Eighty-five years ago today, on April 4, 1933, one of the largest airborne objects on planet Earth fell into the sea off the coast of New Jersey during a violent thunderstorm. It was not long after midnight and the stormy ocean was pitch-black, but the descent of the object was witnessed from a German ship, the Phoebus, as a bright light falling down to the water. The captain of the Phoebus, thinking a plane had crashed, altered course to see if he could help. Half an hour later crewmen of the Phoebus fished four freezing survivors from the water, one of whom would die shortly afterward. They were all that remained of a crew of 76 aboard the U.S. Navy airship USS Akron, a remarkable aircraft whose tragic demise virtually ended an entire era of aviation.
The Akron truly was a remarkable achievement in engineering and flight. She was conceived as an airborne aircraft carrier–a floating platform from which to launch fighter planes, which at the time of her construction were still biplanes. The United States Navy had witnessed the somewhat mixed success of airships used by Imperial Germany during the First World War, specifically the dirigibles that bombed London in 1915. Airships weren’t the most effective bombers, but the Navy was interested in exploring their other capabilities. The Akron, designed with German expertise, was to be so large that a special hangar had to be built for her construction, which began in October 1929, just days after the Wall Street crash. She was named for the city where she was built, Akron, Ohio, and launched in October 1931 at a ceremony attended by Lou Hoover, First Lady of the United States. Filled with helium rather than the cheaper but much more dangerous hydrogen (which was typically used in German airships), Akron rose aloft and floated toward Washington, D.C. on her maiden voyage in November 1931.
Here is the USS Akron under construction in Ohio, 1930. This photo gives an impression of the ship’s immense scale.
Though it’s a stretch to say she was cursed, Akron was certainly unlucky. She was hard to control under certain conditions, and the results of various early tests of the aircraft launching systems, while not exactly failures, were mixed. Then in May 1932, while trying to moor at a naval station in San Diego, Akron drifted out of control. It was a warm day and the sun had heated up the helium inside Akron’s massive belly, thus making it lighter than its pilots expected and harder to wrangle. Four men from the naval station, who were manning ropes trying to tie up the airship, were pulled up from the ground, still hanging to the ropes. Three fell; of those, two died. One terrified seaman clung to his rope for an hour before being pulled aboard the airship. There were several other incidents in Akron’s career, some resulting in minor damage, but some proud moments too, such as when she floated over the capital on the day of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration as President in 1933.
Then came her final voyage. In the evening of April 3, 1933, USS Akron left her station at Lakehurst, New Jersey–where the airship Hindenburg would meet its fiery death four years later–on a mission to New England to survey direction-finding radio stations. The ship, under the command of Commander Frank C. McCord, floated off into the night sky and soon encountered a powerful thunderstorm. Over Barnegat Light, New Jersey, high winds blew Akron into an area of low barometric pressure. This meant that the altitude indicators in the gondola gave false readings, showing that the ship was flying considerably higher than it really was. Then two savage currents of air buffeted the Akron first up, then down. McCord increased speed and dropped the ship’s ballast. The wind tore away the ship’s cables controlling its rudder. Now a beast totally out of control, Akron hit the water at 12:23 AM on the morning of April 4, breaking into pieces and sinking almost immediately.
The Akron hovers over lower Manhattan, about 1932. You can see the Empire State Building, which opened the same year Akron was launched, just to the right of her nose.
Akron was totally unprepared for ditching at sea. There was only one rubber raft aboard, and none of the 76 crew had life jackets. Two of the survivors made it because they were hanging onto a fuel tank that floated. Another clung to a board. They were lucky. Seventy-three of their comrades, including Congressional Medal of Honor winner Rear Admiral William Moffett, perished in the icy waters. A fishing boat from Massachusetts was later deployed to pull bodies from the Akron from the water with seine nets. Compounding the tragedy, the Navy sent another airship, a blimp, out to search for bodies, but it crashed also, killing two more people.
The crash of the Akron was the worst airship disaster in history, with a higher death toll than the much more famous Hindenburg explosion of May 1937. The Navy lost its taste for airships after the incident, partially because the chief advocate of the naval airship program, Rear Admiral Moffett, had himself been killed in the disaster. Although it still maintained a few blimps for collateral missions, instead of building more large airships the Navy increasingly turned to traditional airplanes to develop the tactics of aerial warfare that would ultimately become decisive in World War II. Airships are now a rarity, more commonly associated with sports events than military assets. Curiously the Akron itself and its victims were almost forgotten. There’s a plaque to them at Lakehurst, and a church in the same town known as the “Cathedral of the Air” that honors the Akron dead, but few have ever heard of the airship.
Rigid airships like the Akron were notoriously difficult to park. Here she is, (barely) controlled at a mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey.
In 2002 the U.S. Navy sent a diving expedition to the waters off Barnegat Light. The remnants of the Akron were located in 120 feet of water. All that was left were the crumpled ribs of the dirigible sticking up out of the muddy seafloor. USS Akron had a short life and a tragic death, and today even her memory is hard to recall.