Join the E/V Nautilus Team on August 18, as They Survey the Wreckage of The Macon, The United States’ Last Great Airship

by Owen James Burke

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The U.S.S. Macon (ZRS-5), a 785-foot dirigible seen flying over lower Manhattan. The Macon served as an aircraft carrier for the US Navy before falling into the Pacific after being damaged in a storm off Big Sur, California. Photo: US Naval Historical Center.

This week, over 80 years after the world’s largest helium-powered “flying aircraft carrier” the U.S.S. Macon sank beneath the waves, E/V Nautilus will be conducting a new archaeological survey of the wreck site, and you can watch video footage in real time on August 18th by tuning in to Nautilus Live.

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Above: The USS Macon begins construction in the Goodyear-Zeppelin hangar at Akron, Ohio. Photo: US Naval Historical Center.

The U.S.S. Macon and sister ship Akron (ZRS-4) were two of the world’s largest flying ships–only about 20 feet shorter than the similarly ill-fated Hindenburg–and today, remain the world’s largest helium-buoyed airships ever built.

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The Macon berthed a squadron of five Sparrowhawk scout planes which, using a “skyhook” (see image above) could launch and retrieve the aircraft in midair. Photo: Public Domain.

Sadly, neither the Akron nor the Macon lived through their first two years of service. The Akron was first to go, destroyed in a thunderstorm off New Jersey in 1933. (The Akron also holds the gloomy distinction of being involved in the greatest loss of human life aboard an airship. Only 3 of the 76 passengers aboard survived the crash.)

Two years later on the United States’ west coast, the Macon followed her sister ship’s fate.

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The Macon’s control room. Photo credit: Moffett Field Historical Society.

On February 12, 1935, The Macon was flying over California when she was caught in a wind shear which led to critical structural failure. From an altitude of about 5,000 feet, the airship slowly descended for 20 minutes, gently settling into the sea off Monterey Bay. Thanks in large part to the recent tragedy of her sister ship, the Macon was equipped with life jackets and inflatable life rafts, and there were only two casualties from aboard the Macon.

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Above: Artist Noel Sickles’ illustration of the crash, printed in the Gettysburg Times, among many other news outlets of the time. Image: Library of American Comics.

Watch an original news report from San Francisco Bay as survivors are ferried ashore:

The Macon lies in about 250 fathoms (1500 feet) of water went undiscovered until 1990 when researchers from MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) came across two discreet piles in the sand, forming a wreckage site of over 60,000 square feet.

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There aren’t many definitive images of the remains of the Macon, not that one could expect much to remain from a dirigible that’s spent 55 years beneath the sea. With this year’s upcoming survey, however, that could soon change. Photo: MBARI/NOAA.

Read more about the upcoming survey, and the history of the Macon. -OJB

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