The USS Macon
was the last of the US naval airships
. Unlike the blimp
s of today, which are basically giant gas bags, the Macon
had a steel frame and was held aloft by 12 separate helium
-filled chambers suspended within the interior of the ship. The Macon
was a massive 785 feet long (about as long as a heavy cruiser
) and carried a crew of 100 officers and enlisted men. Eight 560 hp engines propelled the vessel to a top speed of 87 mph, and the ship had an operational ceiling of approximately 26,000 feet. Like her sister ship, the Akron
, the Macon
was a flying aircraft carrier - five sparrowhawk
fighter planes were stored in her massive belly for defense and scouting purposes. These planes were lowered on trapeze hooks and launched while the airship was in mid-flight.
The Macon was constructed for the Navy in 1931-1932 at a cost of $2.5 million by Goodyear-Zeppelin Co. Attached to the US Pacific Fleet, she made her maiden voyage on April 21, 1933. Based at Moffet Field in Sunnyvale, CA, the Macon made eight successful cruises with the fleet and was embarking on her ninth when she ran into a storm of Point Sur, south of Monterey, on February 11, 1935. Ordinarily this would not have been a problem, but the Navy had ordered the ship to depart before repairs could be made on two previously damaged tail fins.
Indeed it was these two tail fins that shattered in the storm, sending shards of metal through the rear gas cells and causing the mighty airship to sink slowly down and into the sea. Of the 83 crewmen on board, 81 survived. A radioman died when he panicked and jumped from the ship while it was still coming down, and another man died after the ship landed in the sea when he went back inside to try to retrieve his belongings.
The commission set up to determine the cause of the crash absolved the crew and captain of responsibility, correctly blaming the naval command for sending the ship out without completing necessary repairs.