Flying Aircraft Carriers Were Actually a Thing in the US Military Until Tragedy Struck: Maybe you served on an aircraft carrier and listened to Led Zeppelin when off-duty, but what if you served on an aircraft carrier that was a zeppelin?
Flying aircraft carriers – that’s what the USS Akron and the USS Macon were. They served between 1930 and 1933. These helium-filled zeppelins that carried Sparrowhawk biplanes were an early curiosity that ended in failure. A thunderstorm destroyed Akron in 1933 – a tragedy that killed 73 out of 76 people on board. But let’s take a closer look at these historic aircraft that were ahead of their time.
Back Story of the Flying Aircraft Carriers
Helium-filled airships had desirable qualities that made them state-of-the-art in the early 1930s. They had a long-range and were inexpensive to build and maintain. The Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation in Ohio thought they had a hit when the Akron and Macon were unveiled. The airships used helium instead of flammable hydrogen gas and were considered safer to operate. The United States was also a global leader in the production of helium so that was another selling point for the airships.
Flying Aircraft Carriers: Could This Be the Mothership?
The U.S. Navy made a leap of imagination when it saw the potential of these new airships. Why not make them the mother ships for smaller biplane fighters? The zeppelins were big enough at 785 feet long. The range was a big selling point. The Akron and Macon could fly an astonishing 7,000 miles. This was perfect for covering large swathes of the ocean and there was an added bonus – the airships could travel at a speed of 79 miles per hour.
Onboard Hangar and Even a “Trapeze”
There was a crew of 60, so enough to service five airplanes. The zeppelins had a hangar on board. This was 75-feet long and 60-feet wide. The airplanes were loaded on a contraption that resembled a trapeze that hung down from the airship outside of a t-shaped opening. Then the aircraft would launch and later upon mission completion, the trapeze would retrieve the airplane. The Sparrowhawk aircraft were meant to be the lookouts for a convoy of surface ships. The zeppelins had to stay behind the range of enemy airplanes because they were an inviting target to shoot down, even though the airships were equipped with a number of anti-aircraft machine guns.
Flying Aircraft Carriers Were Difficult to Fly
New doctrine, tactics, and procedures had to be developed for such a dangerous idea. The zeppelin was a sitting duck if attacked. Plus, flight was tricky. The engines created ample exhaust. So, water had to be recovered to “compensate for the weight of fuel burned during flight, to avoid the need to valve helium to maintain aerostatic equilibrium as fuel was burned,” according to Airships.net. In short, the crew had its hands full.
Flying Aircraft Carriers: Accidents Were Common
The Akron had bad luck early on. A group of VIPs, including influential Congressmen, were waiting to board for a demonstration flight in 1932. The airship escaped from its moorings and the lower fin crashed into the ground. Even worse, after a cross-country flight, the Akron took off unexpectedly when three crew were trying to tie it down. The men were lifted quickly into the air and two fell to their deaths. This accident was shown repeatedly to movie audiences in a newsreel that embarrassed the navy.
But the Akron did have successful flights to Panama and Cuba. Its final flight was tragic though. A storm off the coast of New Jersey sent the airborne Akron to higher and lower altitudes without warning. The airship’s tail hit the water and got stuck and the entire zeppelin collapsed in the ocean. Nearly all hands perished.
Let’s Keep It on the Surface of the Sea
Despite the cursed nature of the project, credit is due to the navy for taking innovative risks in a concept that could have worked. The flying aircraft carrier was ahead of its time, but it was certain to make sure that aircraft carriers would forever be floating vessels rather than flying airships.
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.