USS Akron (ZRS-4)
ZRS-4 in flight, 1931
(An airplane is passing over her bow.)
|Construction Began:||31 October 1929|
|Launched:||8 August 1931|
|Maiden Flight:||23 September 1931|
|Commissioned:||27 October 1931|
|Lost:||4 April 1933|
|Fate:||crashed in severe weather|
|Dead Weight:||221,000 pounds|
|Useful Load:||182,000 pounds|
|Volume:||6,500,000 cubic feet|
|Speed:||72 knots maximum, 50 knots cruising|
|Complement:||89 officers and men|
|Armament:||four aircraft, seven machineguns|
Construction of the ZRS-4 commenced on 31 October 1929, at Akron, Ohio, by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation, and on 7 November 1931, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, drove the "golden rivet" in the ship's main ring. Erection of the actual "hull" sections began in March 1930. On 10 May 1930, Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams chose the name Akron -- to honor the city where the airship was being constructed -- and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Ernest Lee Jahncke announced it four days later, on 14 May 1930. On 8 August 1931, Akron was launched (floated free of the hangar floor) and christened by Mrs. Lou Henry Hoover, the wife of the President of the United States, Herbert Clark Hoover. Akron conducted her maiden flight on the afternoon of 23 September 1931, around the Cleveland, Ohio, area, with Secretary of the Navy Adams and Rear Admiral Moffett embarked. She made eight more flights -- principally over Lake Erie but ranging as far as Detroit, Milwaukee, Fort Wayne, and Columbus -- before her delivery flight from Akron to the Naval Air Station (NAS) at Lakehurst, New Jersey, where she was commissioned on Navy Day, 27 October 1931, Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Rosendahl in command.
On 2 November 1931, Akron cast off for her maiden voyage as a commissioned "ship" of the United States Navy and cruised down the eastern seaboard to Washington. Over the weeks that followed, she amassed 300 hours aloft in a series of flights. Included in these was a 46-hour endurance run to Mobile, Alabama, and back. The return leg of the trip made via the valleys of the Mississippi River and Ohio River.
On the morning of 9 January 1932, Akron cleared Lakehurst to work with the Scouting Fleet on a search exercise. Proceeding to the coast of North Carolina, Akron headed out over the Atlantic, tasked with finding a group of Guantanamo Bay-bound destroyers. Once she had located them, she was to shadow them and report their movements. Clearing the North Carolina coast at 0721 on 10 January, the rigid airship proceeded south. Bad weather prevented her from sighting the destroyers she was to find (she missed contact with them at 1240, although they sighted her) but she continued on, eventually shaping a course toward the Bahamas by late afternoon. Heading northwesterly into the night, Akron then changed course shortly before midnight and proceeded to the southeast. Ultimately, at 0908 on 11 January Akron succeeded in spotting the light cruiser Raleigh (CL-9) and a dozen destroyers, positively identifying them on the eastern horizon two minutes later. Sighting a second group of destroyers shortly thereafter, Akron was released from the evolution about 1000, having achieved a "qualified success" in her initial test with the Scouting Fleet.
As historian Richard K. Smith says in his definitive study, The Airships Akron and Macon, "...consideration given to the weather, duration of flight, a track of more than 3,000 miles flown, her material deficiencies, and the rudimentary character of aerial navigation at that date, the Akron's performance was remarkable. There was not a military airplane in the world in 1932 which could have given the same performance, operating from the same base."
Akron was to have taken part in Fleet Problem XIII, but an accident occurred at Lakehurst on 22 February 1932, that prevented her participation. As the rigid airship was being taken from her hangar, the tail came loose from its moorings and, caught by the wind, crunched into the ground. The heaviest damage was confined to the lower fin area, and required repairs before the ship was ready to go aloft again. In addition, ground handling fittings had been torn out of the main frame, necessitating repairs to those vital elements as well. It was not until later in the spring that Akron was airworthy again, and, on 28 April, the rigid airship cast off for a flight with Rear Admiral Moffett and Secretary of the Navy Adams on board. This particular flight lasted nine hours.
Soon after returning to Lakehurst to disembark her distinguished passengers, Akron took off again to conduct a test of the "spy basket" -- something like a small airplane fuselage suspended beneath the airship that would enable an observer to serve as the ship's "eyes" below the clouds while the ship herself remained out of sight above them. Fortunately, the basket was "manned" only by a sandbag, for the contraption proved "frighteningly unstable" swooping gracefully from one side of the airship to the other before the startled gazes of Akron's officers and men. It was never tried again.
Akron and her sistership Macon (ZRS-5) (the latter still under construction) were regarded as potential "flying aircraft carriers." On 3 May 1932, Akron cruised above the coast of New Jersey with Rear Admiral George C. Day, President of the Board of Inspection and Survey, on board, and for the first time tested the "trapeze" installation for handling of aircraft while airborne. The pilots who carried out those historic "landings," first with a Consolidated N2Y trainer and then with the prototype Curtiss XF9C-1 Sparrowhawk fighter, were Lieutenant Daniel W. Harrigan and Lieutenant Howard L. Young. The following day, Akron carried out another demonstration flight, this time with members of the House Committee on Naval Affairs on board. During this operation the same fliers gave the lawmakers a demonstration of Akron's ability to handle aircraft.
Following the conclusion of those trial flights, Akron departed Lakehurst on 8 May 1932, and set out for the west coast of the United States. The airship proceeded down the eastern seaboard to Georgia thence moved across the gulf plain and continued on over Texas and Arizona. En route to her base at Sunnyvale, California, she reached Camp Kearny, California, on the morning of 11 May, and attempted to moor. Since neither the trained ground handlers nor the specialized mooring equipment needed by an airship of Akron's size were there, the landing at Camp Kearny was fraught with danger. By the time she started the evolution, the heat of the sun's rays had warmed her, and her engines had further lightened the airship by using 40 tons of fuel during her voyage across the continent. As a result, Akron became uncontrollable.
Her mooring cable cut to avert a catastrophic nose-stand by the errant airship, Akron headed up. Most men of the mooring crew, predominantly "boot" seamen from the Naval Training Station at San Diego, let go their lines. However, one man was carried 15 feet into the air before he let go and suffered a broken arm in the process. Three others were carried up even farther. Two of these men -- Aviation Carpenter's Mate 3d Class Robert H. Edsall and Apprentice Seaman Nigel M. Henton -- lost their grips and fell to their deaths. The third, Apprentice Seaman C. M. "Bud" Cowart, clung desperately to his line and made himself fast to it before he was hoisted on board Akron one hour later. Nevertheless, Akron managed to moor at Camp Kearny later that day and proceeded thence to Sunnyvale.
Over the weeks that followed Akron "showed the flag" on the west coast, ranging as far north as the Canadian border before returning south in time to exercise once more with the Scouting Fleet. Serving as part of the "Green" Force, Akron attempted to locate the "White" Force. Although opposed by Vought 02U Corsair floatplanes from "enemy" ships, the rigid airship managed to locate the opposing forces in just 22 hours -- a fact not lost upon some of the participants in the exercise in subsequent critiques.
With Akron in need of repairs, the airship departed Sunnyvale on 11 June, bound for Lakehurst. The return trip was studded with difficulties -- principally due to unfavorable weather. After a "long and sometimes harrowing" aerial voyage, she ultimately arrived there on the 15th. "Seventy-nine weary men climbed down the gangway in the after end of the control car, more than glad to be back."
Akron underwent a period of voyage repairs upon her return from the west coast, and in July took part in a search for Curlew, a yacht which had failed to reach port at the end of a race to Bermuda. She resumed operations with her "trapeze" and her planes. On 20 July, Admiral Moffett again embarked in Akron but the next day left the airship in one of her N2Y-1s which took him back to Lakehurst after a severe storm had delayed her own return to base.
That summer Akron entered a new phase of her career -- one of intense experimentation with the revolutionary "trapeze" and a full complement of Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawks. A key element of the entrance into that new phase was the new commanding officer of the rigid airship, Commander Alger Dresel.
Unfortunately, another accident hampered her vital training. On 22 August, Akron's fin fouled a hangar beam after a premature order to commence towing the ship out of the mooring circle. Nevertheless, rapid repairs enabled Akron to conduct eight flights over the Atlantic during the last three months of 1932. These operations involved intensive work with the trapeze and the F9C-2s, as well as the drilling of lookouts and gun crews. Among the tasks undertaken was that involving the maintenance of two aircraft patrolling and scouting on Akron's flanks. During a seven-hour period on 18 November 1932, the airship and a trio of planes searched a sector 100 miles wide.
After local operations out of Lakehurst for the remainder of the year 1932, Akron was ready to resume her work with the fleet. On the afternoon of 3 January 1933, Commander Frank C. McCord relieved Commander Dresel as commanding officer, the latter ordered to Macon as her first commander. Within hours of this event, Akron was on her way south, down the eastern seaboard and shaping a course toward Florida. She refueled at the Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Opa-Locka, Florida, near Miami, on 4 January and then proceeded to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for an inspection of base sites. At this time, she used one of her N2Y-1s as an aerial "taxi" to ferry members of the inspection party back and forth.
Soon thereafter, Akron returned to Lakehurst for local operations which were interrupted by a two-week overhaul and poor weather. During March, the rigid airship carried out intensive training with her embarked aviation unit of F9C-2s, honing her hook-on skills. During the course of these operations, she cruised to Washington DC, and overflew the capital on 4 March 1933, the day Franklin D. Roosevelt took the oath of office as President of the United States.
On 11 March, Akron departed Lakehurst and headed for Panama. She stopped briefly en route at Opa-Locka before proceeding on to Balboa Canal Zone. There an inspection party looked over a potential air base site. While returning northward the rigid airship paused at Opa-Locka for local operations exercising her gun crews with the N2Y-1s serving as targets for the gunners. Finally, on 22 March, she got underway to return to Lakehurst.
On the evening of 3 April 1933, Akron cast off from her moorings to operate along the coast of New England, assisting in the calibration of radio direction finder stations, with Rear Admiral Moffett embarked. Also on board were: Commander Harry B. Cecil the admiral's aide, Commander Fred T. Berry, the commanding officer of Lakehurst's Naval Air Station, and Lieutenant Colonel Alfred F. Masury, USAR, a guest of the admiral, a vice-president of the Mack Truck Co., and a strong proponent of the potential civilian uses of rigid airships.
As she proceeded on her way, Akron encountered severe weather which did not improve as she passed over Barnegat light at 2200 on 3 April. Wind gusts of terrific force struck the airship unmercifully around 0030 on 4 April, and pushed her down toward the sea. She crashed tail first and then sank in the stormy Atlantic. The German motorship Phoebus in the vicinity saw lights descending toward the ocean at about 0023 and altered course to starboard to investigate, thinking she was witnessing a plane crash. At 0055 on 4 April, Phoebus's men picked up Lieutenant Commander Henry V. Wiley, Akron's executive officer, unconscious, while a 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. Ervin. Despite desperate artificial respiration, Copeland never regained consciousness, but died on board Phoebus.
Although the German sailors spotted four or five other men in the stormy seas, they did not know that their ship had chanced upon the crash of Akron until Lieutenant Commander Wiley regained consciousness a half hour after being rescued. Phoebus combed the ocean with her boats for over five hours in a dogged but fruitless search for more survivors of aviation's biggest single tragedy to that date. A Navy blimp, J-3, sent out to join the search, also crashed, with the loss of two men.
The Coast Guard cutter Tucker (CG-23), the first American vessel on the scene, arrived at 0600 and took on board the Akron survivors and the body of Copeland, thus releasing the German motor vessel. Among the other ships which fruitlessly combed the area for more survivors were the heavy cruiser Portland (CA-33), the destroyer Cole (DD-155), Coast Guard cutter Mojave, and the Coast Guard destroyers McDougal and Hunt, as well as two Coast Guard planes.
Akron's loss spelled the beginning of the end for the rigid airship in the Navy, especially since one of its leading proponents Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, perished with her, as did two other men. As President Roosevelt commented afterward: "The loss of the Akron with its crew of gallant officers and men is a national disaster. I grieve with the Nation and especially with the wives and families of the men who were lost. Ships can be replaced, but the Nation can ill afford to lose such men as Rear Admiral William A. Moffett and his shipmates who died with him upholding to the end the finest traditions of the United States Navy."