USS Akron: Fleet Operations
With the navy now in possession
of a large, modern rigid airship specifically designed to act as a naval
scout it seemed that the lighter than air was about to prove its tremendous
value for scouting. On November 2, 1931, Akron made her first flight
as a commissioned vessel in the U. S. Navy, a round trip flight to Washington
with Admiral Moffett and a group of journalists aboard. The next
day the Akron made a short demonstration flight to show the large rigid's
ability to carry out emergency airlifts. She carried 207 people aboard
and set a world record. While these public relations flights did
help to improve the public's opinion of rigid airships, they did little
to impress the rest of the navy. To do that the Akron would have
to prove herself with the fleet.
Her first chance to do that came in January 1932.
On the ninth she departed Lakehurst for Cape Lookout, North Carolina where
she had orders to be at dawn on the tenth. That day she was to search for
an "enemy" consisting of a squadron of destroyers. Despite
passing within fifteen miles of the "enemy" she failed to spot
them on the tenth. Resuming her search again at dawn on the eleventh
she soon found the destroyers and was shortly thereafter released from
The Akron's lackluster performance did not impress
the rest of the navy, but it should not have come as a surprise.
The Akron had as of yet no airplanes; indeed she didn't even have a trapeze
from which to launch and retrieve airplanes. This constituted a serious
handicap. Due to equipment delays and the damage sustained to the
Akron's lower fin in February it was not until July that the Akron's HTA
(heavier-than-air) unit was fully operational.
This delay did have some advantages. Hook-on
experiments with the Los Angeles had been going on for some time and were
now considered quite routine. Thus when the Akron's airplanes arrived there
were very few problems. Indeed, it was the consensus of the airplane
pilots that a landing to a trapeze was easier than a conventional landing.
The arrival of the HTA unit highlighted the differences
of opinion as to how airships should be handled. The HTA pilots believed
that the large rigid was vulnerable to attack by an enemy's carrier-born
airplanes and, therefore, the Akron should serve as a flying aircraft carrier.
Her airplanes would do all the scouting while the airship kept away from
the enemy. The officers and crew of the Akron believed otherwise.
In their opinion the Akron was a scouting airship which happened to carry
airplanes, primarily for defense. Experience was to prove the HTA
pilots correct in their evaluation.
Aircraft carried aboard Akron greatly extended
the airship's scouting range
On May 8, 1932 the Akron departed Lakehurst for
California with two airplanes, the XF9C-1 and the N2Y. Neither were
particularly suited to scouting, but the Akron would have to make do.
On May 11 the Akron landed at the auxiliary base at Camp Kearney, near
San Diego to land and refuel. She then headed to the still incomplete
air station at Sunnyvale.
In 1932 Akron flew from Lakehurst to California
to take part in tactical exercises.
Most of her flights in California were public
relations flights to satisfy the great demand for views of the ship.
The ship did make some flights with the fleet, however. Between June 1
and 4 Akron took part in fleet exercises. Again she had no airplanes.
The Akron found the "enemy," but this time the "enemy's"
cruisers responded by attacking the Akron with their seaplanes.
The Akron was "shot down" multiple times. The Akron's commander,
Charles Rosendahl, thought it "perfectly apparent" that had she
had her planes aboard the Akron could have fended off the attackers.
Perhaps he was right, but the Akron's poor performance did nothing to polish
her dull image. The report on the fleet exercises heaped harsh criticism
, albeit criticism from a bitter critic of the airship, Adm. Frank H. Schofield.
The Akron arrived back at Lakehurst on June 15.
At Lakehurst on June 22 Comdr. Alger H. Dresel
relieved Rosendahl as commander. At the same time Comdr. Frank C. McCord
reported to the Akron for duty under instruction as her prospective commanding
officer. On January 3, 1933 McCord became the Akron's commanding
officer. The same day Akron departed for the expeditionary mast at
Opa-locka, near Miami, Florida. While there the ship made a quick
trip to Cuba. The purpose of this trip, and another to Panama in
March, was to explore the possibility of a winter mooring site for the
Akron away from the Northeastern winters. The consensus was that
such a site would aid the Akron greatly, allowing it to fly more during
On the evening of April 3, 1933, the Akron
departed Lakehurst for a routine training flight. There was nothing
in the weather forecast which would indicate trouble. It was with
no sense of apprehension that the Akron cast off at 7:28 P.M. Yet
within hours the ship had been enveloped in a severe cold front.
McCord had the ship turned east to ride out the storm at sea off the New
Jersey coast. Just after midnight the air became quite turbulent
and the Akron was carried downward. Drooping of emergency ballast
fore and full speed on all engines stopped the descent at seven hundred
feet. The Akron soon returned to its cruising of sixteen hundred feet.
Two to three minutes later the Akron was caught in another down draft.
With the altimeter reading eight hundred feet the ship lurched sharply,
as if a strong gust had hit it. The rudder man then reported no response
from his wheel. The men in the control car braced for impact with
the ocean. Wiley, the only survivor from the control car, saw the waves
below him and was washed out of the control car moments later.
There had been no impact of the lower fin with
the sea before the control car hit the ocean. The reason for this apparent
anomaly was that the fin was already in the ocean. The lurch which
all had assumed was a gust, and which the altimeter would seem to insist
was just that, was actually the lower fin hitting the water. No one
realized the severity of the low pressure system through which the Akron
was flying. The low caused her barometric altimeter to read as much
as several hundred feet higher than the actual altitude. The Akron
had literally been flown into the sea.
Of the 76 men on board Akron on April 3, 1933,
only three survived the wreck. (pictured left to right: Moody
Erwin, Lt. Cmdr. Herbert Wiley and Richard Deal)
The Akron carried no life jackets and only one
rubber raft. Most men never got out of the foundering ship, and
of those who did only three survived exposure to the chilly north-Atlantic
waters. Seventy three men perished. The tragedy was compounded
the next day when the blimp J-3 crashed while looking for survivors, going
down with two members of its crew. The navy had lost the finest airship
in the world and seventy-five men. It was the beginning of the end
for naval lighter-than-air.
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