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USS Macon (ZRS-5)
USS Macon over New York City in 1933
Career (United States) US flag 48 stars.svg
Name: Macon
Namesake: Macon, Georgia
Launched: 21 April 1933
Commissioned: 23 June 1933
Struck: 26 February 1935
Fate: Crashed following structural failure on 12 February 1935.
General characteristics
Type: Airship
Tonnage: 108 t (106 long tons)
Length: 239 m (784 ft 1 in)
Beam: 40.5 m (132 ft 10 in) (diameter)
Height: 44.6 m (146 ft 4 in)
Propulsion: 8 × 420 kW (560 hp) internal combustion engines
Speed: 140 km/h (76 kn; 87 mph) (maximum)
Capacity: Useful load: 72 t (71 long tons)
Volume: 184,000 m3 (6,500,000 cu ft)
Complement: 91
Aircraft carried: 5 × F9C Sparrowhawk biplane fighters

USS Macon (ZRS-5) was a rigid airship built and operated by the United States Navy for scouting and served as a "flying aircraft carrier", launching Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk biplane fighters. In service for less than two years, in 1935 Macon was damaged in a storm and lost off California's Big Sur coast, though most of the crew were saved. The wreckage is listed as USS Macon Airship Remains on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Less than 20 ft (6.1 m) shorter than Hindenburg, both the Macon and "sister ship" USS Akron (ZRS-4) were among the largest flying objects in the world in terms of length and volume. Although the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg was longer, the two sisters still hold the world record for helium-filled airships.

Construction and commissioningEdit

USS Macon was built at the Goodyear Airdock in Springfield Township, Ohio by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation.[1] Because this was by far the biggest airship ever to be built in America, 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 Akron and Macon.[2]

The airship was named after the city of Macon, Georgia, which was the largest city in the Congressional district of Representative Carl Vinson, then the chairman of the House of Representative's Committee on Naval Affairs.[3]

Macon was christened on 11 March 1933 by Jeanette Whitton Moffett, wife of Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, Chief of the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics.[4] The airship first flew one month later, shortly after the tragic loss of the Akron. Macon was commissioned on 23 June 1933 with Commander Alger H. Dresel in command.

Macon had a structured duraluminum hull with three interior keels.[5] The airship was kept aloft by 12 helium-filled gas cells made from gelatin-latex fabric. Inside the hull, the ship had eight German-made Maybach, 12-cylinder, 560 hp (418 kW) gasoline-powered engines that drove outside propellers.[3] The propellers could be rotated down or backwards, providing an early form of thrust vectoring, to control the ship during takeoff and landings. Designed to carry five F9C Sparrowhawk biplanes, the Macon first docked an aircraft on 6 July 1933 during trial flights out of Lakehurst, New Jersey. The planes were stored in bays inside the hull and were launched and retrieved using a trapeze.

Early service historyEdit

On 24 June 1933 Macon left Goodyear's field for Naval Air Station (NAS) Lakehurst, NJ where the new airship was based for the summer while undergoing a series of training flights before departing the East Coast on 12 October on a transcontinental flight to the scout ship's permanent homebase at NAS Sunnyvale (now Moffett Federal Airfield) near San Francisco in Santa Clara County, California.[6][7] The Macon had a far more productive career than the earlier crashed Akron. Macon's commanders developed the doctrine and techniques of using the aircraft carried on board to do scouting while the airship remained out of sight of the opposing forces during exercises.[8] Macon participated in several fleet exercises, though the men who framed and conducted the exercises lacked an understanding of the airship's capabilities and weaknesses.[9] It became standard practice to remove the Sparrowhawk's landing gear aboard the airship and replace it with a fuel tank, giving the aircraft 30% more range.[10]

In June, 1934, LCDR Herbert V. Wiley took command of the airship and shortly thereafter surprised President Franklin D. Roosevelt—and the Navy—when Macon searched for—and located—the heavy cruiser Houston, which was then carrying the President back from a trip to Hawaii. Newspapers were dropped to the President on the ship, and the following communications were sent back to the airship: "from Houston: 1519 The President compliments you and your planes on your fine performance and excellent navigation 1210 and 1519 Well Done and thank you for the papers the President 1245."

The commander of the Fleet—Admiral Joseph M. Reeves—was upset about the matter; however, Commander of the Bureau of Aviation—Admiral Ernest J. King[11]—was not. Wiley—one of only three survivors of Akron's crash—was soon promoted to Commander, served as Captain of the battleship West Virginia in the final two years of WWII, and eventually retired from the Navy in 1947 as a Rear Admiral.

Leading up to the crashEdit

USS Macon at Moffett Field

USS Macon over Moffett Field

During a crossing of the continent, Macon was forced to climb to 6,000 ft (1,800 m) to clear mountains in Arizona. As the ship's pressure height—the height at which the gas cells would start to leak and eventually rupture due to pressure difference—was less than 3,000 ft (910 m), a large amount of helium was vented in reaching this altitude. To compensate for the loss of lift, 9,000 lb (4,100 kg) of ballast and 7,000 lb (3,200 kg) of fuel had to be dumped. Macon was being flown 15,000 lb (6,800 kg) "heavy" and was operating at full power not only in order to have sufficient dynamic lift, but to have enough control to fly in the severe turbulence through a mountain pass near Van Horn, Texas. Following a severe drop, a diagonal girder in ring 17.5, which supported the forward fin attachment points, failed. Rapid damage control by Chief Boatswain's Mate Robert Davis repaired the girders before further failures could occur. Macon completed the journey safely but the buckled ring and all four tailfins were judged to be in need of strengthening. The appropriate girders adjacent to the horizontal and lower fins were repaired, but the repair to the girders on either side of the top fin were delayed until the next scheduled overhaul when the adjacent gas cells could be deflated.


On 12 February 1935 the repair process was still incomplete when, returning to Sunnyvale from fleet maneuvers, Macon ran into a storm off Point Sur, California. During the storm, the ship was caught in a wind shear which caused structural failure of the unstrengthened ring (17.5) to which the upper tailfin was attached. The fin failed to the side and was carried away. Pieces of structure punctured the rear gas cells and caused gas leakage. Acting rapidly and on fragmentary information an immediate and massive discharge of ballast was ordered. Control was lost and, tail heavy and with engines running full speed ahead, Macon rose past the pressure height of 2,800 ft (850 m), and kept rising until enough helium was vented to cancel the lift, reaching an altitude of 4,850 ft (1,480 m).[12] It took 20 minutes to descend and, settling gently into the sea, Macon sank off Monterey Bay. Only two of the 76 crew members were lost thanks to the warm conditions and the introduction of life jackets and inflatable rafts after the Akron tragedy. Radioman 1st Class Ernest Edwin Dailey jumped ship while still too high above the ocean surface to survive the fall and Mess Attendant 1st Class Florentino Edquiba drowned while swimming back into the wreckage to try to retrieve personal belongings. An officer was rescued when Commander Wiley swam to his aid, an action for which he was later decorated.[13]

The cause of the loss was operator error following the structural failure and loss of the fin. Had the ship not been driven over pressure height (where the cells were expanded fully and lifting gas released) Macon could have made it back to Moffett Field.[citation needed] Four Sparrowhawks carried aboard were lost with the airship.

Macon, having completed 50 flights since being commissioned, was stricken from the Navy list on 26 February 1935. Subsequent airships for Navy use were of a nonrigid design.

A depiction of the crash by artist Noel Sickles was the first piece of art sent over the wire by the Associated Press.

Wreck site explorationEdit


The pre-1941 pattern U.S. roundel emblem still faintly visible on the sunken wreckage of a Macon airplane.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) succeeded in locating and surveying the debris field of Macon in February 1991, and was able to recover some artifacts.[14] The exploration included sonar, video, and still camera data, as well as some artifact recovery.

In May 2005, MBARI returned to the site as part of a year-long research project to identify archeological resources in the bay. Side-scan sonar was used to survey the site.

2006 expeditionEdit

A more complete return, including exploration with remotely operated vehicles and involving researchers from MBARI, Stanford University, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, took place in September 2006.[15][16] Video clips of the expedition were made available to the public through the OceansLive Web Portal, a service of NOAA.

The 2006 expedition was a success, and revealed a number of new surprises and changes since the last visit, ~15 years previously. High-definition video and more than 10,000 new images were captured, which were assembled into a navigation-grade photomosaic of the wreck.[17]


The wreckage of Macon was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on 29 January 2010.[18] The wreck site remains secret and is within a marine sanctuary, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It is not accessible to divers due to depth (1,500 ft or 460 m).[19][20][21]

According to the U.S. National Park Service:

When the USS Macon was christened on 11 March 1933 the rigid airship was the most sophisticated of the Navy’s lighter-than-air (LTA) fleet. The Macon exhibited the highest expression of naval LTA technology during the ship's short career. At 785 feet in length, the airship’s size captured American fascination during flyovers of U.S. communities as chronicled in numerous advertisements, articles, and newsreels. The dramatic loss of the Macon and sister ship Akron within two years of each other contributed to the cancellation of the Navy’s rigid airship program. The archeological remains of the USS Macon lie off California’s Big Sur coast in NOAA’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The site also contains the remains of four of the airship’s squadron of small Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk scout aircraft which the Macon carried in an internal hangar bay.[22]

The site was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on 29 January 2010.[18] The listing was announced as the featured listing in the National Park Service's weekly list of 12 February 2010.[23]

In popular fictionEdit

The Macon is featured as a setting and key plot element in Max McCoy's novel Indiana Jones and the Philosopher's Stone; Indiana Jones travels aboard the Macon while it makes a transatlantic flight to London.

See alsoEdit


  1. Akron-Summit County Public Library, Summit Memory. "Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation, Facts About the World's Largest Airship Factory & Dock". Retrieved 2008-11-15. 
  2. Akron-Summit County Public Library, Summit Memory. "Dr. Karl Arnstein photo and biography". Retrieved 2008-11-15. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Moffett Field Museum, Moffett Field Historical Society. "U.S.S. Macon". Retrieved 2008-11-13. 
  4. Akron-Summit County Public Library, Summit Memory. "USS Macon christening photograph". Retrieved 2008-11-15. 
  5. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Submerged Maritime Heritage Resource: USS Macon. "The Marvel of the USS Macon". Retrieved 2008-11-15. 
  6. "Macon Comes East; Her Voyage Calm: New Queen of Navy's Air Fleet Docked at Lakehurst After Smooth Flight from Ohio". The New York Times, 25 June 1933, p. 3
  7. "Macon Takes Off for Flight to the West: Dirigible Leaves Lakehurst for Its Permanent Station at Sunnyvale, Calif" The New York Times, 13 October 1933, P. 21
  8. Robinson 1973, p.242.
  9. Robinson 1973, p.243.
  10. Robinson 1973, p.244.
  11. Chief of Naval Operations during World War II.
  12. Robinson 1973, p.246.
  13. Herbert V. Wiley, Captain USN, USS West Virginia, 1944-1945
  14. "MBARI's First Decade: A Retrospective" (PDF). Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. ca. 1997. Retrieved 2006-10-04.  (page 11)
  15. "Expedition To Probe Sunken Airship". KSBW-TV. 13 September 2006. Retrieved 2006-10-04. 
  16. "Studying a Navy Relic, Undisturbed for Nearly 60 Years". The New York Times. 3 October 2006. Retrieved 2011-12-06. 
  17. "USS Macon Exploration Findings Unveiled". KSBW-TV. 27 September 2006. Retrieved 2006-10-04.  (includes slideshow)
  18. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named newlistings2010feb12
  19. Bruce G. Terrell (10 February 2009). "National Register of Historic Places Registration: USS Macon" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 2010-05-18.  (39 pages, with 20 historic and wreckage exploration photos)
  20. "2006 USS Macon Expedition". Retrieved 2012-11-07. 
  21. "NOAA News Online (Story 2708)". 27 September 2006. Retrieved 2012-11-07. 
  22. "Weekly Highlight 02/12/2010 USS Macon Airship Remains, Monterey County, California". 


  • 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
  • Robinson, Douglas H., Giants in the Sky. Henley-on-Thames: Foulis, 1973. ISBN 0 85429 145 8
  • Miller, Henry M., "Human Error: Road to Disaster", Canyon Books, 1975, ISBN 0-89014-128-2
  • Smith, Richard K. The Airships Akron & Macon (Flying Aircraft Carriers of the United States Navy), United States Naval Institute: Annapolis, Maryland, 1965

External linksEdit

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

Coordinates: 36°17′27″N 121°59′52″W / 36.29083°N 121.99778°W / 36.29083; -121.99778

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