USS Akron ZRS-4
An operational history of USS Akron.
Construction and Test Flights of USS Akron
Construction of USS Akron began in November, 1929 at the newly completed Goodyear-Zeppelin Airdock in Akron, Ohio.
The design of USS Akron, and its sister ship USS Macon, were based on plans prepared by Goodyear-Zeppelin engineer Karl Arnstein which differed radically from the design of previous rigid airships.
The ship was christened by First Lady Lou Hoover, the wife of United States President Herbert Hoover, on August 8, 1931, and made its first flight on September 23, 1931, under the command of Charles Rosendahl.
Rosendahl conducted a series of test flights over the next month, and then flew the new ship to the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey, where it was commissioned as a vessel in the United States Navy.
USS Akron’s Operational Career
USS Akron conducted its first naval exercise in January, 1932. While the ship’s range was impressive (it was able to stay aloft for several days and fly thousands of miles before returning to base), it performed poorly as a scouting aircraft, largely because it was not yet equipped with its squadron of fixed-wing aircraft, which would not become operational until the summer of 1932.
On February 22, 1932, Akron suffered an embarrassing ground handling accident at Lakehurst, in front of a group of congressman waiting to board the ship for a demonstration flight, when the ship broke away from its handlers and smashed its lower fin into the ground.
After two months of repairs, Akron spent most of the remainder of 1932 conducting trial flights, including operations with its fixed-wing squadron, and making goodwill and demonstration flights to show the airship to the American public and to congressional and other government VIPs.
In one of its most impressive demonstration flights, in May and June of 1932, Akron made a cross-country flight from its base at Lakehurst to a new airship facility being constructed at Sunnyvale, California.
It was during this cross-country flight, at a stop in Camp Kearny near San Diego, that Akron was involved in a tragic and very public accident on May 11, 1932. Three sailors on the ground crew were carried aloft by the ship’s mooring lines when the ship climbed unexpectedly, and two of the men fell to their deaths in an event that was captured on film and shown in newsreels throughout America.
Akron participated in a very disappointing scouting exercise with the fleet off the west coast on June 1-4, 1932. Akron was able to locate the ships it was sent to discover, but still without its heavier-than-air squadron, Akron was required to stay close to the ships it was scouting, and seaplanes launched from those ships were easily able to score mock “kills” against the large, vulnerable airship.
Akron’s squadron of F9C-2 Curtiss Sparrowhawk biplanes became operational in July, 1932, and the ship spent the remaining months of 1932 in training operations with its airplanes.
During the first months of 1933, Akron continued to refine operations with its fixed-winged aircraft, and made several long distance flights including trips to Cuba and the Panama Canal Zone. Akron also made several shorter publicity-oriented flights, including an appearance at the inauguration of President Franklin Roosevelt on March 4, 1933.
USS Akron departed NAS Lakehurst on the evening of April 3, 1933 on a mission to calibrate radio direction finding equipment along the northeastern coast of the United States. The ship was under the command of Frank C. McCord, and among the 76 persons on board were VIPs including Rear Admiral William Moffett, Chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, and Cmdr. Frederick T. Berry, commanding officer of NAS Lakehurst.
Shortly after midnight, in the early minutes of April 4, the ship was hit by a series of strong updrafts and downdrafts off the New Jersey coast. Akron rose and fell in the strong winds, and while attempting to climb, the ship’s tail struck the water. With its control surfaces destroyed, Akron was lost, and the ship crashed into the ocean.
The cause of the crash is generally attributed to poor decisions on the part of the ship’s commander. It is likely that McCord relied on incorrect altitude readings given by the ship’s altimeter, which had been rendered inaccurate by the low pressure in the storm. Captain McCord may have thought his ship was higher than it really was, but as an aviator and aircraft commander, McCord should have been thoroughly familiar with the operation of a barometric altimeter and should have taken this into account.
In addition, while it is possible that Akron was driven into the sea by a strong downdraft, it is equally possibly, and even likely, that McCord simply flew his ship’s tail into the water, having not taken into account the ship’s great length while attempting to climb out of a downdraft. With the nose of the ship raised sharply to climb, Akron’s tail, almost 800-feet farther back, may have simply been pivoted into the ocean as the result of poor handling.
Executive Officer Herbert V. Wiley describes crash of the Akron
The crash of the Akron caused an appalling loss of life, and of the 76 persons on the ship only three survived; two sailors and the ship’s executive officer, Herbert Wiley. The rest of the ship’s passengers and crew died in the ocean from exposure to the frigid water, compounded by the lack of any lifejackets to keep survivors afloat.
ZRS-4 USS Akron statistics:
- Length: 785 feet
- Gas capacity: 6,850,000 cubic feet
- Useful lift: 152,644 lbs
- Maximum speed: 69 knots
- Crew: 60 officers and men
- First flight: September 25, 1931
- Final flight: April 3-4, 1933
- Total flight hours: 1,700
- Total flights: 74