USS Macon (ZRS-5)

The 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", designed to carry biplane parasite aircraft, five single-seat Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk for scouting or two-seat Fleet N2Y-1 for training. In service for less than two years, in 1935 the 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 the USS Macon Airship Remains on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

USS Macon (ZRS-5)
USS Macon over New York City in 1933
United States
Name: USS Macon
Namesake: Macon, Georgia
Builder: Goodyear-Zeppelin Company, Springfield Township, Ohio
Laid down: May 1931
Launched: 11 March 1933
Sponsored by: Jeanette Whitton Moffett
Commissioned: 23 June 1933
Struck: 26 February 1935
Identification: Hull number: ZRS-5
Fate: Crashed off the coast of California, 12 February 1935
General characteristics (as built)
Class and type: Akron-class airship
Displacement: 7,401,260 cu ft (209,580.3 m3)
Length: 785 ft (239.3 m)
Beam: 133 ft (40.5 m) (hull diameter)
Draft: 146 ft 5 in (44.6 m) (height)
Installed power: 560hp per engine
  • Eight Maybach VL II 12-cyl water-cooled fuel injected 33.251 liter (2,029.1 cubic inches) 60° V-12 engines producing 560 horsepower at 1,600 r.p.m., each.
  • Three-bladed variable-pitch, rotable metal propellers
  • 55 knots (102 km/h; 63 mph) (cruising)
  • 75 knots (139 km/h; 86 mph) (maximum)
Range: 5,940 nmi (11,000 km; 6,840 mi) at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)
Complement: 60
Armament: 8× .30-cal machine guns
Aircraft carried: 5 Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk
Aviation facilities: 1 aircraft launch trapeze

Less than 20 ft (6.1 m) shorter than Hindenburg, both the Macon and "sister ship" the USS Akron (ZRS-4) were among the largest flying objects in the world in terms of length and volume. Although both of the hydrogen-filled, Zeppelin-built Hindenburg and the LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II were longer, the two American-built sister naval airships still hold the world record for helium-filled rigid airships.[1]


The USS Macon was built at the Goodyear Airdock in Springfield Township, Ohio by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation.[2] 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 the U.S. Navy airships Akron and Macon.[3]

The Macon had a structured duraluminum hull with three interior keels.[4] 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 VL II 12-cylinder, 560 hp (418 kW) gasoline-powered engines that drove outside propellers.[5] The propellers could be rotated down or backwards, providing an early form of thrust vectoring to control the ship during takeoff and landings. The rows of slots in the hull above each engine were part of a system to condense out the water vapor from the engine exhaust gases for use as buoyancy compensation ballast to compensate for the loss of weight as fuel was consumed.

Service history

Christening and commissioning

The 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.[6] The airship was named after the city of Macon, Georgia, which was the largest city in the Congressional district of Carl Vinson, then the chairman of the House of Representative's Committee on Naval Affairs.[5]

The airship first flew on 21 April, aloft over northern Ohio for nearly 13 hours with 105 aboard,[7] just over a fortnight after the loss of the Akron in which Admiral Moffett and 72 others were killed. Macon was commissioned into the U.S. Navy on 23 June 1933, with Commander Alger H. Dresel in command.


On 24 June 1933, the Macon left Goodyear's field for Naval Air Station (NAS) Lakehurst, N.J., where the new airship was based for the summer while undergoing a series of training flights.[8]

The Macon had a far more productive career than the Akron, which crashed on 4 April 1933. The commanders of the Macon developed the doctrine and techniques of using her on-board aircraft for scouting while the airship remained out of sight of the opposing forces during exercises.[9] The 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.[10] It became standard practice to remove the landing gear of the Sparrowhawks while aboard the airship and then replace it with a fuel tank, thus giving the aircraft 30 percent more range.[11]

The Macon first operated 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.[12]

The airship left the East Coast on 12 October 1933, on a transcontinental flight to her new permanent homebase at NAS Sunnyvale (now Moffett Federal Airfield) near San Francisco in Santa Clara County, California.[13]


In 1934, two two-seat Waco UBF XJW-1 biplanes equipped with skyhooks were delivered to the USS Macon.

In June 1934, Lieutenant Commander Herbert V. Wiley took command of the airship, and shortly afterwards he surprised President Franklin D. Roosevelt (and the Navy) when the 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: but the Commander of the Bureau of Aviation, Admiral Ernest J. King[14] was not. Wiley, one of only three survivors of the crash of the Akron, was soon promoted to commander, served as the captain of the battleship West Virginia in the final two years of World War II, and then retired from the Navy in 1947 as a rear admiral.


Leading up to the crash

In April 1934,[15] during a crossing of the continent, the 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' pressure would equal or exceed ambient atmospheric pressure) of 3,000 ft (910 m) was exceeded, a large amount of helium was vented to prevent the cells from leaking and eventually rupturing due to the increasing positive pressure differential at increasing altitude. To compensate for the loss of lift from venting, 9,000 lb (4,100 kg) of ballast and 7,000 lb (3,200 kg) of fuel had to be dumped. The Macon was thereafter 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 also 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. The 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 repairs 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, the 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. The commander, acting rapidly and on fragmentary information, ordered an immediate and massive discharge of ballast. Control was lost and, tail heavy and with engines running full speed ahead, the 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).[16] The last SOS call from Commander Wiley stated "Will abandon ship as soon as we land on the water somewhere 20 miles off of Pt. Sur, probably 10 miles at sea."[17] It took 20 minutes to descend and, settling gently into the sea, the Macon sank off Monterey Bay. Only two crew members were lost thanks to the warm conditions and the introduction of life jackets and inflatable rafts after the Akron tragedy.[18][19][20] 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.[21] Sixty-four survivors were picked up by the cruiser Richmond, the Concord took 11 aboard and the Cincinnati saved six.[17]

Eyewitness Dorsey A. Pulliam, serving aboard the U.S.S. Colorado, wrote about the crash in a letter dated 13 February 1935:

Tuesday it was so rough, and with the rain, we had an awful time getting along. We had gunnery drill Tuesday and more fleet maneuvers. The Macon came out about 1 pm Tues. to maneuver with the fleet and to enter Frisco with us this morning. The Macon came out in the storm not knowing that she would never get back to land. The Macon circled high above the fleet all the afternoon, and about 6 o'clock, radio messages began coming in that the Macon had had casualties and would have to land. The C.C. of the fleet radioed all ships in company with us to go at full speed for the wreckage. The crew abandoned it as soon as it hit the water, and all were saved except two. There were 83 men in the crew. The wreckage sank within a few minutes after it hit the water. We lingered around the spot where it sank looking for any parts which might be floating around. The search lights on all ships were combing the waters all through the night. The crew to the Macon were floating around in rubber floats and almost froze to death. I had to read about the Akron disaster, but this one I witnessed. The commander Clay had just been transferred to the Macon from this ship. This may contradict with the papers, but this is straight. There was an explosion in the tail and they could not control it.

In another letter, dated 16 February 1935, he wrote:

I guess that you all read all about the wreck of the Macon. Well, the papers out here were full. I guess the Navy sunk about 3 million dollars there in about 20 minutes. The people will have to pay that back in taxes. It sure was a pity that the Macon had to sink. It sure was pretty sailing around when the sun was shining on it. There sure was plenty excitement on board here that night. Everybody was trying to see what had happened. When the thing hit the water, the gas caught on fire and burned almost all night on the surface of the water after the bulk of the wreckage had sank. The Macon was supposed to go to Hawaii in May. They had started fixing up a field for it.

The Macon, after 50 flights since it was 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 exploration

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.[22] The exploration included sonar, video, and still camera data, as well as some recovery of parts.

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 expedition

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.[23][24] 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.[25]


U.S.S. Macon Airship Remains
Sky hook visible on the remains of one of the Macon's F9C-2 biplanes (2006)
LocationMonterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Big Sur, California
Coordinates36°17′27″N 121°59′52″W
Area5654.7 square meters[26]
NRHP reference #09001274[27]
Added to NRHP29 January 2010[28]

The wreckage of the Macon was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on 29 January 2010.[28] The location of 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).[26][29][30]

The U.S. National Park Service states:[31]

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.

The site was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on 29 January 2010.[28] The listing was announced as the featured listing in the National Park Service's weekly list of 12 February 2010.[32]

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.

The Macon is featured toward the end of the 1934 Warner Bros. film Here Comes the Navy starring James Cagney, Pat O'Brien and Gloria Stuart. Cagney's character is assigned to the Macon after serving on the USS Arizona, which is featured heavily in the film.

The crash of the Macon is depicted at the beginning of the 1937 film The Go Getter, featuring George Brent as her helmsman.

See also


  1. Smith, Richard K (1965). The Airships Akron & Macon: Flying Aircraft Carriers of the United States Navy. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute. p. 210. ISBN 0-87021-065-3.
  2. Akron-Summit County Public Library, Summit Memory. "Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation, Facts About the World's Largest Airship Factory & Dock". Retrieved 15 November 2008.
  3. Akron-Summit County Public Library, Summit Memory. "Dr. Karl Arnstein photo and biography". Retrieved 15 November 2008.
  4. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Submerged Maritime Heritage Resource: USS Macon. "The Marvel of the USS Macon". Retrieved 15 November 2008.
  5. "U.S.S. Macon". Moffett Field Museum. Retrieved 13 November 2008.
  6. "USS Macon christening photograph". Akron-Summit County Public Library. Retrieved 15 November 2008.
  7. Associated Press, "Macon Takes To Air On Her Initial Flight", The San Bernardino Daily Sun, San Bernardino, California, Saturday 22 April 1933, Volume 39, pages 1, 2.
  8. "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
  9. Robinson 1973, p. 242.
  10. Robinson 1973, p. 243.
  11. Robinson 1973, p. 244.
  12. Francisco Carvallo (27 August 2011). "USS Macon & Sparrowhawks" via YouTube.
  13. "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
  14. the Chief of Naval Operations during World War II,
  15. "U.S. Navy Airships U.S.S. Akron (ZRS-4) and U.S.S. Macon (ZRS-5)".
  16. Robinson 1973, p. 246.
  17. Raiser, M. A., Associated Press, "Airship Macon Sinks In Pacific After 81 Rescued By Naval Craft", The San Bernardino Daily Sun, San Bernardino, California, Wednesday 13 February 1935, Volume 41, page 1.
  18. Various sources cite the total number of passengers aboard at the time of the incident between 76 and 81 crew and officers.
  19. Eckstein, Megan (19 August 2015). "Exploring the Wreck of USS Macon, The Navy's Last Flying Aircraft Carrier". USNI News. United States Naval Institute. Archived from the original on 5 March 2016. Retrieved 22 May 2016.
  20. Associated Press (13 February 1935). "DIRIGIBLE MACON FORCED DOWN AT SEA; SHIPS RUN TO RESCUE OF HER CREW". Leominster Daily Enterprise. San Francisco. Archived from the original on 23 May 2016. Retrieved 23 May 2016.
  21. "Herbert V. Wiley, Veteran of the USS West Virginia (BB-48)".
  22. "MBARI's First Decade: A Retrospective" (PDF). Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. c. 1997. Archived from the original (PDF) on 30 April 2006. Retrieved 4 October 2006. (page 11)
  23. "Expedition To Probe Sunken Airship". KSBW-TV. 13 September 2006. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 4 October 2006.
  24. "Studying a Navy Relic, Undisturbed for Nearly 60 Years". The New York Times. 3 October 2006.
  25. "USS Macon Exploration Findings Unveiled". KSBW-TV. 27 September 2006. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 4 October 2006. (includes slideshow)
  26. Bruce G. Terrell (10 February 2009). "National Register of Historic Places Registration: USS Macon" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 18 May 2010. (39 pages, with 20 historic and wreckage exploration photos)
  27. "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 9 July 2010.
  28. "Announcements and actions on properties for the National Register of Historic Places for February 12, 2010". Weekly Listings. National Park Service. 12 February 2010. Retrieved 18 May 2010.
  29. "2006 USS Macon Expedition". Retrieved 7 November 2012.
  30. "NOAA News Online (Story 2708)". 27 September 2006. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
  31. "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

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

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