In the early 1930s, the US Navy experimented with helium-filled airships. Constructed by Goodyear-Zeppelin, the airships were designated as the Akron-class. The two airships were originally built for scouting and reconnaissance – platforms that could extend the range of the Navy’s Scouting Force, allowing them to see beyond the horizon. To further extend their scouting range (and to protect themselves) the Akron carried a small squadron of airplanes.
In effect, the Akron was a true airborne aircraft carrier.
Akron-Class: The Idea
The Navy began experimenting with rigid airships after the conclusion of the Great War. After the war, as part of a reparations settlement with Germany, the US was to receive a German airship. The German airship’s crew destroyed the ship, however. To compensate, the Germans built a new airship for the US from scratch. Meanwhile, the US would build an airship of her own.
The initial batch of airships, operated in the 1920s, were not particularly successful. Both crashed. But the lessons gleaned from the airships were incorporated into a new design – what the US hoped would be a functional design, capable of contributing to military efforts. Two new ships were commissioned, which would become the Akron-class.
The Akron-class airships were a joint venture between the US-based Goodyear and the German-based Luftschiffbau Zeppelin. Goodyear is known today for their Goodyear blimps, often seen floating overhead during major sporting events. Zeppelin, of course, has had their name become synonymous with the rigid airship design – and they are best remembered for crafting the most famous airship ever: The Hindenburg.
Karl Arnstein, Zeppelin’s Chief Stress Engineer, traveled to America to work on the Akron. Arnstein apparently relished the opportunity to work in America, where he was able to experiment, without the conservative, constraining oversight of his German firm. Alongside the Goodyear team, Arnstein pioneered new construction schemes including “Deep Rings” and the triple keel. Whereas previous airship designs were built around a series of unreinforced rings, Deep Rings were a pair of main rings, made from duralumin, and connected with supports. The Deep Rings were believed to be stronger and sturdier than traditional unreinforced rings. Arnstein also helped develop triple keels. On previous airship designs, one keel was incorporated along the underside of the hull. For the new airships, three triangular shaped keels would be incorporated – two along the bottom of the ship, and one along the top.
The most remarkable innovation incorporated into the Akron airships was the aircraft hangar. The hangar could carry up to five small airplanes. To launch and recover the airplanes a “trapeze” style device was used. For the launching sequence, the airplane would be attached to a “skyhook” while still in the hangar. Then, using the skyhook, the airplane would be lowered from the hangar into the airstream. The skyhook would be released and the airplane would fly away. “Landing” the aircraft was accomplished by reversing the launching procedure. The aircraft would fly below the hangar while the skyhook was attached. Once the airplane was attached to the skyhook, the plane would be lifted back up into the hangar. The process was highly imaginative and ahead of its time, harkening the bomber motherships that would launch smaller jets and experimental crafts in the coming decades.
Another clever feature of the Akron-class: a “spy basket.” The basket was a small aerodynamic gondola that could be descended from a line, below the body of the airship. The basket allowed for reconnaissance to be conducted while the bulk of the airship remained hidden in the clouds.
The first completed airship in the Akron-class was the USS Akron (ZR-4). The USS Akron was 785 feet long, 146 feet tall, and had a 132-foot diameter. The airship’s volume was 6.5 million cubic feet and the gross weight 403,000 pounds. The USS Akron could handle a massive payload of 182,000 pounds. Manned by a 60-person crew, the USS Akron had a max speed of 84 miles per hour and a 10,580-mile range. The airship’s specifications lent itself well to the platform’s primary role: long-range recon. However, the Akron-class’s role was adjusted after the ship was commissioned.
Initially envisioned as a scouting platform, the Akrons proved themselves extremely vulnerable to enemy attack; either enemy aircraft or anti-aircraft fire would have easily downed the Akron. So rather than place the airship in harm’s way through scouting missions, the mission profile was modified; the Akrons would primarily serve as airborne aircraft carriers. The airplanes that the Akron launched would inherit the scouting role that was initially assigned to the Akron.
The service careers of the Akron-class were not particularly successful. The USS Akron was christened in 1931 by first lady Lou Hoover and spent about two years performing routine exercises. In March of 1933, the USS Akron was used in the inauguration ceremony of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Just one month later, in April, the USS Akron was caught in a storm off the coast of New Jersey. The airship crashed, killing 73 people including Rear Admiral William Moffett, the Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics.
The second ship in the Akron-class, the USS Macon (ZR-5), did not fare much better than her predecessor. Christened by Moffett’s wife just one month before Moffett himself would die aboard the Akron, the Macon debuted in 1933. Like the Akron, the Macon lasted through about just two years of exercises. In February 1935, the Macon was caught in a storm and forced to make an emergency landing in the sea off the coast of Point Sur, California. Having learned from the Akron disaster, the Macon was outfitted with life jackets and rafts. Only two crew members died; one, who jumped from the ship from too high of a height to survive; the other, from swimming back into the wreckage to retrieve personal belongings. The Macon sank to the bottom of the ocean, 15,000 feet below. The location of the wreckage is inaccessible to divers.
Bonus: U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier Photo Essay
Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.