April 4th, 1933 – The Downing of Airship USS Akron

USS Akron (ZRS-4) was a helium-filled rigid airship of the U.S. Navy which operated between September 1931 and April 1933. She was the world’s first purpose-built flying aircraft carrier, carrying F9C Sparrowhawk fighter planes which could be launched and recovered while she was in flight. With an overall length of 785 ft (239 m), the Akron and her sister airship the Macon were among the largest flying objects ever built. Although the LZ129 Hindenburg and her sister ship the LZ130 Graf Zeppelin II were some 18 ft (5.5 m) longer and slightly more voluminous, the two German airships were filled with hydrogen, so the US Navy craft still hold the world record for helium-filled airships.

USS Akron Airship

The Akron was destroyed in a thunderstorm off the coast of New Jersey on the morning of April 4th, 1933, killing 73 of the 76 crewmen and passengers. This accident involved the greatest loss of life in any known airship crash.

On the evening of April 3rd, 1933, the Akron cast off from the mooring mast to operate along the coast of New England, assisting in the calibration of radio direction finder stations. Rear Admiral Moffett was again on board along with his aide, Commander Henry Barton Cecil, Commander Fred T. Berry, the commanding officer of NAS Lakehurst, and Lieutenant Colonel Alfred F. Masury, U.S. Army Reserve, a guest of the admiral, the vice-president of Mack Trucks, and a strong proponent of the potential civilian uses of rigid airships.

USS_Akron 680The Akron soon encountered severe weather, which did not improve when the airship passed over Barnegat Light, New Jersey at 10:00 pm as wind gusts of terrific force struck its massive airframe. The airship was being flown into an area of lower barometric pressure than at take-off, which caused the actual altitude flown to be lower than that indicated in the control gondola. Around 12:30 a.m. on April 4th, the Akron was caught by an updraft, followed almost immediately by a downdraft. Commander McCord, the captain, ordered full speed ahead, ballast dropped. The executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Herbert V. Wiley, handled the ballast and emptied the bow emergency ballast. Coupled with the elevator man holding the nose up, this caused the nose to rise and the tail to rotate down. The descent of the Akron was only temporarily halted, before downdrafts forced the airship down farther. Wiley activated the 18 “howlers” of the ship’s telephone system, a signal to landing stations. At this point, the Akron was nose up, between 12 degrees and 25 degrees.

The engineering officer called out “800 feet” (240 m), which was followed by a “gust” of intense violence. The steersman reported no response to his wheel as the lower rudder cables had been torn away. While the control gondola was still hundreds of feet high, the lower fin of Akron had struck the water and was torn off.

The Akron broke up rapidly and sank in the stormy Atlantic. The crew of the nearby German merchant ship Phoebus saw lights descending toward the ocean at about 12:23 a.m. and altered course to starboard to investigate, with her captain believing that he was witnessing an airplane crash. At 12:55 a.m., the unconscious Commander Wiley was pulled from the water while the ship’s boat picked up three more men: Chief Radioman Robert W. Copeland, Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Richard E. Deal, and Aviation Metalsmith Second Class Moody E. Erwin. Despite artificial respiration, Copeland never regained consciousness, and he died aboard the Phoebus.

USS Portland 680

The cruiser USS Portland was one of a number of ships that undertook the search for survivors from the Akron

Although the German sailors spotted four or five other men in the water, they did not know their ship had chanced upon the crash of the Akron until Lt. Commander Wiley regained consciousness half an hour after being rescued. The crew of the Phoebus combed the ocean in boats for over five hours in a fruitless search for more survivors. The Navy blimp J-3 — sent out to join the search — also crashed, with the loss of two men.

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Tucker — the first American vessel on the scene — arrived at 6:00 a.m., taking the airship’s survivors and the body of Copeland on board. Among the other ships combing the area for survivors were the heavy cruiser Portland, the destroyer Cole, the Coast Guard cutter Mojave, and the Coast Guard destroyers McDougal and Hunt, as well as two Coast Guard aircraft. The fishing vessel Grace F from Gloucester, Massachusetts, also assisted in the search, using her seining gear in an effort to recover bodies.

Most casualties had been caused by drowning and hypothermia, since the crew had not been issued life jackets, and there had not been time to deploy the single life raft. The accident left 73 dead, and only three survivors.

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


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