USS Akron (ZRS-4) was a helium-filled rigid airship of the U.S. Navy that was destroyed in a thunderstorm off the coast of New Jersey on the morning of 4 April 1933, killing 73 of her 76 crewmen and passenger. This accident was the largest loss of life for any known airship crash. During her accident-prone 18-month term of service, the Akron also served as a flying aircraft carrier for launching and recovering F9C Sparrowhawk fighter planes.
With lengths of 785 ft (239 m), 20 ft (6.1 m) shorter than the German commercial airship Hindenburg, Akron and her sister airship the Macon were among the largest flying objects in the world. Although the Hindenburg was longer, she was filled with hydrogen, so the two U.S. airships still hold the world record for helium-filled airships.
Construction of ZRS-4 commenced on October 31, 1929, at the Goodyear Airdock in Akron, Ohio by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation.Because she was the biggest airship ever to be built in America up to that point, a special hangar was constructed in Akron and a team of experienced German airship engineers, led by Chief Designer Karl Arnstein, instructed and supported design and construction of both U.S. Navy airships USS Akron and USS Macon.
On November 7, 1931, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett — the Chief of the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics — drove the "golden rivet" in the ship's main ring. Erection of the hull sections began in March 1930. On 10 May, Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams chose the name Akron (for the city where she was being built) and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Ernest Lee Jahncke announced it four days later, on 14 May 1930.
The airship's frame was built of the lightweight alloy duralumin. Once completed, the Akron could store 20,000 US gal (76,000 L) of gasoline, which gave her a range of 10,500 mi (9,100 nmi; 16,900 km). Eight Maybach VL-2 gasoline engines were mounted inside the hull. Each engine turned one twin-bladed propeller via a driveshaft which allowed the propeller to swivel vertically and horizontally.
On August 8, 1931, the Akron was launched (floated free of the hangar floor) and christened by Mrs. Lou Henry Hoover, the wife of the President of the United States, Herbert Clark Hoover. The maiden flight of the Akron took place around Cleveland on the afternoon of 23 September with Secretary of the Navy Adams and Rear Admiral Moffett on board. The airship made eight more flights — principally over Lake Erie but ranging as far as Detroit, Michigan, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Columbus, Ohio — before being flown from Akron to the Naval Air Station (NAS) at Lakehurst, New Jersey, where it was delivered to the Navy and commissioned on Navy Day, 27 October, with Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Rosendahl in command.
The Akron had a unique feature, somewhat like the World War I German zeppelin spähkorb developed by Ernst Lehmann, for determining whether the air was clear below a fog bank to descend. A small weather station containing a radio transmitter was lowered on a cable and reported back to the Akron whether there was clear air below the fog or whether it reached all the way to the ground.
On 2 November 1931, the Akron cast off for a maiden voyage as a commissioned "ship" of the U.S. Navy and cruised down the eastern seaboard to Washington, D.C., Over the weeks that followed, some 300 hours aloft were logged in a series of flights, including a 46-hour endurance flight to Mobile, Alabama, and back. The return leg of the trip was made via the valleys of the Mississippi River and the Ohio River.
On the evening of 3 April 1933, Akron cast off from the mooring mast to operate along the coast of New England, assisting in the calibration of radio direction finder stations. Rear Admiral Moffett was again on board along with his aide, Commander Henry Barton Cecil, Commander Fred T. Berry, the commanding officer of NAS Lakehurst, and Lieutenant Colonel Alfred F. Masury, USAR, a guest of the admiral, vice-president of the Mack Truck Co., and strong proponent of the potential civilian uses of rigid airships.
Akron soon encountered severe weather, which did not improve when the airship passed over Barnegat Light, New Jersey at 10:00 pm as wind gusts of terrific force struck its massive airframe. The airship was being flown into an area of lower barometric pressure than at take-off, which caused the actual altitude flown to be lower than that indicated in the control gondola. Around 12:30 am on 4 April, Akron was caught by an updraft, followed almost immediately by a downdraft. Commander McCord—the captain—ordered full speed ahead, ballast dropped. The executive officer—LCDR Herbert V. Wiley—handled the ballast and emptied the bow emergency ballast. Coupled with the elevator man holding nose up, this caused the nose to rise and the tail to rotate down. Akron's descent was only temporarily halted, whereupon downdrafts forced the airship down farther. Wiley activated the 18 "howlers" of the ship's telephone system, a signal to landing stations. At this point, Akron was nose up, between 12 and 25°.
The Engineering Officer called out "800 feet" (240 m), which was followed by a "gust" of intense violence. The steersman reported no response to his wheel as the lower rudder cables had been torn away. While the control gondola was still hundreds of feet high, the lower fin of Akron had struck the water and was torn off.
ZRS4 rapidly broke up and sank in the stormy Atlantic. Akron had been lost owing to operator error, having been flown to sea into an intense storm front. The crew of the nearby German motorship Phoebus saw lights descending toward the ocean at about 12:23 and altered course to starboard to investigate, believing they were witnessing a plane crash. At 12:55, an unconscious Commander Wiley was pulled from the water while the ship's boat picked up three more men: Chief Radioman Robert W. Copeland, Boatswain's Mate Second Class Richard E. Deal, and Aviation Metalsmith Second Class Moody E. Erwin. Despite artificial respiration, Copeland never regained consciousness and died aboard Phoebus.
Although the German sailors spotted four or five other men in the water, they did not know their ship had chanced upon the crash of Akron until Lieutenant Commander Wiley regained consciousness half an hour after being rescued. The crew of Phoebus combed the ocean in boats for over five hours in a fruitless search for more survivors. The Navy blimp J-3—sent out to join the search—also crashed, with the loss of two men.
The United States Coast Guard cutter Tucker—the first American vessel on the scene—arrived at 6:00, taking Akron's survivors and the body of Copeland aboard. Among the other ships combing the area for survivors were the heavy cruiser Portland, the destroyer Cole, the Coast Guard cutter Mojave, and the Coast Guard destroyers McDougal and Hunt, as well as two Coast Guard aircraft. The F/V Grace F out of Gloucester MA also assisted in the search, employing her seining gear in an effort to recover bodies. Most casualties had been caused by drowning and hypothermia, as the crew had not been issued life jackets, and there had not been time to deploy the single life raft. The accident left 73 dead, and only three survivors. Wiley, standing next to the two other survivors, gave a brief account on 6 April.
Akron's loss spelled the beginning of the end for the rigid airship in the US Navy, especially since one of its leading proponents, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, was killed with 72 other men. As President Roosevelt commented afterward: "The loss of the Akron with its crew of gallant officers and men is a national disaster. I grieve with the Nation and especially with the wives and families of the men who were lost. Ships can be replaced, but the Nation can ill afford to lose such men as Rear Admiral William A. Moffett and his shipmates who died with him upholding to the end the finest traditions of the United States Navy."
The USS Macon and other airships received life jackets to avert a repetition of this tragedy.
The songwriter Bob Miller wrote and recorded a song — "The Crash of the Akron" — within one day of the disaster.