USS Macon: Flying Carrier Perfected


In this “Min” Miller late F9C-2 photo used in his presentation, one can see small stand-off tripods on the upper wingtips. Dr. Gerhard Fisher had brought the Navy a new low-frequency radio detection device he was developing. The wrap of wire looping the wings was a combination of the radio direction device and a 4000 HZ radio receiver the pilot could use simultaneously. Smith wrote, “The Fisher-Miller set proved to be the answer to most of the F9C’s communication and navigation problems…. with the new radio equipment, the range of the F9Cs was limited by the amount of fuel they could carry… the F9C had a normal out and back range of 175 miles; the “range tank” extended this to 255 miles.”

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The ZRS ships’ radio room was above the control car, port. (Photos: window, yellow arrows; their weighted antennas retracted, yellow ovals) The arrangement was from the pre-airplane carrier era, and connected to the bridge by voice tube.  So when Dr. Gerhard Fisher approached Macon communications officer Howard N. Coulter with the LF radio homing device he was developing, the equipment was mounted in the navigator’s section of the car (above, right, red box), and its loop antenna concealed in the bumper bag (later Akron shown, similar).  A huge improvement to previous RDF equipment, Fisher and Coulter soon had Macon using its easily read indicator to follow a course, or home in on an active transmitter.

zrs5-from-tailMacon left her mast on October 8th for at-sea training, searching for merchant ships with her planes. Conditions became unsuitable for most of the 9th but with the clearing on the 10th she located S.S. Lurline, a steamship that made runs from Japan to the States.  Out again on the 12th, she carried visiting officers, including the Naval District Commandant. An extended flight beginning November 20th calibrated the new direction finder, and Wiley also tried the idea of maneuvering the ship from the topside forward gun station to avoid “enemy” airplane attacks.

sparrowhawk-maconai-0051Since dirigibles had stood on their own in the eyes of the Navy’s General Board, the newly added ability to cram a few small planes in one bay seen mainly as enhancing their own defenses. The “gas bag” men at Lakehurst had openly called the HTA units “orphans.” Finally, in the fall of 1934, BuAer Chief RADM E.J. King took not only “Mr. Airship” CDR Garland Fulton, but this time experienced hook-on pilot LT Ward Harrington, to present the case for the flying carrier to the General Board. An impression was made, but nothing directly related was to be written on paper for years to come. Meanwhile, the idea of using the airship herself as a bombing platform advanced to planning a bomb rack below each 1-ton gasoline tank at frames 35, 57.5, 80, 102.5, 147.5 and 170. With the spy basket now stable, the plan was to put the requested Mark XV or XI bomb sight aboard, with the occupant calling shots back to the airship hidden in the cloud on his telephone. Using existing structure and suspension minimized additional dead weight. (The more obvious idea of having the airplanes carry bombs eventually advanced beyond discussion – but only in the “after-Macon” report.)

Meanwhile, the Fleet had returned to the Pacific and Macon participated in exercise “Z” beginning on 9 NOV 34. Finally, she had been assigned to be the friendly’s vanguard. Within a few hours Macon’s planes sighted the “enemy” fleet’s scout cruisers, and within an hour each, the main body and then its flattop. Boldly making no attempt to hide, Macon kept reporting the enemy’s position as planes lifted off the flat top to attack her.  The previous July, Wiley had begun actively train the crew in sighting: judging distance, and identifying ships and planes from photos. Topside lookouts offered direction, and Skipper Wiley’s handling of the ship in the exercise so threw off the attacker’s aim point they were scored as missing the airship. Macon then tailed the main body, reporting every move until the exercise concluded. Comairbatfor “complements Macon on excellent scouting and character of radio reports by planes…” while C-in-C US Fleet dispatched “Well Done.”

Macon’s demonstrated successes under Wiley had people continuing to think about the next airship, and up-gunning to .50 cal for the defensive positions was a must. Better sighting equipment would help determine friend or foe at greater standoff distances; small binoculars used in the control car were inadequate, and downright useless in the upper observation post’s windblast at speed. Since dive bombers could easily attack from directly above, upward-training guns – perhaps mounted in electric turrets, which were then coming into service with Army bombers – could be employed.

Also on the wish list was an American-made powerplant to replace the Mybach, which dated to before the ZR-3 ten years earlier. Allison was hard at work developing the monster 750 hp V-1710 engine whose added power would have easily allowed Macon to remove Mybachs #2 and #3, as had been proposed since their condensers were removed. The next generation flying carrier might be employing two in each of four exterior power cars. Overseas, the Germans were secretly developing a flying-weight diesel engine. The oil-burner’s hefty bottom-end torque curve was more desirable for huge propellers long before the British accepted the grossly overweight railroad locomotive diesels for R.101.

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Shock recorded, “Between the “Presidential mission” and November 1934, fourteen flights, for a total 404 hours, were made perfecting the use of the hook-on planes. Operating from the Camp Kearny stub mast, an exercise with the fleet was held on November 7, 1934.  ZRS-5 was complimented on excellent scouting and radio reports by the airship’s planes. On December 5, a tactical exercise was conducted. Macon again sighted and reported the “enemy” hours before its CV launched against her. Since the attackers could double the dirigible’s speed, more savvy pilots’ attacks were not so easily confused where their aim points should be on the climbing, turning airship, and were scored as hits. The umpire penalized Macon eleven tons of fuel. It is not clear how the judges evaluated the ship’s own possible armament, since topside could actually have brought three guns to bear on a dive bomber.  A typical bomb might just pass directly through the fabric and cell without exploding, so potential enemies would have to develop more sensitive fuses or other ideas reminiscent of British efforts against Zeppelins in the Great War. (Only one Zep, the L-37, was lost in flames directly resulting from a bombing attack.)  Macon again reported enemy units the morning of 7 December and shadowed into the afternoon.

The exercise was halted when two pontoon-equipped spotter planes from the cruiser USS Cincinnati were overdue. Having past their possible fuel duration, they were reported missing. ZRS-5’s scouts were the first to locate the two floatplanes bobbing in the ocean. Radio-directed to the location, Macon held station overhead allowing a surface ship to recover the planes and their crews. Fanning out his scouts and locating the lost floatplanes was personally satisfying for Wiley; he’d been aboard that very cruiser months earlier. At that time he’d listened to her aviators ridicule airships in general and Macon in particular.  Wiley could have tried out the new pilot rescue sling, but the floatplanes were only out of gas; someone had to stand by them to prevent their loss. So Macon stood by as the cruiser Portland sighted in on the giant silver dirigible and recovered the planes.

img039The potentially life saving action of Macon locating the lost floatplanes was noted by ComBatFor in his review, but Admiral “Billy Goat” Reeves criticized Macon for her inability to scout and still evade the “enemy” planes.  Again BuAer Chief King insisted the airship be tested in long-range patrol work, and eventually the General Board supported the idea. The CNO disagreed, wanting to retain tactical options, including having Macon tested as a bomber. This obviously depended upon the airship being able to take advantage of common Pacific temperature-inversion fog banks to obscure the airship… and a way of sighting below the fog.

Sharing the same winch and cable with the pilot rescue sling was the “spy basket.” After Akron tests showed refinement was needed, improvements to its harness had been made by the Guggenheim Foundation Aero Lab at Stanford. Otherwise known as the “cloud car” (right, as seen from a passing airplane), it had been deployed at an airspeed of 50 knots on October 10th. The only images we have of the stable spy basket were motion pictures taken on Navy Day, October 27, 1934, as newsreel cameramen were taken out from Moffett Field for Macon to strut all her stuff.  (Much of this film is included in our DVD “The Flying Carriers.) Yet it had been called technically obsolete by 1933.  True, the hook-on planes made for wider scouting at extreme standoff from the high value asset. But, obsolete? A similar cloud car was pulled from a museum display five years later and used to eavesdrop during the last missions of a rigid airship, just weeks before WWII began! However, airshipmen had remembered one particularly frustrating evaluation of performance in pea-soup fog that had grounded all Fleet airplanes. One Admiral complained Macon’s assets should have allowed scouting while another said the fog made Macon useless. Wiley retained the car since this little wingless “plane” allowed Macon the promise of sort of a inverse periscope— without her aircraft being subjected to the hazards of flying through obscuring layers in which they might collide with the mothership. Not seen are the markings on the cable which allowed the winch operator to keep track of how much cable had been payed out. The sonic altimeter and measuring marks on the cable could have verified altitude to prevent dunking the occupant.   Room for improvement had been noted, with visibility below and to the car’s rear, and the windshield did not help vision, either.

5-mage-151934 had been a busy, productive year for Macon and her crew.  The process of launching and recovering the airship directly from the stern beam had been perfected without a single injury or damage to the dirigible. With the holiday break came the Christmas cards – for airshipmen, often an LTA theme. (LCDR Wiley poses in his aviator’s cap by the ship’s engine annunciators.)  Right after New Years’ Macon was aloft for fleet visibility tests, working with Lexington until weather made further work impractical. On the 15th she tested her own stealth by darkening ship and conducting visibility tests. On the last day of the January Macon ran long-distance homing exercises with her planes. Sadly, the chance to actually spearhead scouting for the fleet, which was seen as being most effective 50 to 75 miles ahead of the surface fleet’s track, was never to be tested in practice.

In the afternoon of the 1st of February 1935, a battle drill IMAG0086 - Copysimulated a damaged bridge,  and for the first time on any 5-mag0205American airship, control was shifted from forward to the auxiliary control station in the leading edge of the lower vertical fin. Conning for half an hour gave confidence the station could handle such an emergency. In the photo, Chief Petty Officers Joe Barton and Harry Probst con the ship from the somewhat cramped station. This casualty control measure would be the most extensive disaster training Macon would ever conduct – and as it turned out, in less than two weeks, that drill had not been enough.

With fin reinforcements proceeding slowly, and preps for Hawaii in the distance, it seemed ComAirBatFour would finally honor BuAer Chief King’s request (then over a year old). Meanwhile the 2nd week of February’s Fleet’s movement along nhcdsc01458the California coast afforded a seldom-seen opportunity.  Macon was directed to use the exercise for some more real-world practice using the new homing gear.  She was to shadow and plot the Fleet’s movements, with she and her planes remaining unobserved and radio silent until the 1800 on February 12th. Macon made a routine launch on the morning of the 11th and headed south.

2-2Before noon, Miller and Huff were launched to check for fleet presence near San Diego, which at about 200 miles, was near the safe range limit. Half-past noon Kivette and Simpler were also launched to check around suspected rendezvous points from San Clemente to Santa Catalina.  Maintaining radio silence, the pilots could use this card (at right) to record the relevant info – type of ship,  speed, distance from the Macon, etc.  As one can see, the grid could be scaled for small to large areas.  The dirigible was also changing course without notifying its planes, to avoid being spotted through the clouds and grey sky. The electronic gear was reliably homing the planes to their trapeze independently, from different compass points, in spite of unannounced mothership movements. Macon swung west, then south to circle the advancing surface forces. Through the night Macon stayed south, and the log records making contacts at night. With the grey dawn Kivette and Simpler were launched to check on the “enemy’s” progress north, with instructions to return west of the Channel Islands in case a secondary force might spot them. Miller and Huff launched to shadow the expected fleet grouping for its entrance into San Francisco. Having executed the mission flawlessly, command decided Macon would not be retained for the searchlight drill scheduled for the night of the 13th. Reporting all information gained on the 11th and 13th by dispatch, Macon was released to return to base at Wiley’s discretion. Those last two planes were recovered at 1550 off Point Piedras Blancas, and Macon headed north for Point Sur, the gateway through the mountains to the Santa Clara Valley. It had been a good exercise, a preview of what the team of dirigible and hook-on planes could do when they were to start open-ocean searches out of Ewa the following April.

Macon had flown almost 1800 hours covering some 90,000 nautical miles. She’d moored multiple times in five different locations. Those last two recoveries put the number of hook-on “landings” over 750 total. As dinnertime approached, there was certainly no indication their rigid airship had less than two hours to live.

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postscript: In the 1950s US Navy airshipmen developed techniques to refuel, replenish and even re-man, in the air, while underway.