April 4, 1933:
Crash of USS Akron
The crash of the dirigible USS Macon, on February 12, 1935, marked the end of an era for the use of rigid airships by the United States Navy. Although it was the third loss of a naval airship in a decade, it was far from the deadliest. That distinction belonged to Macon's sister ship, USS Akron, whose loss of 73 crewmembers marked the deadliest air disaster to date.
Like its sister ship, Akron was a marvel of technological achievement. At 785 feet long and 152 feet tall, it sailed through the sky at speeds of 60-80 mph, commanding the attention of onlookers wherever it went. Yet, for all of its mechanical marvels, Akron could not compete with one of the most basic, yet powerful, forces on Earth: the weather.
Shortly after leaving the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey (the site of the Hindenburg disaster four years later), on the evening of April 3, 1933, for a scheduled flight to work with radio detection finding stations in New England, Akron began to experience adverse weather. Lieutenant Commander Herbert Wiley, one of only three survivors of the Akron crash (and who would later go on to command Macon at the time of its crash), described the start of the flight as “routine,” but noted that, about an hour into the flight, just south of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, lightning flashed across the sky ahead of the ship, resulting in a course change. “Shortly thereafter,” he said, “we received a report by radio that there was a thunderstorm at Washington, D.C.”
Caption: United States Weather Bureau Daily Weather Map for 8:00 a.m. EST, April 4, 1933. Several hours earlier, USS Akron would go down in the Atlantic, off the coast of New Jersey, in the midst of a violent thunderstorm.
Wiley described how the ship continued to the northeast and east, ahead of the storm, with lightning observed to the south. “After we had passed the coastline, the lightning extended in all directions,” he said. After cruising over the ocean for about an hour, the captain changed course again, bringing the ship back over land.
“The ship was in good condition, and everything was routine,” Wiley said, “except that we could not get very good weather reports on account of the heavy static.”
The ship began to descend rapidly in the turbulent air near the storm's center. It regained altitude and leveled off after 3,000 pounds of ballast were dropped and the engines advanced to full speed.
“Our first indication of being near the center of the storm was when the ship shuttered back to the water, which was not seen in the fog until we were about 300 feet from the water,” Wiley recalled in front of newsreel cameras. “The order was given to stand by for a crash. The ship hit the water within 30 seconds after the order and most of us, I believe, were catapulted into the water.”
Wiley, along with three other crewmembers (one of whom did not survive), were rescued by the German ship Phoebus. The other crewmembers aboard Akron perished in the cold waters of the Atlantic, most due to either drowning or hypothermia. Among those lost was Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, chief of the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics.
The Akron disaster shed a harsh light on the operations of both the Navy and the United States Weather Bureau, which supplied the Navy with data. As weather historian Kristine Harper describes in her book Weather by the Numbers: The Genesis of Modern Meteorology, “After the Akron disaster, the Navy wanted action, and it was backed by the congressional investigating committee [formed to investigate the crash].” The crash also prompted President Franklin Roosevelt to establish a Science Advisory Board to offer recommendations on how to increase government efficiency. The board's recommendations led to sweeping changes in the Weather Bureau, which resulted in increased data collection, better forecasting methods, and expanded educational opportunities for professional meteorologists.
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.