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UPDATED: Local helps get USS Macon crash site added to Historic Places

U.S. Navy's last dirigible sank 75 years ago in Feb. 1935

Posted: February 19, 2010 10:25 p.m.
Updated: February 22, 2010 12:35 a.m.

Co-Principal Investigators (left to right) Robert Schwemmer (NOAA), Chris Grech (MBARI) and Bruce Terrell (NOAA) examine draft photomosaic during the 2006 expedition mapping the USS Macon.

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Valencia resident Robert Schwemmer was a key player in adding the largest and last Navy airship's wreck site in Monterey Bay, Calif. to the National Register of Historic Places last week, in time for the 75th anniversary of the dirigible's fall from the sky.

Schwemmer was a principal investigator in the 2006 expedition charting the underwater grave of the USS Macon, which sank into the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 12, 1935.

He started diving 33 years ago and began exploring shipwrecks shortly after. He turned his hobby into a career in 1997, when he began working for the NOAA, and has participated in numerous expeditions documenting underwater wrecks off the California coast.

The Macon expedition involved remote excavating and creating a photo mosaic of the entire wreck site that gave credibility to the registry application, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration documents. The expedition was a collaborative effort led by the administration.

Schwemmer sat in the chief scientist seat at times and watched first-hand as their camera-equipped remote vehicle cruised through the intact bowels of the vessel at more than 1,500 feet underwater.

Schwemmer said the site now part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a time capsule.

"What we are looking at is Feb. 12, 1935," he said. "You see chairs there and you wonder who was sitting in them before the crash."

The Macon was the largest airship in the Navy and the last of its kind, Schwemmer said of the rigid lighter-than-air craft.

"It was an iconic symbol of Navy strength," he said. "It cast a shadow for blocks."

At 785 feet from nose to tail, the USS Macon was less than 100 feet shorter than the famed Titanic ocean liner. The Macon was the Navy's last and largest dirigible, a balloon-shaped airship capable of being steered, Schwemmer said.

The USS Macon and her nearly identical sister ship the USS Akron were designed and built by Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation. 

Both airships were motherships that could launch and retrive five Sparrowhawk fighter biplanes using a skyhook-and-trapeze apparatus, and store them in internal hangars.

Launched in November 1931, the Akron was caught in bad weather and high winds over the Atlantic on April 4, 1933. It crashed and  sank, tail first, killing 76 onboard and two rescuers. Only three aboard survived, including Lt. Cmdr. Herbert V. Wiley.

Almost two years later, Wiley was also aboard the Macon when it was damaged in a storm, crashed and sank, also tail first, into the Pacific Ocean near Point Sur, Calif.

Fortunately, all but two of the Macon's 83 crewmen, including Wiley, were rescued in seven lifeboats by nearby Navy ships, nothwithstanding heavy seas. 

But there was no rescuing the Navy's rigid airship program, which would never fly again.

The Macon's underwater wreck site remained undiscovered until the Navy and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute located it in 1990 and 1991. Expeditions in 2005 and 2006 documented its location and condition after.

While the discoveries at the Macon site are historic for most, they're personal for Marie Wiley Ross, Lt. Cmdr. Wiley's daughter. She was 4 years old when the second airship went down and doesn't remember her father ever talking about either crash.

"It's been very interesting for me because I've learned a lot about my dad in the process of discovering," Ross said in a phone call from her home in Livermore, Calif.


Bruce Terrell, a senior archaeologist with the association's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Maritime Heritage Program, said in a statement that dirigibles were an important development in the history of aviation.

"The Macon's remains represent the only archaeologically documented example of such aircraft in the United States and possibly the world," Terrell said in the statement.

Signal Online Editor Stephen K. Peeples contributed to this story.

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