 August, Akron's fin fouled a hangar beam after a premature order to commence towing the ship out of the mooring circle. Nevertheless, rapid repairs enabled Akron to conduct eight flights over the Atlantic during the last three months of 1932. These operations involved intensive work with the trapeze and the F9C-2s, as well as the drilling of lookouts and gun crews.

Among the tasks undertaken was that involving the maintenance of two aircraft patrolling and scouting on Akron's flanks. During a seven-hour period on 18 November 1932, the airship and a trio of planes searched a sector Template:Convert wide.

Return to the fleet

After local operations out of Lakehurst for the remainder of 1932, Akron was ready to resume her work with the fleet. On the afternoon of 3 January 1933, Commander Frank C. McCord relieved Commander Dresel as commanding officer, the latter ordered to the USS Macon as her first commander. Within hours of this event, Akron was on her way south, down the eastern seaboard and shaping a course toward Florida. She refueled at the Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Opa-Locka, Florida, near Miami, on 4 January, and then proceeded to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for an inspection of base sites. At this time, she used one of her N2Y-1s as aerial "taxis" to ferry members of the inspection party back and forth.

Soon thereafter, Akron returned to Lakehurst for local operations which were interrupted by a two-week overhaul and poor weather. During March, the rigid airship carried out intensive training with her embarked aviation unit of F9C-2s, honing her hook-on skills. During the course of these operations, she cruised to Washington, DC, and overflew the capital on 4 March 1933, the day Franklin D. Roosevelt took the oath of office as President of the United States]].

On 11 March, Akron departed Lakehurst and headed for Panama. She stopped briefly en route at Opa-Locka before proceeding on to Balboa, Panama. There an inspection party looked over a potential air base site. While returning northward the rigid airship paused at Opa-Locka for local operations exercising her gun crews with the N2Y-1s serving as targets for the gunners. Finally, on 22 March, she got underway to return to Lakehurst.

The crash of the Akron

On the evening of 3 April 1933, Akron cast off her moorings to operate along the coast of New England, assisting in the calibration of radio direction finder stations, with Rear Admiral Moffett embarked. Also on board were: Commander Harry B. Cecil, the admiral's aide; Commander Fred T. Berry, commanding officer of Naval Air Station Lakehurst; and Lieutenant Colonel Alfred F. Masury, USAR, a guest of the admiral, a vice-president of the Mack Truck Co., and a strong proponent of the potential civilian uses of rigid airships.

As she proceeded on her way, Akron encountered severe weather which did not improve as she passed over Barnegat Light, New Jersey, at 2200 on 3 April. Wind gusts of terrific force struck the airship unmercifully. Akron was being flown into an area of lower barometric pressure than had existed at take-off; this caused the actual altitude flown to be lower than indicated in the control gondola. Around 0030 on 4 April, the Akron was driven up by an updraft, and then down by a downdraft. The commander, Commander Frank McCord, ordered full speed ahead, ballast dropped. Lt. Commander Herbert Wiley was handling the ballast and emptied the bow emergency ballast. This coupled with the elevator man holding nose up on the elevators caused the nose to rise. It also caused the tail to rotate down. The descent of Akron was only temporarily halted, and downdrafts caused a second descent. Wiley activated the 18 'howlers' of the ships telephone system, a signal to landing stations. At this point the airship was nose up at between 12 and 25 degrees.

The Engineering officer called out "800 feet" (240 m), which was followed by a 'gust' of intense violence. The steersman reported there was no response to his wheel. The lower rudder cables had been torn away. While the control gondola was still hundreds of feet high, the lower fin of Akron had struck the water and was torn off. ZRS-4 rapidly broke up and sank in the stormy Atlantic. Akron had been destroyed by operator error: it was flown into the sea while operating in an intense storm front. The German motorship Phoebus in the vicinity saw lights descending toward the ocean at about 0023 (12:23 AM) and altered course to starboard to investigate, thinking she was witnessing a plane crash. At 0055 on 4 April, Phoebus picked up Lieutenant Commander Herbert V. Wiley, Akron's executive officer, unconscious, while a ship's boat picked up three more men: Chief Radioman Robert W. Copeland, Boatswain's Mate Second Class Richard E. Deal, and Aviation Metalsmith Second Class Moody E. Ervin. Despite desperate artificial respiration, Copeland never regained consciousness and died on board Phoebus.

File:USS Akron Memorial Cover.jpg
Memorial USS Akron cover, autographed by the only three survivors of the crash on April 3, 1933

Although the German sailors spotted four or five other men in the stormy seas, they did not know their ship had chanced upon the crash of Akron until Lieutenant Commander Wiley regained consciousness half an hour after being rescued. Phoebus combed the ocean with her boats for over five hours in a dogged but fruitless search for more survivors of aviation's biggest single tragedy to that date. Navy blimp J-3, sent out to join the search, also crashed, with the loss of two men.

The United States Coast Guard cutter Tucker, the first American vessel on the scene, arrived at 0600 (6:00 AM) and took aboard Akron survivors and the body of Copeland, thus releasing the German motor vessel. Among the other ships which relentlessly combed the area for more survivors were the heavy cruiser Portland, the destroyer Cole, Coast Guard cutter Mojave, and the Coast Guard destroyers McDougal and Hunt, as well as two Coast Guard planes. Most, if not all of the casualties had been caused by drowning and hypothermia, as the crew had not been issued life jackets and there had not been time to deploy the single life raft on the ship. The crash left 73 dead, and three survivors, making it the deadliest air crash up to the time.

Aftermath of the crash

Akron's loss spelled the beginning of the end for the rigid airship in the Navy, especially since one of its leading proponents, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, perished with her, as did 72 other men. As President Roosevelt commented afterward: "The loss of the Akron with its crew of gallant officers and men is a national disaster. I grieve with the Nation and especially with the wives and families of the men who were lost. Ships can be replaced, but the Nation can ill afford to lose such men as Rear Admiral William A. Moffett and his shipmates who died with him upholding to the end the finest traditions of the United States Navy."

USS Macon and other airships received life jacket packs in order to avert such a disaster that happened to USS Akron.

Songwriter Bob Miller wrote and recorded a song, "The Crash of the Akron," within one day after the disaster.[4]

See also



  • Robinson, Douglas H., and Charles L. Keller. "Up Ship!": U.S. Navy Rigid Airships 1919-1935. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1982. ISBN 0-87021-738-0
  • Richard K. Smith, The Airships Akron & Macon (Flying Aircraft Carriers of the United States Navy), United States Naval Institute: Annapolis, Maryland, 1965
  • Department Of The Navy, Naval Historical Center. USS Akron. Retrieved May 5, 2005.

External links

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It uses material from the Wikipedia article "USS Akron (ZRS-4)".
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