USS Macon Evolves

5 with Don

The wondrous illustration above, created for the National Geographic January 1992 issue by Richard and Kent Leech, was sent to the producer late in 1991 because as publication deadline approached, the consultant N.G. selected, then-AEROSTATION Editor Donald Woodward (photo inset with a Lightship), was recovering from a heart attack in a local hospital.  Its captions corrected and published, the fold-out graphic accompanied an article by the late great Gordon Vaeth about Macon and the 1990 discovery of her resting place lead by Monterrey Bay Aquarium and Research Institute’s Christopher Grech.

Waco“Min” Miller remembered, “By this time, we also had picked up a couple of XJW-1 s. (right) That was the old commercial Waco with two seats forward and the pilot aft. It was a biplane. We put hooks on those so that now we had a “taxi” airplane that could carry people back and forth to the airship.”

Willey & kidsLCDR Herbert Wiley, last skipper of a Navy rigid airship, poses with his three children at left with a XJW-1. He was a widower. (Wiley’s daughter Marie would decades later play a key role in locating the Macon’s resting place. Son Gordon “Scroggie” Wiley retired as a USN Captain and helped our historical effort supplying his Dad’s films.) He had a somewhat higher-pitched voice and the men nicknamed him “Tee-Hee.” However, they would soon learn Wiley was determined to whip Macon and her planes into shape.

Attention turned to the ship’s ability to defend itself assuming attacking aircraft if it could not hide in clouds or if the enemy got through the ship’s screen of fighters.  In addition to lower mounts in the control car and lower vertical fin’s control station (shown on our DVD “The Flying Carriers”)  topside gun mounts in fore and aft main rings were accessible from the upper keel walkway.  Atop main ring 187.5, in between the divided vents for cell XI, the photos show where a Browning M-2 machine gun would have been placed. At right is a practice mounting on the ground on which they fired 500 rounds. The Assistant Battery Officer controlled the topside guns from his perch on main ring 170, and could advise the Captain to maneuver the ship to “embarrass airplanes attacking from overhead.”


Miller, recently stepping into the position of senior pilot in the HTA unit (or “squadron”),  remembered when giving his oral history, “During all this time, we practiced gunnery. We had our own heavier-than-air problems for exercises to do. We’d fly over the San Francisco Peninsula there and fire machine guns out over the Pacific. We did a lot of work on the side and kept up with all the heavier-than-air requirements.” There was only one ordnanceman for both the ship and the HTA unit for most of the program. The Tactical Officer was to receive assistance from the Gunnery Officer, both stationed in the control car at action stations. The literature does not reveal how many “live fire” exercises the ship herself held, but defensive gun positions were as follows: #1 main frame 187.5, #2 m.f. 170, #3 m.f. 57.5 all three upper keel.  #4 stern cap; #5 and #6 starboard and port control car; and #7 and #8 lower fin starboard and port.

The tight quarters in the lower fin encouraged those gunners to be qualified as elevator and rudder men respectively, but this was not always possible.  It was noted the sideward looking control car mounts were impossible to train directly forward, so the bridge was somewhat vulnerable to the head-on airplane attack. In most of the program, the ships flew with Mark III – I gun cameras in all ten positions so at least close-in gunner’s aim and technique could be evaluated with no danger to the “enemy.” Requests were made for better optics to allow training at greater sighting distances.

The traditional airship applications had been developed by the Allies during the Great War. These included Tactical and strategic scouting, observation, contact scouting, screening of both naval and merchant vessels, transport of supplies to outlying bases, reconnaissance, and even placement of secret agents into enemy territory. Macon was developing new missions. There was even discussion of adding anti-submarine warfare, if a suitable underwater listening device could be mounted. (The British tested hydrophones on ASW blimps in WWI; the US developed a towed model using a B-ship in 1919. ) A larger, downward-firing gun was considered.

Best-Macon-4 copy

BuAer Chief RADM King continued his support by ordering Rosendahl and Heinen to visit Sunnyvale and offer suggestions. Though they were known to dislike each other and probably disagreed on procedures, the two were undoubtedly surprised to find Wiley had literally re-written the book on large rigid airships –  by perfecting the flying carrier.

As had been proposed since the Sparrowhawk’s first selection, that once aboard, removing the fixed landing gear and installing the existing cross-country fuel tank would extend the range and speed of the airplanes. (Only motion pictures of this configuration are existent. These are included on our DVD The Flying Carriers, including dual launch and recoveries from the trapeze and the fixed “perch” on frame 102.5.)  F9C2lessWiley’s first major action with his new command was a bold demonstration of the flying carrier’s open-ocean search capability, this raison d’être never given a chance in the close-in more tactical exercises usually scheduled by senior leadership.  The newly enlarged operating ranges of the F9C-2s would be a key part of this opportunity.

Wiley reasoned that the announced general time and launch origination of vacationing President Roosevelt’s cruiser would be similar to probable intelligence provided for a wartime search mission.  Following what news they’d received, he figured finding the cruiser after they’d passed through the Panama Canal, and had been in the Pacific for a few days, would show even the most jaded critics what the LTA carrier could do. As Shock reported, “On July 18, 1934, ZRS-5 departed Sunnyvale on a scouting mission that was to cause some controversy in the Navy high command.  1,500 miles from land and over the Pacific, its trapeze planes located the heavy cruisers USS Houston and USS New Orleans, which were en route from Panama to Hawaii.” Miller and Kivette had been sent out athwartship and conducted the long-practiced search pattern, with Kivette spotting the cruisers about 1145. Miller quickly joined him, which caused some concerns aboard the cruisers.  As R.K. Smith wrote, “It was a starling experience to see two tiny airplanes appear out of nowhere so far at sea, especially when it was known that all the Navy’s carriers were in the Atlantic. Someone remarked apprehensively that the planes were carrying bombs. But [OOD on Houston LTJG] Hines was  a Naval Aviator; he recognized the F9C’s by their skyhooks, and their “bombs” as auxiliary fuel tanks. The holiday mood which attended the President’s cruise aboard the Houston was greater than ever as all hands off duty crowded the decks to watch for the Macon’s appearance. ” Dodging squalls, Macon came in and recovered her planes, then re-launched them – with gift bags.

Miller recalled in his oral history, “In the bag was a San Francisco Chronicle of the day we had left; there was the latest issue of Time; and I guess the Newsweek. I knew the President was a stamp collector, so in the bag there were also about 20 letters addressed to people: one to Min Miller, one to the President, one to Eleanor, and one to Wiley.  We both shoved off, and now we were trailing this bag. We hadn’t planned it very well because we planned just a light little bag… so I made a pass over the Houston’s forecastle and overshot. Knappy came along behind me and he overshot. Well, both cruisers stopped dead in the water and put whaleboats over the side and rescued these things. At that point, of course, the radios were going back and forth and the President said, “Well done, Macon.” Of course no good deed went unpunished; Wiley was chastised for not obtaining permission for the mission he knew would likely not be approved, and the legitimate concern only the Macon knew where she – and her crew – was located if they developed a problem.

As luck would have it, on the return leg transpired the only potentially serious HTA mishap with any of the three Navy airship carriers. Leroy Simpler, the pilot involved, related the story to the producer in 1980 and his version was verified in the Smith book. “Ducky” Ward recalled some different details: “We did have one incident that happened and could have been a disaster. This happened in a flight to intercept the cruiser [USS Houston] off the coast of Mexico. President Roosevelt was making a trip in the Pacific Ocean and the Macon decided to take him mail, etc. We made the interception off the coast of Mexico. Two fighters took off from the Macon with mail in waterproof bags with a line attached just in case the drop was missed by the ship. Everything went along as planned until the second plane came back to the Macon. It was raining heavily and the weather was getting quite bad with gusty winds. As a result of a gust, the plane hit the yoke of the trapeze with such force that two struts of the tripod were broken off. That left only one strut with the hook to hook-on to the ship. All preparations were made for an emergency landing. img621This was a case where we had to get the plane and pilot back on board; not enough gasoline and minus landing gear, it was out of the question to make it back to land. So it was either make a hook-on or ditch the plane at sea. [Following a careful trap] the plane was hanging on one strut to the trapeze. I went down onto the trapeze with a cable and shackle. I put a loop of cable around the propeller shaft and the other end shackled to the yoke of the trapeze. Then the plane was hoisted aboard. This was not a one-man operation; the whole hangar crew was to be commended for a job well done. We probably saved the pilot’s life as well as the plane. I don’t believe the pilot or the crew will ever forget that incident.”

FloatationHad Simpler’s hook and support been more severely damaged, or if in combat the arresting gear had been shot up, it was not necessarily a death sentence. Like many Navy airplanes of the era, the F9C-2 was equipped with emergency flotation bags. Even in the event of simple engine failure ditching, CO2 bottles would inflate the bags in 40 seconds, keeping  plane and pilot afloat.

raftIn the open ocean scouting well ahead of the fleet, a downed pilot could hardly hope for a chance submarine rescue in the manner so many were saved in WWII. Rather, with the entire colorful airplane largely afloat making a more reasonable search target than a man bobbing in the water, the Macon herself would find and hover over the victim to lower its pilot rescue sling via the spy basket’s very long winch cable. This Lakehurst Engineering print from the NARA (left) is dated 6-12-33, so of course it was not tested aboard Akron. While there are no photographs, motion pictures (included in our DVD “Flying Carriers”) show the device. Miller remembered, “So we then rigged up a circular insulated life raft with the webbing inside the safety belt. The idea then was to lower that on the water with this 4,000-foot cable, and a downed pilot would get in the raft and get hoisted aboard. Doc Wiley would lower that thing in the San Francisco Bay, and he would tow it from this big airship and tow it down there alongside of a buoy and you could do any damn thing you wanted with this thing. I wanted to climb into the raft and then get hoisted aboard, just to show it could be done. But that’s how we were going to tow a pilot out of the drink if we lost one. Fortunately, we never had to do that.” On August 7th, Macon’s flight completed a full-power test run of one hour.

An edited film of Macon’s mature ground handling cycle, shot by noted photographer Carroll who’d flown aboard, is included in our DVD “Airship Handling.”  This film was packed with the April 1935 “Macon post-mortem” report forwarded to the Bureau of Aeronautics with the recommendation a sound track be added to make it a more valuable reference for ground handling operations.  An edited version appears on the Youtube channel:

F9C-SimplerOn August 13th Macon performed a hook-on over the American Legion parade in San Francisco, and on the 31st she payed a visit to Seattle. The dirigible and airplane team dared to expand to night operations – this in the era when flattop’s planes had to be back aboard before dark.  Smoother nightime air actually eased operations. In addition to LT Leroy Simpler (photo), “Ducky” Ward remembered, “Some of the HTA pilots on board were [senior HTA pilot] LT Harold Miller, LT Jerry Huff, and LT Knappy Kivette. With a lot of practice by the fighter pilots and the ship’s crew, the more proficient we all became. As a good example, during night operations the time for launching all 5 planes was 12 minutes while recovering them took 14. Of course these operations had to be carried out in total black out.” (The Smith book states an automobile headlight was rigged at some point.)

While the only motion pictures of the cook in Macon’s galley shows chicken being prepared,  crewmen told the producer there was plenty of pot roast, and of course canned goods. They mentioned the ship’s cook, Ted Class, could be a reliable source of information about any upcoming mission.  The cook got enough info to be able to take on proper stores for meal planning!

rosterMacon ran “Port & Starboard” duty, and as one can see in these rosters, the crew was divided into sections, so of course not all crew members flew on every flight.  In this last photo taken of the ship’s officers together, the HTA pilots posed right along with the base skipper, C.O.  and the rigid-qualified men. image 64 - Copy

L to R front: Peck; Kenworthy; Cochrane; Wiley (skipper); Clay (base CO), Mills; Mackey. Center: Huff; Richardson; Coulter; VanSwearingen; Bolster; Miller; Danis. Top: Simpler; Reppy; Campbell; Buckley; Zimmerman; Kivette; Thurman.

Like several of ship’s crew that were not pilots, CBM “Ducky” Ward (top of that roster) got ZRS5-N2Y-3 - Copysome hook-on flight time, remembering in our book The Airship Experience, “It was quite a sensation to be in one of the planes during flight operations. The hangar area in the ship had space for five planes. Four were on the overhead mono-rail in each corner of the hangar and one was on the trapeze always ready to launch. After the planes were recovered and in docking position on board, the landing gear was removed and what we call a belly tank (gas tank) was installed. This would increase the gasoline capacity, allowing the plane to remain in the air for a longer time. Once the planes were lowered on the trapeze into the takeoff position, an electric cable was lowered down to the pilot. This was attached and used to start the engine after which it was warmed up and checked out. By pulling a quick release, the pilot of the airplane was free to clear the ship and carry out the planned mission. I don’t remember having any [major] problems with the planes taking off and landing.”

evacThe sailors drilled as lookouts and gun crews. A medicine cabinet / first aid station was installed in the crew’s mess; the photo shows a practice battle dressing there on a “wounded” crewman. Assuming shoreside or flattop aide was within range, practice was made getting the casualty into the Waco’s front cockpit for air evac.  The photo shows the removable fuselage-top combing that would have allowed a prone evacuee to remain more or less flat – something hard to do even in today’s small planes.

For scouting drills, confident they could trust their lives to the new homing gear, Wiley was challenging his pilots with greater distances, waiting until the ship was 50 to 75 miles away before the planes left Sunnyvale and had to find the ship on their own—which they were able to do every time. DSC00743 - CopyWiley had perfected the landing operation using airplanes as ballast. If extra pilots were aboard, he’d send them back to Moffett Field via “taxi” to return with heavier Sparrowhawks, usually loading all five interior positions.  A landing with a sixth “perch” plane was never attempted. On the operations side, they noticed the problem of compensating for the sudden loss of weight when launching planes (XF9C-1 and Akron shown). Almost 3 tons lighter within a few minutes by just launching two, the procedure was to pitch the ship nose down, thus preventing going over pressure height by flying dynamically.  More than 11,000 pounds would be lost when four planes were dispatched. On the “wish list” was some way to recover disposable weight temporarily to make helium operations more practical.

In October, the ship tested a mock-up of a proposed water-pickup bucket wheel.  It was judged a success. If war came and the ship was switched back to hydrogen, it would still be desirable to have a way to collect weight on demand – because the airplanes would be coming back.  Always thinking about the next airship, whose greater number of larger and heavier airplanes would exacerbate the problem, BuAer LTA guru C.P. Burgess, who had witnessed the test, recommended further development. However, resources could not be spared for further work on the ballasting scheme.

Much of the source footage for our Airship History Series third DVD chapter “The Flying Carriers” is included in the silent unedited footage DVD “USS Macon.

Read on to USS Macon: Flying Carrier Perfected

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