The USS Akron Airship Disaster: Worse Than The Hindenburg

When the sailors aboard the German merchant ship Phoebus pulled Lt. Commander Wiley from the icy Atlantic, they didn’t know what happened. They wouldn’t learn until Wiley regained consciousness that the largest helium airship had crashed into the sea, taking 73 crewmen down with it.

Before dawn, the Akron disaster would claim more lives than any other airship crash, plus one more airship. It was the worst one of all time, retaining that title to this day.

Big Plans

The criticism made by one historian, Richard K. Smith, author of The Airships Akron & Macon: Flying Aircraft Carriers of the United States Navy, (paraphrasing) the Akron never had the chance to actualize all of its potentials.

It could have functioned as the long arm of intelligence recon for the U.S. Navy. The Akron introduced a new technology of airship engineering, from the gas filling its hull to the structure of the ship.

It was huge, the biggest helium airship ever. It was so big, the Akron carried a hangar large enough to house five parasite planes, F9C-2 Sparrowhawks.

In the end, it was only big enough for three, but those three planes could have extended the intel efforts of Akron, capturing more detailed reconnaissance. Instead, the Navy flipped around the strategy.

Instead of the F9Cs supporting Akron’s reach, they used the airship as a floating aircraft carrier for the Sparrowhawks. The biplane Sparrowhawks weren’t tactically nimble enough to warrant this.

Before either approach had time to mature, the airship suffered a fatal accident that would scare the U.S. military from large airships for the rest of the 20th century.

First Accident

The first time the Akron suffered from an accident it was minor.

It was February 1932, a month and a half after the initial launch. Up until that point, the ship had performed well. It succeeded in scouting a fleet of destroyers near Cuba, but that February day the moorings broke while taking the airship from its hangar.

The wind caught the ship, driving the lower tail fin to the ground, breaking it. The incident hurt no one, but Akron needed repairs before she could fly again.

Second Accident

 

In May that same year, Akron flew from the east coast to the southern states to California, where the crew was to moor in San Diego at Camp Kearny.

The crew on the ground was not experienced with Akron. To make matters worse, they did not have the proper mooring equipment. Consequently, when the ship started to lift from an unexpected circumstance, they had to cut the main mooring line.

There were several other lines to the ground, held by seamen from the Naval training academy. Three of the men failed to release their lines and were subsequently pulled up with the rising craft.

Two of those men fell to their deaths, but one managed to hang on until the onboard crew could pull him into the cabin.

Final Accident

In the early morning hours of April 4th, 1933, after over a year of service, the Akron suffered an unretrievable incident. This was actually the fourth accident, the third was when another tail break occurred in August on 1932.

The result of the April 1933 incident, however, was deadly. In heavy wind, the airship took a hard updraft followed by an immediate and powerful downdraft. The nose of the craft rose vertically, dropping the tail into the water and breaking it (again).

Another downdraft forced the airship further into the water, past a point of recovery. From there, the ship went down fast. The crew lost control of all rudders right before they found themselves in the Atlantic.

It happened so quickly they didn’t have time to release life rafts. They also didn’t have life jackets aboard.

The Phoebus thought they’d witnessed a plane crash and hurried to see if they could help. By the time they arrived, there was nothing left on the surface of the Akron. A battery of ships, Naval and fishing vessels swarmed to help, but no more than three people survived, all pulled out of the water by the Phoebus.

The Navy scrambled a small blimp to investigate. Adding insult to injury, that blimp also crashed, killing the two crewmen aboard.

The Navy didn’t immediately scrap the airship program, but the Akron incident didn’t help their plight. It wasn’t as explosive as the Hindenburg, thus the reason history holds the later with more regard, but it was more traumatic to the nation.

Sources: Mental Floss, Airships.net