“One of the interesting things about airships,” says Tom Crouch, a senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum, who gave a lecture on the subject this week as part of the Museum’s Ask an Expert series, is that they were “transitional technology. They were capable of doing a great many things before airplanes were. They didn’t carry passengers as well as airplanes do, they couldn’t go to war as well as airplanes do, but they could carry significant loads over significant distances, long before airplanes did.”
Take the story of the Akron and Macon. Both were rigid American airships, built by the Goodyear Zeppelin Company in Akron, Ohio. “The problem the Navy faced between the wars, was, what are you going to do with these things?” says Crouch. “Are you going to use them as scouts? This thing is almost 900 feet long, painted silver, it can’t fly very high, and it can’t go very fast. So the enemy is going to see it coming. So what they did is really kind of a Hail Mary pass…. They decided that the Akron and Macon would become flying aircraft carriers.”
The two airships were supposed to fly ahead of the fleet, looking for the enemy. When they found them, the airships would launch fighters—the Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk—from inside the airship. (The Museum has the only Sparrowhawk left above water.) There was a hangar deck inside the ship’s belly, and the Akron and Macon could carry five fighters each. A trapeze bar would descend from the belly to release the airplanes.
When the Macon went down off the coast of California on February 12, 1935, she took four of the aircraft with her. “She’s 17,000 feet down,” says Crouch, “at the bottom of the Pacific, and when you look at the submersible pictures of the Macon, you can still see the top wing of four of these airplanes sticking up out of the silt.” )
Airships, Crouch says, “were the work of a little band of true believers.” The greatest of them all, Admiral William Moffett, was on board the Akron when it was lost off the New Jersey coast on April 4, 1933. Seventy-three of the 76 passengers and crew on board were killed.
Moffett, although not a pilot, was chosen in 1921 to head the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics. In a somewhat harsh assessment, the Maxwell Air Force Base Web site describes the admiral as having “an unfortunate affection for airships, a technological dead end that squandered millions of dollars.”
On September 1, 1933, Naval Air Station Sunnyvale was renamed Moffett Field in the admiral’s honor.