USS Macon Arrives

Stunned by the loss of the Akron, chief Goodyear-Zeppelin designer Karl Arnstein failed to report for work for many days. Quite a depressed atmosphere hung over the new ship’s rollout.  Macon’s first flight was made on April 21, 1933, with 105 persons aboard, barely two weeks after the tragic loss of ZRS-4.  Three test flights were made from the Air Dock.

4 & 5 props - Copy

In overall appearance ZRS-4 and ZRS-5 differed only in small details. Modifications and refinements to ZRS-5 included streamlining of the engine outriggers and moving engine water radiators along the hull under scoops (above: -4 left, -5 right). Different covers were used for the top hull vents. On Macon three-bladed steel propellers quickly replaced two-bladed wooden props first flown during builder’s trials. Structural and fitting refinements resulted in increased useful lift. There were numerous other refinements; gas cell valves were decreased from four to three per cell. The hangar bay was capable of holding five airplanes, while ZRS-4 had been awaiting modification to hinge two girders to allow more than three planes to be carried internally.  One very noticeable difference inside the ship: numerous life jackets and rubber rafts. Lessons learned by NASL’s engineers developing their cleaner and more efficient Mark IV water recovery were, unhappily, not part of the contract. Macon (ZRS-5) was commissioned and left the Air Dock for the last time on 23 June,  with CDR Alger Dressel, Captain. Showing his confidence in the program was RADM E.J. King, new Chief of BuAer, who made the flight.

5 & hooker

Macon arrived at Lakehurst (above) on June 24,  and remained there about four months making six flights totaling 109 hours. They worked crew training and extensive practice in launching and retrieving her airplanes.  Macon flew over New York City during one trial, on July 18, to become part of the img037welcome for Italian General Balbo. On the 31st of August the CNO joined BuAer Chief King aboard or a hook-on airplane demonstration. (In this photo, Chief Petty Officer George Moser, boarding through the car’s accommodation ladder, sports a scarf made from discarded parachute silk from the station’s PR school. )

On October 12, she departed Lakehurst for her new home station, briefly overflying her namesake city for the first and only time. Landing at Sunnyvale-Mountain View, California on October 15 (below), Macon became a major attraction in the San Francisco Bay area. October 25 was Navy Day and she made a 50 hour flight with a shipload of reporters and newsreel cameramen. Her career was followed with enthusiasm by locals. The C-in-C, US Fleet, came aboard for a short flight on November 9th.

5 - moffExercise “E,” Macon’s first with the fleet, then steaming on the west coast, was November 15-16, 1933. Two of the airplanes were used with minor success in locating the fleet. Dressel was conservative with the ZRS-5, as he had been with the Akron; he stated he did not believe the airship should be operated in the most severe weather systems. Results on the next exercises, “F” and “G,” January 3-5, 1934, were improved within their limitations, although ZRS-5 was “shot-down” twice from fleet anti-aircraft fire and carrier fighter planes. Sailing over the “enemy” cruisers at night with all lights burning exposed the need to develop “darken ship” procedures.

Macon-02feb1934-80G-box1755-427119 (2)The next fleet exercise was on February 20-21, in bad weather, and ZRS-5 stumbled out of the clouds to again be “shot-down.” More embarrassment came when Macon had to retire from planned exercise “I” due to the threat of severe weather. During one visit to San Diego a local radio team was carried, allowing a remote broadcast to be made in flight. (The piercing whistle of the sonic altimeter, not mentioned in the literature but an obvious improvement following Akron’s water impact, is heard continuously in the only recording known to have been made. We added this recording to the otherwise silent film in our “USS MACON” ensemble-edit DVD. )

macon-27jul1934-80cf-box44-4163-5-sunnyvaleWith lessons learned from the various Akron handling accidents, Macon’s purpose-designed base and facilities and more benign environment allowed the operators to have a perfect record: the airship was never damaged on the ground and there were no serious injuries in handling. Improved copies of the later Lakehurst facilities, those at the now renamed Moffett Field represented the ultimate evolution in the state of the art in US Navy airship ground handling. Times, from initial dropping of lines to safety inside the dock, were on average gradually decreased, but overall average was less than an hour. A titled film detailing the Macon’s handling procedure was shot and edited at Moffett; we have included this film in our DVD Airship Handling.

“Ducky” Ward remembered, “I always looked forward to the next flight. It seemed like there was something different on every one. We were always trying out some new project and the crew was getting more proficient in the performance of the duties that were assigned to them. We made several flights out of Moffett in connection with fleet operations. The weather didn’t bother us, in fact we were out in heavy fog and rain, while all other aircraft were grounded. I used to say the weather was not fit for fowl or beast. The ship on takeoff would be on the heavy side and this is where two engines on each side, port and starboard would have the propellers turned in the down position to push the ship up, with the remaining engines in the ahead position. After the ship had gained sufficient altitude then the other engines would speed up in the ahead direction and then the five fighters or utility planes would be ordered to come on board.”

F9C-whiteUnder the leadership of LT Ward Harrigan (right), senior HTA pilot,  the six regular production F9C-2 Sparrowhawks made up the Macon’s  HTA “Squadron.” The two “X” planes were considered spares and may not have received the full paint treatment; at least some of the N2Y-1s received the insignia. The airplanes were also used to drill the airship’s defensive gunners, motion picture camera “gun’s” footage later evaluating marksmanship. (Click here for details on all hook-on planes.)

5-fleetOn April 10, 1934, another technical mission (“J”) was conducted with results similar to the February exercise. Admittedly, the ZRS-5 scouting planes were not used to their best advantage – nor was the airship itself used for the ocean- wide searches where it had no equal.  The impression with the senior fleet officers was not the “rousing success” hoped for, although two good reports were made by the fleet commander with the results inconclusive. RADM King, BuAer Chief, wrote to senior commanders urging Macon’s wider employment, with scouting problems structured to be framed to utilize her unique capabilities.

Anchored by the realities of helium operations and shipping enough of the rare gas to California affordably, R.K. Smith wrote,  “Under the depression economy the Bureau of Mines’ helium plant at Amarillo was operating only intermittently. This caused the extraction process to operate at insufficient volume, making its costs artificially high, and the Navy’s helium funds were limited… Thus it was cheaper to consider fuel as ballast than to valve helium in the course of ordinary operations… [But] If she consumed too much fuel she would return to base light and it would be necessary to valve relatively large quantities of helium… But there was no assurance of extra helium funds, and with no helium there was no flying.”  The airship’s weight had to be trimmed, period.


The tonnage of water-recovery condensers on engines 3 and 4 was removed, with the eventual goal of the eliminating their entire drivetrains. It was hoped that as a result the airship’s in-line vibration would be lessened as well. Even though a six-engine configuration would offer less redundancy, the weight savings would have allowed more airplanes to be carried on longer missions in challenging conditions. Instead, the tail design problem was about to be revealed at the worst possible conjunction of helium’s unrealistic pressure height restrictions – in a tight mountain pass.

AKRON-wind-tunnelPrior to the Macon’s orders to Florida, the second run of the NACA wind tunnel tests had been completed. They verified the first’s set’s results, and could no longer be set aside. Goodyear-Zeppelin had been hard at work engineering a fix, but the Navy seemed in no particular hurry to implement tail reinforcing improvements even as G-Z had begun stamping out the needed parts.

F9C-2-blueD - CopyMeanwhile, BuAer’s Plans Division had got wind of the HTA unit’s gaudy, non-regulation paint jobs.  ComAirBatFor ordered them to be brought into compliance. The photo at right shows a temporary “blue-out” of the tails, but eventually they were color-coded as a ComAirBatFor group by having their tails painted black—and that fancy symbol had to be erased.

“Ducky” Ward recalled, “In April of 1934, the USS Macon was ordered by the Navy Department to proceed to Opa-Locka, Florida, in connection with fleet operations in the Caribbean between Cuba and Florida. So the Macon was fueled and provisions were taken aboard for a five or six week stay away from our home port at Moffett Field. So with the ship ready for flight, we undocked and took off for Florida. The weather was just about perfect, with some fog along the coast. We made our way by the mountain passes, over the Rockies, keeping out altitude as low as possible. We proceeded on course increasing our altitude as necessary. We would have to valve helium due to the 100% volume of the gas cells; this pressure was released by automatic valves in the cells. As we continued on course through the Rockies the weather became very turbulent. The Macon would go into a very steep dive at an extreme angle of 35-40 degrees. It seemed at times as if we were going to crash into the mountains. In fact, I have some pictures that look like you could reach out and touch the rocks. On one of these dives the structure buckled at frame 17.5 portside, just below the port fin surface. I had the watch on the port keel and as the ship went into this dive it seemed to me to be at a much greater angle than any previous dives. I notified the control car and the speed was immediately reduced.”

20150626_134624-copyChief “Shaky” Davis, whose son told the producer his Dad was suspicious of the tail design since before Akron’s loss, was in the stern nearby when the lightweight girder broke. Shoring materials – planking, previously prepared with rounds made to fit the lightening holes in the girders – had been stowed nearby by Davis and were quickly brought to bear. “Ducky” Ward remembered, “Emergency repairs were made, using block and tackle to pull the structure together by using repair kits made for just such an emergency. The ship proceeded to Opa-Locka… This damage caused us to miss the Fleet maneuvers which we were very anxious to participate in.”  Davis was commended,  credited with saving his ship that day.

The near disaster over Texas changed the tail reinforcement attitude quickly. A team from Goodyear-Zeppelin arrived in Florida by train with the parts previously engineered and stamped. “Ducky” Ward remembered, “Being outside, it was necessary to rig staging from the top of the ship. This was then lowered over the side to the damaged area.” Florida nature refused to give the team a break. Horrendous sideways rainstorms first weighing down the ship forcing the discharge of ballast. The intense sun’s heat quickly dried and superheated the ship, making it necessary to pump ballast water back in. Skipper Dressel reported in great detail the many problems encountered, including the flooding of the control car, Navigator’s compartment, and the metal-edged elevators, as well as the creation of waterfalls and ponds inside the ship’s hull. Not surprisingly there were failures in the electrical systems. Like Akron, birds found their way inside and under the cover, threatening the fragile helium cells. The literature does not indicate Dressel’s report lead to major rework.

In Jim Shock’s account, “On April 20, 1934, ZRS-5 departed Sunnyvale for maneuvers in the Caribbean, not being permitted to follow the Panama Canal like the rest of the fleet.  The flight to the auxiliary mooring facility at Opa-Locka, Florida was made in 54.5 hours at relatively low altitude and through mountain ranges. In the pass near Van Horn, Texas, damage was incurred to the girders in the area of the horizontal fin.  Temporary repairs were made with onboard shoring materials in flight and, on April 22, it moored to the Opa-Locka mast. Since wind tunnel tests had shown a weakness in the tail design, G-Z had been constructing a fix. Available parts allowed some repairs to be made at Opa-Locka over a nine-day period.  It was determined that the main frame structure near the four fins required permanent repair to correct the problem. However, this was not considered urgent and was to be accomplished as the opportunity became available.  ZRS-5 participated in fleet exercises until it departed for Sunnyvale on May 16, arriving on May 18.” That Atlantic exercise, “N” of 12 May, found the airship surviving, and at least sending valuable weather updates to the friendly forces.

SellersAt left, Skipper CDR Alger Dresel poses with Admiral David Sellers aloft on Macon’s bridge. Sellers was a vocal critic of the ZRS program, and Sellers undoubtedly reminded Dresel this dirigible duty was not doing his career a bit of good. USNA ‘09, and skipper of three of the five Navy rigids, Dresel was well liked by his crews. Unlike Rosendahl, he developed the hook-on assets, but still had been conservative with the ship’s operation.  In July, 1934, former Akron X.O. and Los Angeles C.O. LCDR Herbert Wiley took command. At first the HTA group felt they would be losing ground, that the progress they’d made would be abandoned by Wiley, a “gas bag” man from way back. But they were in for a happy surprise.

Read on to USS Macon Evolves

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