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USS Akron (ZRS-4)
ZRS-4 in flight, 1931
(An airplane is passing over her bow.)
Career (United States) US flag 48 stars.svg
Name: USS Akron
Namesake: Akron, Ohio
Ordered: 6 October 1928
Builder: Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation
Laid down: 31 October 1929
Launched: 8 August 1931
Commissioned: 27 October 1931
Maiden voyage: 23 September 1931
Fate: Crashed in severe weather on 4 April 1933
General characteristics
Type: Airship
Tonnage: 221,000 lb (100 t)
Length: 785 ft (239 m)
Beam: 132 ft 6 in (40.4 m) (diameter)
Height: 152 ft 6 in (46.5 m)
Propulsion: 8 × internally mounted 560 hp (420 kW) gasoline engines
Speed: 50 kn (58 mph; 93 km/h) cruising
72 kn (83 mph; 133 km/h) (maximum)
Range: 10,580 nmi (12,180 mi; 19,590 km)
Capacity: Useful load: 182,000 lb (83,000 kg)
Volume: 6,500,000 cu ft (180,000 m3)
Complement: 89 officers and men
Armament: 7 × machine guns
Aircraft carried: 4 × F9C Sparrowhawk biplane fighter planes

USS Akron (ZRS-4) was a helium-filled rigid airship of the U.S. Navy that was destroyed[1] in a thunderstorm off the coast of New Jersey on the morning of 4 April 1933, killing 73 of her 76 crewmen and passengers. This accident was the largest loss of life for any known airship crash.[2] During her accident-prone 18-month term of service, the Akron also served as a flying aircraft carrier for launching and recovering F9C Sparrowhawk fighter planes.

With lengths of 785 ft (239 m), 20 ft (6.1 m) shorter than the German commercial airship Hindenburg, Akron and her sister airship the Macon were among the largest flying objects in the world. Although the Hindenburg was longer, she was filled with hydrogen, so the two U.S. airships still hold the world record for helium-filled airships.

Construction and commissioningEdit

Construction of ZRS-4 commenced on October 31, 1929, at the Goodyear Airdock in Springfield Township, Ohio by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation.[3] Because she was the biggest airship ever to be built in America up to that point, a special hangar was constructed[4] and a team of experienced German airship engineers, led by Chief Designer Karl Arnstein, instructed and supported design and construction of both U.S. Navy airships USS Akron and USS Macon.[5]

On November 7, 1931, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett — the Chief of the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics — drove the "golden rivet" in the ship's main ring. Erection of the hull sections began in March 1930. On 10 May, Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams chose the name Akron (for the city near where she was being built) and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Ernest Lee Jahncke announced it four days later, on 14 May 1930.

ZRS-4 USS Akron duralumin sample

Sample of the duralumin from which the frame of USS Akron was built.

The airship's frame was built of the lightweight alloy duralumin. Once completed, the Akron could store 20,000 US gal (76,000 L) of gasoline, which gave her a range of 10,500 mi (9,100 nmi; 16,900 km).[6] Eight Maybach VL-2 gasoline engines were mounted inside the hull.[7] Each engine turned one twin-bladed propeller via a driveshaft which allowed the propeller to swivel vertically and horizontally.[8]

On August 8, 1931, the Akron was launched (floated free of the hangar floor) and christened by Mrs. Lou Henry Hoover, the wife of the President of the United States, Herbert Clark Hoover. The maiden flight of the Akron took place around Cleveland on the afternoon of 23 September with Secretary of the Navy Adams and Rear Admiral Moffett on board. The airship made eight more flights — principally over Lake Erie but ranging as far as Detroit, Michigan, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Columbus, Ohio — before being flown from Akron to the Naval Air Station (NAS) at Lakehurst, New Jersey, where it was delivered to the Navy and commissioned on Navy Day, 27 October, with Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Rosendahl in command.

The Akron had a unique feature, somewhat like the World War I German zeppelin spähkorb developed by Ernst Lehmann, for determining whether the air was clear below a fog bank to descend. A small weather station containing a radio transmitter was lowered on a cable and reported back to the Akron whether there was clear air below the fog or whether it reached all the way to the ground.[9]

Maiden voyageEdit

On 2 November 1931, the Akron cast off for a maiden voyage as a commissioned "ship" of the U.S. Navy and cruised down the eastern seaboard to Washington, D.C. Over the weeks that followed, some 300 hours aloft were logged in a series of flights, including a 46-hour endurance flight to Mobile, Alabama, and back. The return leg of the trip was made via the valleys of the Mississippi River and the Ohio River.

USS Akron in flight, nov 1931

The maiden voyage of the Akron on 2 November 1931, showing her four starboard propellers. 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 1932Edit

On the morning of January 9, 1932, the Akron exited Lakehurst to work with the Scouting Fleet on a search exercise. Proceeding to the coast of North Carolina, the Akron headed out over the Atlantic where she was assigned to find a group of destroyers bound for Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Once these were located, the airship was to shadow them and report their movements. Leaving coast of the North Carolina at about 7:21 on the morning of January 10, the airship proceeded south, but bad weather prevented sighting the destroyers (contact with them was missed at 12:40 EST, although their crews had sighted the Akron) and eventually shaped a course toward the Bahamas by late afternoon. Heading northwesterly into the night, the Akron then changed course shortly before midnight and proceeded to the southeast. Ultimately, at 9:08 am on January 11, the airship succeeded in spotting the light cruiser USS Raleigh (CL-7) and 12 destroyers, positively identifying them on the eastern horizon two minutes later. Sighting a second group of destroyers shortly thereafter, the Akron was released from the evaluation about 10:00 a.m., having achieved a "qualified success" in the initial test with the Scouting Fleet.

As the historian Richard K. Smith wrote in his definitive study, The Airships Akron and Macon, "...consideration given to the weather, duration of flight, a track of more than 3,000 miles (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."

First accident (February 1932)Edit

The Akron was to have taken part in Fleet Problem XIII, but an accident at Lakehurst on 22 February 1932, prevented the participation of the Akron. While the airship was being taken from her hangar, her tail came loose from its moorings, was caught by the wind, and struck the ground.[10] The heaviest damage was confined to the lower fin area which required repair. Also, ground handling fittings had been torn from the main frame, necessitating repairs as well. The Akron was not certified as airworthy again until later in the spring. Its next operation took place on 28 April, when she made a nine-hour flight with Rear Admiral Moffett and Secretary of the Navy Adams aboard.

As a result of this accident, a turntable with a walking beam on tracks powered by electric mine locomotives was developed to secure the tail and turn the Akron even in high winds so that it could be pulled into the massive hangar at Lakehurst naval air station.[11]

Testing of the "spy basket"Edit

Soon after returning to Lakehurst to disembark its 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 as the contraption proved "frighteningly unstable", swooping 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"Edit

F9C in USS Akron hangar1932

F9C Sparrowhawk in Akron's hangar. This aircraft was one of four lost with USS Macon on 12 February 1935.

Akron and sister Macon—which was still under construction—were regarded as potential "flying aircraft carriers", carrying parasite fighters for reconnaissance. On May 3, 1932, Akron cruised over the coast of New Jersey with Rear Admiral George C. Day—President of the Board of Inspection and Survey—on board, and for the first time tested the "trapeze" installation for in-flight handling of aircraft. The aviators who carried out those historic "landings"—first with a Consolidated N2Y trainer and then with 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; this time, Lieutenants Harrigan and Howard gave the lawmakers a demonstration of Akron's ability to handle aircraft.

"Coast-to-Coast" flight & second accident (May 1932)Edit

ZRS-4 USS Akron Cover 1932

Cover carried on the May 1932 "Coast to Coast" flight and later autographed by the only three survivors of the April 1933, crash of USS Akron.

XF9C 1 aircraft hooking onto USS Akron, May 1932

F9C Sparrowhawk successfully hooks on to Akron's trapeze, May 1932.

Following the conclusion of those trial flights, Akron departed from Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 8, 1932, for the American west coast. The airship proceeded down the eastern seaboard to Georgia and then across the southern gulf states, continuing over Texas and Arizona. En route to Sunnyvale, California, Akron reached Camp Kearny in San Diego, 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 present, the landing at Camp Kearny was fraught with danger. By the time the crew started the evaluation, the heat of the sun's rays had warmed the lifting helium gas, and the expenditure of fuel (40 short tons (36 t)) during the transcontinental trip had further lightened the airship, making the Akron all but uncontrollable.

Akron incident 11 may32

Still pictures from the 11 May 1932, incident: the two pictures on the left and the picture at far right are of Seaman Cowart; the picture second from right shows Henton and Edsall before their fatal fall

The mooring cable was cut to avert a catastrophic nose-stand by the errant airship and Akron floated upward. Most of the mooring crew—predominantly "boot" seamen from the Naval Training Station San Diego—let go of their lines. One man was carried 15 ft (4.6 m) into the air before he let go and suffered a broken arm, while three others were carried up even farther. Aviation Carpenter's Mate 3rd Class, Robert H. Edsall, and Apprentice Seaman, Nigel M. Henton, plunged to their deaths. A third man, Apprentice Seaman, C. M. "Bud" Cowart, had grasped desperately to his line and made himself fast to it before he was hoisted aboard Akron an hour later.[12] Nevertheless, the Akron moored at Camp Kearny later that day and then proceeded to Sunnyvale, California. The deadly accident was recorded on newsreel film.

West Coast flightsEdit

Over the weeks that followed, Akron "showed the flag" on the West Coast of the United States, 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", the Akron attempted to locate the "White Force". Although opposed by Vought O2U Corsair floatplanes from "enemy" warships, the airship located the opposing forces in just 22 hours — fact not lost upon some of the participants in the exercise in subsequent critiques.

USS Akron (ZRS-4) in flight over Manhattan, circa 1931-1933

Akron over Lower Manhattan.

In need of repairs, Akron departed from Sunnyvale on 11 June bound for Lakehurst, New Jersey, on a return trip that was sprinkled with difficulties, mostly because of unfavorable weather, and she arrived on 15 June after a "long and sometimes harrowing" aerial voyage.

The Akron next underwent a period of voyage repairs before taking part in July in a search for the Curlew, a yacht which had failed to reach port at the end of a race to the island of Bermuda. The yacht was later discovered safe off Nantucket.[13] She then resumed operations capturing aircraft on her "trapeze" equipment. Admiral Moffett again boarded Akron on 20 July, but the next day left the airship in one of her N2Y-1s which took him back to Lakehurst after a severe storm had delayed the airship's own return to base.

Further tests as "flying aircraft carrier"Edit

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

Third accident (August 1932)Edit

Another accident hampered this vital training on 22 August when Akron's tail fin became fouled by a beam in Lakehurst's massive Hangar No 1 after a premature order to commence towing the ship out of the mooring circle. Nevertheless, rapid repairs enabled eight more 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 were 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 100 mi (87 nmi; 160 km)[citation needed] wide.

Return to the fleetEdit

Akron test pilots

Officers of USS Akron Air Group, 1933 (l to r): LT(JG) Robert W. Lawson, LT Harold B. Miller, LT Frederick M. Trapnell, LT Howard L. Young, LT(JG) Frederick N. Kivette. U.S. Naval Historical Center.

After local operations out of Lakehurst for the remainder of 1932, Akron was ready to resume operations with the fleet. On the afternoon of 3 January 1933, Commander Frank C. McCord relieved Commander Dresel as commanding officer, the latter becoming Macon's first captain. Within hours, Akron headed south down the eastern seaboard toward Florida where, after refueling at the Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Opa-locka, Florida, near Miami, the next day proceeded to Guantánamo Bay for an inspection of base sites. At this time the N2Y-1s were used to provide aerial "taxi" service 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. In March, she carried out intensive training with an aviation unit of F9C-2s, honing hook-on skills. During the course of these operations, an overfly of Washington DC was made 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 bound for Panama stopping briefly en route at Opa-Locka before proceeding on to Balboa where an inspection party looked over a potential air base site. While returning northward, the airship paused at Opa-Locka again for local operations exercising gun crews, with the N2Y-1s serving as targets, before getting underway for Lakehurst on 22 March.

Fourth accident and loss of USS Akron (April 1933)Edit

ZRS-4 USS Akron Memorial Cover 1933

Franked USS Akron penalty cover with 1933 Memorial Day cachet autographed by its only three survivors including future USS Macon commander LCDR H.V. Wiley, and then posted from Lakehurst again on June 24, 1933, the day Macon first arrived from Akron.

On the evening of 3 April 1933, Akron cast off from the mooring mast to operate along the coast of New England, assisting in the calibration of radio direction finder stations. Rear Admiral Moffett was again on board along with his aide, Commander Henry Barton Cecil, Commander Fred T. Berry, the commanding officer of NAS Lakehurst, and Lieutenant Colonel Alfred F. Masury, USAR, a guest of the admiral, vice-president of the Mack Truck Co., and strong proponent of the potential civilian uses of rigid airships.

Akron soon encountered severe weather, which did not improve when the airship passed over Barnegat Light, New Jersey[14] at 10:00 pm as wind gusts of terrific force struck its massive airframe. The airship was being flown into an area of lower barometric pressure than at take-off, which caused the actual altitude flown to be lower than that indicated in the control gondola. Around 12:30 am on 4 April, Akron was caught by an updraft, followed almost immediately by a downdraft. Commander McCord—the captain—ordered full speed ahead, ballast dropped. The executive officerLCDR Herbert V. Wiley—handled the ballast and emptied the bow emergency ballast. Coupled with the elevator man holding nose up, this caused the nose to rise and the tail to rotate down. Akron's descent was only temporarily halted, whereupon downdrafts forced the airship down farther. Wiley activated the 18 "howlers" of the ship's telephone system, a signal to landing stations. At this point, Akron was nose up, between 12 and 25°.

The Engineering Officer called out "800 feet" (240 m), which was followed by a "gust" of intense violence. The steersman reported no response to his wheel as 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.

ZRS4 rapidly broke up and sank in the stormy Atlantic. Akron had been lost owing to operator error, having been flown to sea into an intense storm front. The crew of the nearby German motorship Phoebus saw lights descending toward the ocean at about 12:23 and altered course to starboard to investigate, believing they were witnessing a plane crash. At 12:55, an unconscious Commander Wiley was pulled from the water while the 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. Erwin. Despite artificial respiration, Copeland never regained consciousness and died aboard Phoebus.

Although the German sailors spotted four or five other men in the water, 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. The crew of Phoebus combed the ocean in boats for over five hours in a fruitless search for more survivors. The Navy blimp J-3—sent out to join the search—also crashed, with the loss of two men.[15]

The United States Coast Guard cutter Tucker—the first American vessel on the scene—arrived at 6:00, taking Akron's survivors and the body of Copeland aboard. Among the other ships combing the area for survivors were the heavy cruiser Portland, the destroyer Cole, the Coast Guard cutter Mojave, and the Coast Guard destroyers McDougal and Hunt, as well as two Coast Guard aircraft. The F/V Grace F out of Gloucester MA also assisted in the search, employing her seining gear in an effort to recover bodies.[16] Most 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. The accident left 73 dead, and only three survivors. Wiley, standing next to the two other survivors, gave a brief account on 6 April.[17]

Aftermath of the loss of USS AkronEdit

Akron's loss spelled the beginning of the end for the rigid airship in the US Navy, especially since one of its leading proponents, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, was killed with 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."

The USS Macon and other airships received life jackets to avert a repetition of this tragedy.

The songwriter Bob Miller wrote and recorded a song — "The Crash of the Akron" — within one day of the disaster.[18]

See alsoEdit


  1. "Commander Describes Akron Tragedy While Navy Search Goes On 1933/04/06 (1933)". Universal Newsreel. 1933. Retrieved 22 February 2012. 
  2. "10 Worst Airship Disasters in History". Retrieved 2013-03-03. 
  3. Akron-Summit County Public Library, Summit Memory. "Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation, Facts About the World's Largest Airship Factory & Dock". Retrieved 2008-11-15. 
  4. "A Nine Acre Nest For Dirigibles" Popular Science Monthly, September 1929
  5. Akron-Summit County Public Library, Summit Memory. "Dr. Karl Arnstein photo and biography". Retrieved 2008-11-15. 
  6. Summit Memory. U.S.S. Akron – Fuel. Retrieved 2008-07-22
  7. Hook 1976. p. 47
  8. Summit Memory. U.S.S. Akron – Propeller. Retrieved 2008-07-22
  9. "Radio Feeler For Akron, Gives Radio Report To Aid Ships Landing", December 1931, Popular Science
  10. "Sudden Gale Akron at Lakehurst NJ 1932/02/22 (1932)". Universal Newspaper Newsreel. Retrieved 2009-02-20.  (1 minute 5 seconds video)
  11. "Walking Beam Docks Giant Air Ship", April 1932, Popular Science drawings of future high wind docking "walking beam"
  13. "Sport: Cruise of the Curlew". Time. 18 July 1932.,9171,753394,00.html. Retrieved 27 May 2010. 
  15. "David E. Cummins, Lieutenant Commander, United States Navy". Arlington National Cemetery. Retrieved 2009-02-20. "Lieutenant Cummins and Bettio were drowned in the wreckage of the non-rigid airship J-3" 
  16. Gloucester Times. April 1933
  17. "Commander Describes Akron Tragedy While Navy Search Goes On 1933/04/06 (1933)". Universal Newspaper Newsreel. Retrieved 2009-02-20.  (1 minute 33 seconds partial clip: Wiley interview interspersed with shots of Akron)
  18. "Newsweek: "Come All You True People, a Story to Hear"". Retrieved 2008-01-25. 
  • Hook, Thom. Sky Ship; the Akron Era. Annapolis, Md: Airshow Publishers, 1976.
  • 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 5 May 2005.

External linksEdit

This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.

Coordinates: 39°27′7.8″N 73°42′27.00″W / 39.452167°N 73.7075°W / 39.452167; -73.7075

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