Ships That Were Lighter Than Air

By Norman Polmar

The Navy’s Rigid Airships

Earlier, airships had sparked military interest in several nations, especially Germany, but during the interwar years no country was as interested in them as the United States. In the 1930s, the U.S. Navy commissioned the largest aircraft ever constructed in America—the airships Akron (ZRS-4) and Macon (ZRS-5). 1 Also known as zeppelins, rigid airships such as the Hindenburg , Akron , and Macon featured a duralumin framework with the lifting gas carried in separate “cells” inside the cloth-covered hull. As early as 1916 the Navy had designed its first rigid airship. Designated ZR-1 and later named the Shenandoah , the craft first flew in 1923 but was destroyed in a 1925 storm. Her design was not considered a success. 2

The Navy’s second attempt, ZR-2, was constructed for the service in England as R.38 . But before she was commissioned, the airship broke up during trials with heavy loss of life, including 16 U.S. Navy personnel. The subsequent ZR-3, later named the Los Angeles , was the most successful U.S. airship. She was built in Germany as LZ.126 by the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin Company, which had constructed rigid airships for that country’s army and navy during World War I. The craft was obtained by the Navy in compensation for two zeppelins the United States should have received as war reparations but which had been destroyed in 1919 by their German crews. As the Navy’s ZR-3, she was in service from 1924 to 1932, and again from 1934 to 1937. Among her more interesting operations were experiments with hook-on aircraft.

In 1926 the Navy initiated the design of “flying aircraft carriers”—rigid airships that could serve as scouts for the battle fleet. The Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation of Akron, Ohio, won the competition to construct the two large airships that would become the Akron and Macon . The firm was a joint subsidiary of both the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, which had extensive experience in building balloons and non-rigid airships (blimps), and Luftschiffbau Zeppelin.

The massive U.S. Navy scout airships would use helium gas for lift. Most previous airships, American and foreign, had used highly flammable hydrogen. Although expensive to “mine,” helium was nonflammable and found only in the United States. The Los Angeles had been built with hydrogen as the lifting gas; on arrival in the United States in October 1924 the gas was replaced with helium. While that certainly increased safety, it significantly reduced her payload and range because helium has less lift per cubic unit than hydrogen.

In the new scout airships, beyond general safety considerations, using helium enabled engines to be placed within the “envelope,” or hull, where they could be more easily serviced and fueled. Each zeppelin’s eight 560-horsepower, German-built Maybach engines would use shafts and gearing to drive external propellers.

The airships’ most notable characteristics were their internal hangar and trapeze that enabled them to recover, store, and launch fixed-wing aircraft. The trapeze would be lowered through a T-shaped opening in the bottom of the hull, where a plane would hook on and then be raised into the airship. An overhead monorail system allowed planes to be moved about the 75-foot-long, 60-foot-wide, 16-foot-high hangar and stowed. Thus configured, the airships could each carry four Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk aircraft. 3 These were fighters, ostensibly to protect the zeppelins from enemy fighters. However, they were also considered a means of extending the ships’ scouting range.

The Ill-Fated Akron

The first of the innovative airships, ZRS-4, was commissioned on 27 October 1931 and named the Akron . At 785 feet long with a hull diameter of 132 feet, 10 inches, she was a giant whose career was tragically short. Based at NAS Lakehurst, the Akron made flights around the eastern United States and over the Atlantic during the remainder of 1931 and the early part of 1932. Included was an exercise scouting for the Fleet. She was damaged in a ground-handling accident at Lakehurst in late February 1932, demonstrating the frequent problems encountered when on the ground. Repaired, two months later she began tests of her ability to handle airplanes.

During May and June 1932, the Akron operated from the West Coast, again participating in Fleet exercises. More difficulties in ground handling ensued, including an accident that claimed the lives of two Sailors.

Back on the East Coast, the airship flew south in January and again in March 1933, visiting Florida, Cuba, and Panama, scouting potential sites for airship bases. Then, on 3 April 1933, the Akron departed Lakehurst on her 73rd flight, to New England. Just after midnight on 4 April she crashed tailfirst into the ocean east of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Of the 76 men on board, only three survived. Among those lost was Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, the first chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) and the chief proponent of the service’s lighter-than-air program. Moreover, during the search for survivors the Navy blimp J-3 also crashed at sea, with two of her crew being lost.

The Remaining Sister

The same month the Akron went down, her sister ship, the Macon , made her maiden flight. They were virtual twins, with the Macon having refinements that made her 8,000 pounds lighter. After test flights she was formally commissioned on 23 June 1933, with Lakehurst as her home base. Training and development flights continued until October, when she flew via Macon, Georgia, her namesake, to Texas and then on to Moffett Field, California, just south of San Francisco. A new airship base had been built at the field, named for the late BuAer chief.

The Macon spent the remainder of 1933 and early 1934 flying trials with her Sparrowhawks and participating in Fleet exercises off the Pacific coast. Her performance was noteworthy, but so was her vulnerability. For example, on 10 April the airship was jumped by a pair of “enemy” dive-bombers. In an effort to evade them by diving into the overcast, she flew out beneath the cloud ceiling and encountered a division of enemy cruisers, which immediately opened antiaircraft fire on her. She evaded those antagonists, but an hour later a squadron of dive-bombers again brought her under attack. The umpires ruled the airship “shot down” and instructed her to continue the exercise as the hypothetical ZRS-6. But in that guise the Macon lasted only 90 minutes before she was again destroyed. Immediately reincarnated as the fictional ZRS-7, she survived for another day when she was released from the exercise.

After returning to Moffett Field, the Macon departed on 20 April for the East Coast, specifically Opa-locka, Florida, a dismal, primitive airfield in a swampy waste outside Miami where the Navy had erected an airship mooring mast. Although she suffered weather damage on the transit, she was repaired at Opa-locka in time to participate in Fleet Problem XV in the Caribbean during May. Again the giant airship was ruled “shot down” by enemy fighters during the exercise, after which she returned to Moffett Field.

The Macon made a notable flight over the Pacific in mid-July to rendezvous with the heavy cruiser Houston (CA-30), which was carrying President Franklin D. Roosevelt from Panama to Hawaii. During the operation, the airship operated her Sparrowhawk fighters without their fixed landing gear, thus improving their performance when embarked in the airship. For the remainder of the year and into 1935 the Macon carried out exercises, demonstrating her long-range scouting capabilities.

Then, late on the evening of 12 February 1935, disaster struck when the airship was returning to Moffett Field from an overwater operation, her 54th flight. The Macon encountered a storm off Point Sur, California, and a violent gust of wind tore off her upper fin, causing her to go down at sea. All but two of her crew survived.

Rigid Airships’ Last Gasp

Thus ended the Navy’s problem-plagued rigid-airship program. Still, as late as the fall of 1939 the service’s General Board undertook a review of the airship policy, and on 23 July 1940, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox approved the board’s recommendations:

To build and maintain rigid airships as necessary to explore and develop their usefulness for naval purposes; and to cooperate with other agencies in developing commercial airships.

To build and maintain nonrigid airships for coastal patrol and other naval uses.

In January 1942, Admiral Ernest J. King, the Commander-in-Chief U.S. Fleet, sought to revive the program, and further studies were undertaken. But it was determined that another year of design work was needed, and fabricating an airship would take at least another year. Moreover, Goodyear had the only airship construction hangar in the United States and the firm was fully engaged in blimp production, as was most of its technical staff. The firm was also producing vital subassemblies for high-priority naval aircraft.

By the late 1930s it had become obvious to many naval officers and planners that long-range scouting airplanes, such as the PBY Catalina and larger, four-engine flying boats, could more effectively perform Fleet scouting functions. While attractive—some would even say enchanting—the rigid airships personified by the graceful Akron and Macon were not effective naval platforms and not survivable, even in peacetime.

In probably its most impressive obituary, historian R. K. Smith wrote: “The rigid airship’s military career was short. It was controversial, ever dramatic, awesome in technological achievements, and charged with portent. It nevertheless ended within the life-span of a generation, the first twentieth-century weapons system to pass into oblivion.” 4

 



1. A useful overall discussion of U.S. Navy airships is Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, United States Navy Aircraft since 1911 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1968), pp. 502–504, 522–525. The definitive work on the Akron and Macon is Richard K. Smith, The Airships Akron & Macon : Flying Aircraft Carriers of the United States Navy (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1965).

2. In the U.S. Navy’s 1922–62 designation scheme “Z” indicated lighter-than-air and the “R” rigid. The Akron and Macon were designated ZRS, adding the suffix letter “S” for scout.

3. See N. Polmar, “Flying from the Clouds,” Naval History (October 2007), pp. 12–13.

4. Smith, The Airships Akron & Macon, p. xix.


Army-Navy Airship Cooperation

Compared to other major powers and the U.S. Army, the Navy made a small and late start in airship activity when a contract for its first blimp, the DN-1, was signed in 1915. This notably unsuccessful craft did not make its first flight until April 1917. By the end of World War I the Navy had a lighter-than-air arm nearly as good as those of England and France. In 1921 an agreement was worked out between the services whereby the Army Air Service took over responsibility for coastal patrol with non-rigid airships while the Navy concentrated on rigid scouting designs. The Navy was allowed only such non-rigids as were necessary to train the rigid airship crews or conduct experiments. Since the other nations allowed their airship fleets to phase out during the 1920s, this left the U.S. Army supreme in the field with the U.S. Navy in second place. In 1937 the Army transferred its existing airships to the Navy, which then became the world’s exclusive operator of military airships.

Excerpted from United States Naval Aircraft since 1911 , by Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1968), p. 502.


Dangling from a Mooring Line

Handling rigid airships on the ground—entering and leaving a hangar, mooring and unmooring—was difficult, manpower-intensive, and dangerous. Airship control surfaces were vulnerable to damage, while a gust of wind could push even a giant zeppelin up or down with little warning, endangering the scores of men handling mooring lines.

While the Los Angeles (ZR-3) was attempting to land aboard the carrier Saratoga (CV-3) in 1928, one of the many Sailors helping out on the flight deck failed to let go of the control car’s handrail when the airship suddenly rose. After going up about 100 feet, the seaman lost his grip, fell back to the deck, and later died of complications from the accident. 1

Four years later, the sun’s heat contributed to two ground crew fatalities. Around noon on 11 May 1932, the Akron (ZRS-4) had completed a transcontinental voyage and was attempting to moor at California’s Camp Kearny (present-day Marine Corps Air Station Miramar) in fog. Because of expended fuel and ballast, the airship was 40 tons lighter than when she had set out. Adding to the difficulty in controlling the ship was the fact that sunlight, intensified by the fog’s water particle prisms, superheated the ship’s helium, making her even lighter.

With her nose secured to a mooring mast, the Akron ’s tail began rising. Then, as she was venting helium, five tons of ballast was accidentally discharged and the ship became uncontrollable. Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Rosendahl, the ship’s captain, shouted for ground crewmen—recruits from nearby San Diego Naval Training Station—to let go of mooring lines, and the cable to the mast was cut. But as she shot 1,000 feet skyward, the Akron carried aloft three Sailors who had failed to let go of their lines. Two fell to their deaths, and the third was able to secure himself to his line until hauled aboard the airship. 2

Two years later, Hollywood captured elements of the scene in the movie Here Comes the Navy . During the film’s climax, Chief Petty Officer Biff Martin (Pat O’Brien) is hauled skyward while tangled in one of the Macon ’s (ZRS-5) mooring lines. Stationed on board the airship, Seaman Chesty O’Conner (James Cagney) shinnies down the line wearing a parachute, grabs Martin, and the pair parachute down to a rough landing.

1. CMD Malcolm C. McGuire, USCG (Ret.), “Pictorial—‘Carrier Curiosities,’” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , June 1974, p. 90.

 2. Details are given in Richard K. Smith, The Airships Akron & Macon (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1965), pp. 56-57.

—The Editors

 

Norman Polmar is an internationally known analyst, consultant, and award-winning author specializing in the naval, aviation, and intelligence areas. He has participated in or directed major studies in these areas for the U.S. Department of Defense and Navy, and served as a consultant to U.S. and foreign commercial firms and government agencies. He has been an advisor or consultant on naval issues to three U.S. Secretaries of the Navy and two Chiefs of Naval Operations, as well as to three U.S. Senators and a Speaker of the House of Representatives. He has 50 published books to his credit, including eight previous editions of Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet and four editions of Guide to the Soviet Navy as well as U.S. Nuclear Arsenal, Ship Killer, and Project Azorian. Mr. Polmar is a columnist for Proceedings and Naval History magazines. He is a resident of Alexandria, VA.

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