Eighty years ago this month, an accident now all but forgotten changed aviation and naval history. The USS Akron, a U.S. Navy airship, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New Jersey April 4, 1933, killing 73 of 76 sailors, officers and guests on board, including Rear Adm. William Adger Moffett, the “father of naval aviation.”
The Akron, a 785-foot-long rigid airship, was a bold experiment, an attempt to create a flying aircraft carrier and an airship-led airborne naval reconnaissance force. Moffett, chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics from its founding in 1921, propelled efforts to get the U.S. Navy into the air, both in planes and dirigibles.
“Airships will be the long-distance, over-water carriers — airplanes will handle the shorter and overland routes,” Moffett said in a 1929 radio address covered by The Traffic World (Oct. 12, "Airships of the Future"). At that time, the prediction wouldn’t have seemed far-fetched. The Graf Zeppelin began making trans-Atlantic passenger flights in 1928.
From 1928 through 1937, the Graf Zeppelin made 590 flights and 144 ocean crossings, carrying more than 13,000 passengers, mainly between Germany and Brazil. In contrast, Pan American World Airways began scheduled trans-Atlantic airplane flights using Boeing’s Yankee Clipper “flying boats” in 1939.
“Airships furnish the quickest, cleanest, most comfortable long-distance method of transportation known to man,” Moffett said in his 1929 radio address. “No dust or cinders, no jerking or rattling, no seasickness on a stormy sea. Then there is the reliability and safety of airships, which is more than that of airplanes.”
Moffett described the Akron and the USS Macon, which in 1929 were still being built by the Goodyear Zeppelin Corp. “These airships will be larger and faster than any in existence ... since the function of these naval airships will be long distance scouting at sea, the great range of the new ships is of the utmost value.” He saw a future in which rigid airships carried passengers, mail and freight.
For a time, it looked as if Moffett’s vision might fly. The Akron was launched in August 1931, christened by First Lady Lou Henry Hoover. Akron’s maiden voyage took it down the East Coast and over Washington, D.C. Over the next two years, it flew over the South along the Gulf Coast, up the Mississippi and above the Ohio River, and across the country to California. The ship was back in the skies over Washington March 4, 1933, for the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Unfortunately, rigid airships proved less reliable and safe than Moffett thought. Three of the four airships operated by the Navy were destroyed in accidents. The first, the USS Shenandoah, broke apart during a thunderstorm over Ohio in 1925, killing 14 members of its crew. Amazingly, there were 29 survivors.
The Akron left Lakehurst, N.J., on its last flight April 3. With Moffett and other guests aboard, it left headed out over the Atlantic, where the ship ran into an intense storm front. As the airship struggled to gain altitude, a downdraft slammed Akron’s tail into the water, and the airship broke up and sank. There was no time to deploy a raft, and the crew had no life jackets — 73 out of 76 on board drowned or died of hypothermia. Three survivors were rescued by the German ship Phoebus.
President Roosevelt called the crash and the loss of the Akron and his friend Moffett a national disaster. Although the USS Macon would be launched April 21, 1933, its loss in a storm off California in 1935 spelled the end of plans for a rigid airship fleet. The Hindenburg disaster brought an end to zeppelin passenger flights in 1937. The last rigid airship in the U.S. Navy, the USS Los Angeles, was finally decommissioned in 1939.
The rigid airship hasn't entirely flown into history, however. Next year, the Goodyear blimp will be replaced by a rigid airship built by Goodyear's old partner, ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik, the successor of the original Zeppelin company. The new airship will be assembled in Akron, Ohio.