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US Navy Dirigible Macon History Column Dave Petersen

On June 13th 1933 the crew and passengers on board the Pere Marquette 22 got a rare treat in sighting the US Navy Dirigible Macon off Two River Point Wisconsin. Both JH Ferris Captain and noted photographer and his Wheelsman Erhardt Peters who was also a photographer had their cameras on board and were able to capture this event.

The Macon only flew 54 missions in her career and was one of 2 Dirigibles built in the United States for the Navy by Goodyear.

The first Dirigible of rigid construction was built in Germany during the 1890's and on her test flight on November 3rd 1897 crashed. That did not deter the Germans from continuing to work on and perfect the dirigible. Count Ferdinand Graf Von Zeppelin's company was the major designer and builder of Zeppelins during the early part of the 20th century. These submarines of the skies were used successfully by Germany in the early years of WWI in bombing raids on France and England until the allies figured out how to successfully attack them.

Non-rigid airships were used more successfully in the war for coastal patrol, sighting of enemy submarines, locating mines, and aerial observation. Nearly a thousand of these type of balloons were manufactured in the United States for use oversees during the First World War. They had a great value in the early years of aviation when planes were really in their infancy as well.

After WWI more of these airships were constructed, and they used hydrogen which as we all know can be a dangerous proposition as it can ignite and destroy the Dirigible. After the Navy purchased the Dirigible Roma from Italy it ignited and crashed in 1922 and Helium (which was safer and more expensive) was substituted by the United States for Hydrogen. We continued our experimentation with airships with the construction of the Shenandoah in 1922, which broke up in a storm in 1925.

Although Germany was not allowed to build Zeppelins after WWI they did gain permission to build the Dirigible Los Angeles and this was built by Zeppelin's company and given to the US Navy. Airships were experimented with widely for both civilian transportation and military applications; Germany also enjoyed some commercial success in the 1930's with their airships. Airships wee used by many countries around the world, and it was a potentially viable form of transportation, some of the ships operated without problems and logged many miles in the air.

The patent rights to build dirigibles was granted to Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in 1924 and they built both the Macon and the Akron. The Macon was three times longer then a Boeing 747, framed with aluminum, and weighed 120 tons. It seems odd to think of a lighter then air craft weighing 240,000 pounds.

One of the unique features of these dirigibles were the 5 sparrow-hawk fighter planes that were contained within, they could be launched and recovered and pulled back into the ship using a trapeze like hook. They offered some protection for the airship and could be used for scouting.

The Macon as we see in our pictures was launched on April 23rd 1933 so at the time of it's sighting over Lake Michigan had only been operational for a short time. The Macon was caught in a squall February 12, 1935 off the San Francisco Peninsula, a tail fin collapsed, tearing into some of the helium cells and the airship slowly settled into the Bay. Luckily 81 of the 83 crewmen on board were able to get out and were rescued. Many other previous crashes of such airships had much higher mortality rates.

The Macon scouted successfully for the Navy eight times, and was returning from a successful mission at the time of the crash. The Navy was interested in using airships for long range scouting, and one has to wonder what would have happened if we had continued promoting the airship program in the 1930's and had a couple of these giants quietly cruising near the Hawaiian Islands on December 7th 1941.

The airship program expanded and continued having been bolstered by the attack on Pearl Harbor. By 1945 at the end of WWII 145 Navy airships were in service and had successfully escorted thousands of ships without a single loss to submarine attack. By 1964 all airships in the navy inventory had been eliminated and the airship program had come to an end officially. The rapid development and improvements of the airplane and cost effectiveness of air travel after WWII really had ended the era of the Dirigible much earlier then 1964. The airship however was an important part of aviation history and luckily a piece of that history was caught on film by two of our own back in 1933.

If you have any stories or photographs to share with our readers please feel free to contact me at 757-3240 or davep@blackcreekpress.com

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