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USS Akron: a flying aircraft carrier (not for 56k)

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aloges (Founding Member) 20 Apr 09, 08:01Post
Hi everyone, while I'm at it I might as well upload a thread from days gone by - the old ASO.

In the early and mid-1930s, rigid airships promised to bring progress and vastly improved capabilities to the United States Navy. The military was optimistic that they could be used as stable, reliable and manoeuvrable flying aircraft carriers, greatly expanding the offshore usability of existing short-ranged aircraft. Let's have a look at the first operative example used by the US Navy: USS Akron (ZRS-4).

Rigid airships, or Zeppelins as they are often called in honour of their most widely-known promoter, had been in their golden age since the 1928 launch of the German LZ-127 "Graf Zeppelin". It had proved that round-the-world navigation with significant loads was possible. Not even the Arctic was out of reach as demonstrated by a 1931 research trip immortalised on this stamp:

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before work

It was on the 27th October of that same year that the US Navy commissioned the USS Akron. Fourth in line after USS Shenandoah (ZR-1), the British-designed R38 (ZR-2) and USS Los Angeles (ZR-3, a WW1 war reparation from Germany and a bit of a stuntman's airship), she was the first of the two USN flying aircraft carriers. Construction had begun almost exactly two years earlier on the 31st October 1929 at the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation in Akron, Ohio and the effort is probably best described as "enormous":

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U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph

ZR-4 was, once completed, 785 ft (239 m) long and the ring structure shown above had a maximum diameter of 132 ft, 9 in (40.4 m). By comparison, the Royal Navy's light aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal is "only" 689 ft (210 m) long and 118 ft (36 m) wide. As befits a brand-new giant airship, she was built in a brand-new giant hangar, the Goodyear Airdock.

at work

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U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph

Her maiden voyage took USS Akron to Washington, DC, to the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and then back to her base at the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey. After that, she spent most of her short career exploring the military potential of rigid airship, including for instance scouting tasks. In late February 1932, a ground-handling accident at Lakehurst forced her out of service for two months of repairs, as this soft-spoken contemporary explains:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGft123rQjE

After these repairs, she could finally embark on testing her role as a flying aircraft carrier. First things first, how does one land a Sparrowhawk (Curtiss F9C) on a fragile and tubular aluminium frame travelling at 50 or even up to 72 knots? The answer is simple: not at all. What they used instead was a trapeze onto which the parasite fighter would hook and then be elevated into the Akron's hangar.

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(additional photographs: Curtiss F9C-2 about to hook onto trapeze, in Akron's hangar, Consolidated N2Y-1 training aircraft)
all: U.S. Naval Historical Center Photographs

After initial trials on the East Coast, she travelled to the West Coast in May 1932 where her arrival caused a deadly accident:

"En route to her base at Sunnyvale, Calif., she reached Camp Kearny, Calif., on the morning of 11 May, and attempted to moor. Since neither the trained ground handlers nor the specialized mooring equipment needed by an airship of Akron's size were there, the landing at Camp Kearny was fraught with danger. By the time she started the evolution, the heat of the sun's rays had warmed her, and her engines had further lightened the airship by using 40 tons of fuel during her voyage across the continent. As a result, Akron became uncontrollable.

Her mooring cable cut to avert a catastrophic nose-stand by the errant airship, Akron headed up. Most men of the mooring crew, predominantly "boot" seamen from the Naval Training Station at San Diego, let go their lines. However, one man was carried 15 feet into the air before he let go and suffered a broken arm in the process. Three others were carried up even farther. Two of these men—Aviation Carpenter's Mate 3d Class Robert H. Edsall and Apprentice Seaman Nigel M. Henton—lost their grips and fell to their deaths. The third, Apprentice Seaman C. M. "Bud" Cowart, clung desperately to his line and made himself fast to it before he was hoisted on board Akron one hour later. Nevertheless, Akron managed to moor at Camp Kearny later that day and proceeded thence to Sunnyvale."
(source: http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/a4/akron.htm)

Image
U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph

As mentioned above, the 10,580 nm range of USS Akron allowed its four Sparrowhawks (range: 258 nm) to operate offshore and to be repositioned quickly. This came into play during her next training mission: a scouting exercise. The speed of the on-board aircraft combined with the flexibility of their base enabled Akron to locate the "enemy" ships in just 22 hours, even despite oppositon from seaplanes carried by them.

After this successful exercise, she returned to Lakehurst on a "long and sometimes harrowing" voyage for repairs. More trials and training over the Atlantic Ocean, as well as a search for a civilian yacht, followed and by the 3rd January 1933, Akron was on her way south to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for an inspection of base sites.

the end

On the evening of 3 April 1933, Akron departed on a mission along the coast of New England, assisting in the calibration of radio direction finder stations.

"As she proceeded on her way, Akron encountered severe weather which did not improve as she passed over Barnegat light at 2200 on the 3d. Wind gusts of terrific force struck the airship unmercifully around 0030 on 4 April, and pushed her down toward the sea. She crashed tail first and then sank in the stormy Atlantic. The German motorship Phoebus, in the vicinity, saw lights descending toward the ocean at about 0023 and altered course to starboard to investigate, thinking she was witnessing a plane crash. At 0055 on 4 April, Phoebus's men picked up Lt. Comdr. Henry V. Wiley, Akron's executive officer, unconscious, while a ship's boat picked up three more men: Chief Radioman Robert W. Copeland, Boatswain's Mate 2d Class Richard E. Deal, and Aviation Metalsmith 2d Class Moody E. Ervin. Despite desperate artificial respiration, Copeland never regained consciousness, but died on board Phoebus." (source: http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/a4/akron.htm)

72 men of the 76 on board perished, among them Rear Admiral William A. Moffett who was one of the leading proponents of rigid airships in the Navy. Even though only USS Macon (ZR-5) was the last rigid airship in the US Navy, the loss of USS Akron and her "father" spelled the beginning of the end of this era.

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U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph


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inside USS Akron: the crew's mess, one of the engine rooms and structural members
all: U.S. Naval Historical Center Photographs

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1T2gg4zpyuo
Last edited by aloges on 23 Apr 09, 19:22, edited 1 time in total.
sosumi

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AndesSMF (Founding Member) 20 Apr 09, 08:05Post
What other resources do you have for all things Zeppelin? Jr. is fascinated by them.
Einstein said two things were infinite; the universe, and stupidity. He wasn't sure about the first, but he was certain about the second.
aloges (Founding Member) 20 Apr 09, 08:09Post
AndesSMF wrote:What other resources do you have for all things Zeppelin? Jr. is fascinated by them.

A couple of books, sadly all of them are at my parents'. But the US Navy archives are excellent as well, if a bit slow to reach.
sosumi
AndesSMF (Founding Member) 20 Apr 09, 08:13Post
I may try to find an early reader book for him, as a Titanic book incited him to read more.
Einstein said two things were infinite; the universe, and stupidity. He wasn't sure about the first, but he was certain about the second.
aloges (Founding Member) 23 Apr 09, 19:54Post
I've dug up a couple more pictures (mobile phone ones) from the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, on the shore of Lake Constance. Maybe your little one likes them. :)

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a two-berth cabin inside a mock-up of LZ-129, the "Hindenburg"

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the washbasin in the same cabin

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the lounge, note the Zeppelin's great circle route on the map (click here for larger version)

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the view from the lounge - imagine looking at the Atlantic Ocean from those windows, several hundred metres up in the air

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"artists impression" ;) of a Zeppelin docking on top of the Empire State Building
sosumi
AndesSMF (Founding Member) 23 Apr 09, 20:11Post
aloges wrote:Maybe your little one likes them.

Yes...he's got the museum in mind for a future trip!
Einstein said two things were infinite; the universe, and stupidity. He wasn't sure about the first, but he was certain about the second.
davestan_ksan 23 Apr 09, 20:26Post
8-) Awesome post. That third one in your mobile pics looks like the scene from one of the Indiana Jones movies (forgot which one) when Harrison Ford and Sean Connery are in the airship.
John 16:33 | Gary Johnson 2012

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