USS Macon (ZRS-5) served the United States Navy as a scouting platform and experimental fighter mothership during its short-lived air-going career in the 1930s. It was designed as a rigid airship and her development coincided with the American interest in "parasite fighters". Parasite fighters were to be housed in hangars aboard the airship and released as needed and made recoverable through an ingenious "trapeze" method.
USS Macon began construction in May of 1931 by Goodyear-Zeppelin Company of Springfield Township, Ohio. The airship was launched on March 11th, 1933 and formally commissioned (as naval warships are) on June 23rd of that year. Her development was aided by German engineering support that included Karl Arnstein, a well-experienced designer of airships during the period.
Macon belonged to the Akron-class group which consisted of just one other aircraft - USS Akron (ZRS-4). Displacement was 7,401,260 cubic feet while dimensions included an overall length of 785 feet a beam of 133 feet and a draught of 146.4 feet. Propulsion was from 8 x (German) Maybach VL-2 12-cylinder water-cooled inline piston engines developing 560 horsepower each. These engines drove three-bladed, variable-pitch metal propeller units. The propellers were given a tilting feature that allowed them to vector their power downwards or in reverse. Maximum speed was 86 miles per hour while cruising was restricted to around 63 miles per hour. The airship's range was out to 6,840 miles.
Internally Macon carried a crew of sixty personnel. There were also 8 x 0.30 caliber medium machine guns fitted for local defense. A single trapeze recovery installation was used to launch one of the five Curtiss F9C "Sparrowhawk" biplane fighters (detailed elsewhere on this site). The general make up of the ship involved a dozen helium-filled cells fabricated from gelatin-latex and the solid understructure of the airship was of duraluminum.
Once in the air, the Akron-class airships became the largest such aircraft constructed on American soil. In April of 1933, Macon's sister, USS Akron, crashed and was lost (with only three souls surviving). Macon began her own career in June of that year and began by undertaking training sorties. It then joined USN warships for fleet exercises where her contributions were limited due to a general misunderstanding of how to use such an air vehicle in conjunction with sea-going vessels. The airship then successfully launched and retrieve its first aircraft during July of 1933. It relocated from Lakehurst, New Jersey to Santa Clara County in California before the end of the year.
In 1934, USS Macon attempted another continental journey but was damaged before arriving at its destination. Her end came during a storm encountered on February 12th, 1935 as she crashed off the coast of California (near Monterey Bay, two crew died in the event). The loss of both Akron and Macon steered the USN to invest more in non-rigid airships for the World War 2 period.
The vessel managed 50 flights before being written off (February 26th, 1935). The accident site was explored in February of 1991 and again in 2006. In January of 2010, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places. At least four Sparrowhawk fighters have been identified with the wreckage.
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