Great Britain’s airship programme crashed and burned with the ill-fated R101, but others would be slow to learn the lesson. The US Navy was taken with the possibilities and commissioned a pair of helium-filled rigid airships, ZRS-4 and ZRS-5. These gaseous monsters, although slightly shorter than the hydrogen-lifted German Zeppelin Hindenburg, were, at 239 m (785 ft) long, the largest helium airships ever built. With eight engines, each driving a propeller that could swivel from horizontal to vertical, they carried enough fuel to make 16,900 km (10,500 mi) flights.
After being constructed at the Goodyear Airdock in Akron, Ohio, ZRS-4 was commissioned into the US Navy as USS Akron in 1931. After trials and exercises that included attempts to spot flotillas of warships, experiments to equip the ship with reconnaissance aircraft were conducted. After a visit to fly the flag on America’s West Coast, Akron returned to home base in Lakehurst, New Jersey for intensive testing of her revolutionary ‘flying trapeze’ system that allowed for the in-flight launch and recovery of F9C-2 Sparrowhawk biplanes. She was also used to ferry military high-ups and inspection parties to sites as far apart as Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay and Panama.
On a routine mission along the New England coast, Akron was helping to calibrate radio-direction-finder stations when she encountered severe weather. A series of violent gusts pounded the airframe and shortly after midnight on April 3 1933 she was hit by the worst possible combination – an updraught followed immediately by a powerful downdraught. As the crew struggled unsuccessfully to regain control, Akron’s tail hit the water and the mighty airship smashed into the sea, quickly breaking up. Despite the swift attendance of a rescue vessel, only four survivors were pulled from the stormy Atlantic, one of whom died. Over 70 passengers and crew didn’t make it.
When was the Loss of USS Akron: April 4 1933
Where was the Loss of USS Akron: The Atlantic Ocean off New Jersey, USA
What Loss of USS Akron death toll: 73 of the 76 US Navy passengers and crew were lost.
You should know: One of those who died when USS Akron crashed was Rear Admiral William A Moffett, chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics and main promoter of the US Navy’s rigid airships programme. Sistership ZRS-5 (USS Macon) was lost off the Californian coast in 1935, though this time only two of the 76-man crew perished. Thereafter the USA followed Britain’s example and the disastrous flirtation with rigid airships abruptly ended.