The “USS” designation is an abbreviation for “United States Ship” and indicates that a vessel is a commissioned ship or craft in the United States Navy. The “or craft” is typically used for maritime vehicles like the USS Trieste, an exploratory bathyscape.
The USS Akron and the USS Macron were rare exceptions to that rule. They were aircraft carriers, but of a singularly unusual design. They were airships.
Constructed in the early 1930s, each was about 780 feet long; for comparison, that is roughly equivalent to the largest professional football stadiums. They were expected to be the future of the Navy, allowing for dominance of both sea and sky during military operations.
Goodyear was given the contract to construct the ships using guidance from the German company Luftschiffbau Zeppelin. The combination of German expertise and American innovation resulted in both dirigibles being constructed on time and according to specifications, and testing soon began.
Unlike the Hindenburg, the airships were filled with helium instead of highly flammable hydrogen. The first one to be placed into full operation, the USS Akron, seemed to fulfill its promise in one of its earliest uses, a search operation over the Atlantic Ocean.
Only a few months after it was placed into service an incident occurred which raised doubts. While a number of politicians and dignitaries were on board for a tour, the ship broke free from its mooring and dragged along the ground. The airship was brought under control without any injuries, and all damage was repaired.
Questions arose about the safety of the ship, leading Rear Admiral William Moffett to testify to Congress about its value. He had personally championed the construction of both aircraft, and called the USS Akron the best ship that had ever been built. His expertise and experience carried the day and the Navy moved ahead with their program.
On April 3, 1933, the airship took off on a fairly simple operation, aiding in the calibration of some radio towers. As it was in transit, a thunderstorm rolled in… and the airship, whose vulnerability to strong winds had already been demonstrated, was doomed. A strong gust of wind hit the Akron, which was pushed down toward the water. Upon striking the ocean’s surface, one of the fins was torn free. With the hull’s integrity breached, the remainder of the ship soon broke apart.
Many onboard survived the crash, only to perish of drowning or hypothermia as they waited for rescue boats to arrive. Of the 76 onboard, only three survived. The fatality numbers were higher than might have otherwise been because the seeming simplicity of the task had encouraged a number of ranking Navy officials to come aboard for the mission… including Rear Admiral Moffett, who was one of those lost in the accident.
Two years later the Macron was destroyed, also due to an unexpected storm. After only four years, the short age of the Naval airship was over.
Question of the night: What’s your worst storm experience?