back to article Wreck of 1930s flying aircraft carrier dubbed 'historic'

The US government has added the crash site of the most powerful flying aircraft carrier ever built to the National Register of Historic Places, 75 years after the event. USS Macon above San Francisco Fleet Week really meant something back then The airship USS Macon - comparable in size to the even more famous and equally …


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  1. Hollerith 1

    bring them back!

    If they can surmount the pesky safety record, I think it would be great if these came back into use, not just for lifting and moving freight over long distances cheaply, but also as cruise ship sint he sky. I think back to the Buenos Aires-Europe runs in the 1930s and think it must have been fantastic: quiet, slow-ish, elegant. Surely the bang-per-buck stacks up again now?

  2. Gordon 10

    US vs UK

    So the US built an air-carrier 80 odd years ago, and we can even figure out how to outfit the water version now...... hmmmm

    There are some time when I wonder if technology hasnt moved backwards rather than forward.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @US vs UK

      The RAF started flying fighters off airships in 1918 and repeating the experiment in the 1920s.

      If there had been the will and R100 and R101 had been successful prototypes then there could have been bigger airships carrying up to five fighters patrolling the Empire.

    2. Gene Cash Silver badge

      Even worse...

      When you consider the "meatball" landing system & the steam catapult are both British inventions.

  3. mark 63 Silver badge

    new 2me

    flying carriers!

    i never knew there were such things. I'd have thought they couldnr take the weight , and would be sitting ducks.


    bring em back :)

  4. Disco-Legend-Zeke

    Lighter Than Air...

    ...seems to suck more than modern aircraft.

    At least the crew didn't (mostly) die in hydrogen flames.

    1. serviceWithASmile


      the two that died in this crash drowned.

      I'm sure if you totalled up all who died on airships vs all who died on planes, there would be a clear winner.

      from what I've read, the real reason the macon went down was more pilot error than the storm, the captain overcompensated for the tail dropping. but I got most of this from wikipedia so insert pinch of salt here.

      I reckon airships would totally rule for moving stuff, although they are more subject to weather conditions than the traditional helicopter approach.

    2. Steve Evans

      Choose your accident...

      I think the chances of surviving an airship accident are higher than surviving a jet aircraft accident.

      Even the famous Hindenburg accident had > 60% survival rate.

      36 died (13 passengers, 22 crew, 1 ground crew), 62 survivors.

      Airships might spark up in most impressive style, but jets tend to hit thing (mountains, the ground etc) at rather higher speeds.

  5. Jerome 0

    What's the zeppelin angle?

    I'm sure you don't have to look far to find extremophile life in the San Francisco area! Fascinating article Lewis, thanks.

  6. Alex-TheManfromUncle


    I always wanted Max Zorin's Zepplin.

    That was back in 1987, and I STILL want it!

    Bring the gracious giants back to the skies please

    1. Ed Blackshaw Silver badge

      The ship in question...

      ...was the Skyship 500, which flew out of the Cardington air hangars in Bedfordshire in the 80's. Living in Bedford as a child, I remember seeing the airship flting overhead on several occasions during the summer months. You could always hear it coming before you saw it, due to the distinctive hum from the props.

      The air hangars at Cardington (also rather underwhelmingly known as the Air Sheds) were built to house the R101, and are still the largest hangars in Europe.

  7. Capt John Yossarian
    Paris Hilton


    ...Want one

    Paris, 'cos she famously went down also...

    (I'll get my coat)

  8. Anonymous Coward

    Fasinating article

    And one which tells us the origin of Windows NT!

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Great article, thanks. Slightly related -- I recently learned that almost at five years before, on the east coast, the Empire State building was able to finally receive height permission by saying the spire was to be an anchor for zeppelins. In reality, exactly one bundle of newspapers were delivered to the top level by an anchored zeppeling. However the wind was so great that they literally threw the bundle onto the deck and immediately untethered.

  10. johnB

    Just amazing

    I saw some newsreel footage of one of these 'ships a few years ago & it was simply awesome. It semed - and still seems - an ideal way to patrol long seaboards.

  11. Smallbrainfield
    Thumb Up

    There's something romantic about them

    and elegant but also doomed. Some of the tales of perilous flights through bad weather and the mad rush to drop ballast or vent gas make the hair stand. There's a famous shot of the Akron tethered to it's mast, dragged vertical by high winds.

    It would be cool to see something liner-sized drifting by but sadly I think their day has passed.

    1. bell

      Isn't that by definition

      Surely romantic == (desirable + doomed)

      Or have I been listening to the lit major wife too much again?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Wasn't the 'Akron'

      Twas the LZ126 / ZR3 'Los Angeles':

      After this the US Navy refused to allow their ships to use high masts.

  12. Stevie


    The nature of the medium these magnificent machines fly in - air, with pesky sudden dramatic changes in density (which drastically alters the airship's buoyancy) that we non-airship types call "weather" - along with the nature of their construction (very long horizontal. free-floating structures filled with individual gas cells) means they will always be troublesome to operate.

    Very long horizontal, free-floating buoyant structures have a tendency to want to become very tall *vertical* free-floating buoyant structures, because once they start to tip up the changes in air density work to amplify the tendency. You then have to move fast because once the nose gas cells are high enough, they can burst, reversing the process to everyone's detriment.

    Historically, the attempts to mitigate this (by spilling gas and/or ballast) caused catastrophic problems once the original problem was resolved because the aerostat was no longer aerostatic - it was out of balance and under-buoyant. That was if the entire structure didn't fracture due to the stresses of having one end in relatively still air and the other in possibly turbulent winds.

    These machines look incredible, but the requirement to make them out of gossamer and goodwill means they are rather too fragile for the purpose. One satyric quote I liked from The Onion, concerning the Hindenburg, went something like "Once again one of these seemingly invincible leviathans of the air proves to be as durable as tissue paper soaked in gasoline".

    But I would have liked to see the Hindenburg flying over New York. The sight must have been incredible, to judge by the preponderance of obviously Hindenburg-inspired effortlessly hovering spacecraft in the Flash Gordon stories and its imitators. Obviously, once you had seen it for yourself, you were suitably gobsmacked.

    1. Shusui

      Re: Bah!

      "Very long horizontal, free-floating buoyant structures have a tendency to want to become very tall *vertical* free-floating buoyant structures ... "

      So, make them tall, vertical, free-floating structures to start with, no?

      Must confess they kinda worry me!

  13. Steven Jones

    catapult requirement...

    I rather suspect that 'planes of that sort wouldn't need catapults on floating aircraft carrier either. There were, after all, plenty of WWII escort carries that didn't have such things and aircraft like the Swordfish managed without. This is really more about an aircraft with a low stall speed than anything else (plus the ability to get into the air quickly).

    I would like to see somebody try an hook up a WWII era carrier-borne monoplane fighter onto one of these things. I think a P-38 or a carrier-borne Spitfire is going to be a very different thing. High speed aircraft and low stall speed are not wholly compatible,

    Airships suffer from all sorts of problems - limited carrying capacity, speed, vulnerability to winds. It's just one of those interesting little diversions which went nowhere.

    As for safety records - did these things operate loing enough and in anything other than good conditions to come to any form of statistically significant result? Airships had atrocious enough safety records in peacetime, let alone in war.

  14. multipharious

    Great Article!

    It would be cool to do some luxury touring. Well since we cannot have our flying cars, I bet a decent alternate pickup line would be, "Hey baby want to go for a ride in my Zeppelin?"

    Why we don't use them for freight transport, I wish I knew. Guess we humans are stodgy and pragmatic about that type of risk, and water ships are a proven technology with existing logistical lines of connection to and from. Then again we are flying freight in normal airplanes. And then there is the problem of who pays for development, and how to get helium...

    Crap. I don't care. I want one. With the flying equivalent of a Zodiac for my jaunts down to terra firma.

    1. Mayhem

      Re: Great Article

      >>Why we don't use them for freight transport, I wish I knew. Guess we humans are stodgy and pragmatic about that type of risk, and water ships are a proven technology with existing logistical lines of connection to and from. Then again we are flying freight in normal airplanes. And then there is the problem of who pays for development, and how to get helium...


      The main issue with using airships for freight is keeping the dang thing on the ground when you unload.

      Essentially they need to pump the lifting gas out at the same rate that you unload the ballast (the freight containers) so the airship doesn't violently take off.

      The problem is that we don't have any way of doing this fast enough for it to be useful.

      There are a variety of hybrid designs involving for example pumping water ballast in at the same time to compensate for the load, but these won't work in the rough field environments the airship is best suited for as they inherently won't have the infrastructure available.

      And you really don't want to know about the storage issues which is quite tricky for both hydrogen & helium as they make normally solid pipes look like chickenwire.

      I imagine that modern airships will become more common for tourist purposes, say game viewing in africa, but without figuring out a good workaround for storms and the loading problems, they will be stuck in a very small niche

  15. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    And no flight sims in sight

    All airship manouvres were field tested as the vessels flew.

    BTW the Zeppeling angle. *None* of these were were built in the US. Germany supplied them as war reparations.

    Attempts to revive the dirigible have been made over the years. It's difficult. the Germans had a go with a Zeppelin NT. Not sure what happened to that.

    Incredibly Zeppelin is still in business. They make parts of the Ariane rocket.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Kind of...

      Akron and Macon were built by Goodyear-Zeppelin, a partnership founded (quite brilliantly) in 1917, just before America joined World War I. Re-established in 1929, Goodyear got the rights to Zeppelin patents and people, Zeppelin (which was haemorraging money) got 10% of the partnership, hard cash and a guaranteed customer who could pay their bills.

      The Zeppelin NT is still flying, there's one near the old Zeppelin works in Friedrichshafen that takes people over Lake Constance. IIRC there are two or three sister ships.


      Wrong, you anti-Akron biggot

      The Akron, Shenandoah, and the Macon were built in the US. The Akron and the Macon were built by the Goodyear Zeppelin works in Akron, Ohio. Akron was named after the city. The Shenandoah was built by the Philadelphia Aircraft manufacturer. The name escapes me, sorry. The only TWO, not 1, that were not built in the US were the ZR-1 which was built by the British and was lost over the Humber river in England while doing acceptance tests.

      The ZR-3 (Los Angeles) was built by Zepellin in Germany. It was part of the war reparations from Germany. We were to get a war zeppelin but the airship crews destroyed them so that they would not have to surrender their beloved airships.

      There is plenty more out there on these interesting ships, including the fact that Los Angeles was moored at Lakehurst into the 1040's when she was decommissioned, and broken up for her duraluminum framing. Such was the end of a fine ship and a great tradition.

      But as to a modern use for them, they could be used as radar pickets along the southern border for drug interdiction and patrol. Also for Search and Rescue. Longer legs than a helicopter, more eyes can be carried to search and a slow speed for better coverage. Quite a lot of uses nowadays.

  16. Jolyon

    Good article, Reg.

    There's definitely something alluring about these machines; I'm another who would love to see a full-sized version in flight.

    I think one of my former colleagues from Berlin went to work for the German company mentioned in the article - there's still some mileage in the idea.

  17. Snarky Sysadmin

    Not Moffett Field

    The base was not Moffett Field back in the 1930s when the Macon and Akron were flying. It was NAS Sunnyvale. The article should have used the base's correct name with a note giving the modern name.

  18. Gumby 1

    Helium fun

    Great article. But it makes me think of all the crew giving orders and radio chatter in high pitched helium voices.

    (Mines the one with the party favors in the pocket)

  19. Brian Miller

    New Zeppelin-type diridgible would be computer-controlled

    The ballast and lift would be computer-controlled, though. You wouldn't get problems like they had in the 1930's. Helium and ballast would be shifted automatically, so you'd never have the problem with going vertical.

    I'd love to have a trip by Zeppelin.

    1. M Gale

      Computer controlled

      Just so long as a human has the ultimate authority. I'm reminded of a well-known video of a fly-by-wire passenger aircraft crashing and killing its test crew because the pilot decided to do a low pass at an inkling under 100 feet. The computer was programmed with something like "if (Avionics.altitude < 100){land_now()}" - it performed a perfect landing right into the tree line, despite the pilot's rather ineffectual pulling on the control column.

      Computers are only as good as the program they run!

      1. TeeCee Gold badge

        Re: Computer controlled.

        An old chestnut and untrue. It wasn't trying to land, it was trying (and successfully at that) to prevent a stall. This is what happens when you shove the throttles open from idle and pull the nose up on a plane fitted with large turbofans that have a 30+ second spool to thrust from idle time.

        Try reading the conclusions of the investigation rather than the comments section on Wingnut Central. There's a reason why those aircraft are still flight certified despite that little pig's ear.

        1. alyn

          Quite correct!

          It was pilot error that caused the Airbus crash not computer error.

  20. sT0rNG b4R3 duRiD

    Carrier has arrived

    So that's where the protoss got the idea from...

  21. Paul 129

    Mud Sticks

    Most people think that using hydrogen for lift would be bad. It has been show that the Hindenburgs issues were with the doping agent used the the outer shell, not the Hydrogen. Using the hydrogen as fuel aka BuGas also reduced some of the boyancy balast compromises. I would love to see modern versions of these things. Read up about what these beasts did in WWI.

    Up until tracers were developed, these things couldn't be shot down by aircraft. They normally leaked gas, bullet holes just made them leak a little faster. When you add the fact that the could have AAA on board going up against one in a biplane was suicide. BTW carrying 5 tons of bombs in WWI that was impressive.

    I wonder how different things would be had Germany had a bulk helium supply.

  22. Graham Bartlett

    @Steven Jones

    As far as operating conditions goes, these things were out in all weathers. Yes, there were a bunch of accidents, but all due to bad maintenance, bad handling by crews unfamiliar with airships, being sent out in weathers when any sane airman would refuse to fly, or (for the Hindenberg) dangerously stupid construction methods. Airships weren't particularly bad on safety compared to other aircraft - long-distance flying back then was pretty risky. Flying in the 1920s was like space flight in the 1950s and early 1960s - if you got in the cockpit, you knew there was a fair chance you weren't coming back. Flying in the 1930s was like the later Moon missions ant the Space Shuttle - safer compared to how it was, but with enough serious accidents to demonstrate that if you don't pay attention, you suffered the consequences.

  23. Kevin Dwyer

    Still in production

    Still manufactured by Bowers and Wilkins here in the UK, lovely piece of kit

  24. stu 4


    As a paramotor pilot, I reckon this would work great with some paramotors on board.

    We could just jump out a 'debag' with our chutes.

    would be awesome.


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