When the German Zeppelin Hindenburg met its fiery demise at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937, it signaled the end of an era for rigid airships as a means of travel or transportation. For the United States Navy, which had begun using airships in the 1920s, that era came to an abrupt end two years earlier, with the crash of U.S.S. Macon.
Macon, along with its sister ship, U.S.S. Akron, represented the Navy's best last hope for using lighter-than-air dirigibles as a regular part of its operations. Along with the loss of Akron, which crashed after flying into a thunderstorm off the New Jersey coast on April 4, 1933, and the crash of U.S.S. Shenandoah in 1925, the crash of Macon represented the final incident in a series of weather-related disasters that brought an end to the use of rigid airships by the Navy.
Macon made its first flight on April 21, 1934, and participated in several successful missions and training maneuvers during its short period of service. Among the more notable missions was one in which Lieutenant Commander Herbert Wiley used Macon to search for the Navy cruiser U.S.S. Houston, which was carrying President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a trip to Hawaii. Unbeknownst to Houston's crew—or the president—Wiley ordered one of the five Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk biplanes carried by Macon to deliver a package to Houston that included that morning's newspapers. It was a move that caught the crew of Houston off-guard, but caught Roosevelt's attention, who commended Macon's crew via telegraph.
For all its successes and technical achievements, Macon could not compete with the forces of nature, especially after a fatal flaw made by Navy officials that sealed its fate. During a cross-country flight, Macon sustained minor damage to several girders supporting its fins. Repairs were made to the girders supporting all but the top fin, which was to be completed during the next scheduled overhaul.
On February 12, 1935, after completing a training mission with several ships of the American fleet off the Santa Barbara Islands in California, Macon began a journey back to its home base at the Naval Air Station in Sunnyvale, California, where light rain had been reported throughout the afternoon. Just after 5:00 p.m., about 10 miles south of Point Sur, Macon encountered “squally” air. In an attempt to avoid developing storm clouds, Wiley ordered Macon to maneuver around the clouds, but it was too late. A sudden gust of wind struck Macon, jarring loose the airship's top fin and causing it to lose control.
Caption: United States Weather Bureau Daily Weather Map for 8:00 a.m. EST, February 12, 1935. About 12 hours later, U.S.S. Macon would go down in the Pacific off Point Sur, California, after encountering a sudden, strong gust of wind from an approaching thunderstorm.
“There was no storm and no explosion,” Lieutenant Commander Scott Peck, one of Macon's crew, told reporters. “It was a gust of wind from the Santa Lucia Mountains, I guess. We had difficulty manipulating the ship. The upper fin was carried away. The helium gas bags were ripped away, too. I guess it was unavoidable. Otherwise the weather was calm.”
Lieutenant H. N. Coulter described what happened next: “The ship began to go down just before dark,” he said. “A light rain was falling but the visibility was good.”
Efforts to control the ship were futile. As Macon slowly began to sink toward the Pacific from a height of nearly 5,000 feet, it sent out a single word over a Naval radio frequency: “Falling.”
About 20 minutes later, Lieutenant Commander Wiley gave the order to abandon ship. Thanks to the addition of inflatable life vests and rafts—along with the relatively warm water temperature—all but two of Macon's 83-member crew survived the crash. This was a stark contrast to the disaster that claimed its sister airship Akron just two years earlier, which killed 73 of the 76 aboard. One of the survivors of the Akron crash was Lieutenant Commander Wiley.
In the aftermath of the Macon crash, the Navy abandoned its use of rigid airships, but continued to employ non-rigid airships for decades, including the MZ-3A blimp commissioned in 2006.
Contributing Editor Sean Potter is a New York-based Certified Consulting Meteorologist (CCM), Certified Broadcast Meteorologist (CBM), and science writer with an interest in weather history.