More than a half a century ago, the US’s largest dirigible sunk off the Big Sur coast. In the fall, researchers will attempt to photograph the wreck.
Thursday, August 4, 2005
“SOS—falling,” the radioman coolly typed.
Without a sound, the great airship fell slowly out of the clouds and towards the cold green sea and jagged cliffs of Big Sur.
“Let go all ballast and ship tanks aft of midships,” Lt. Cmdr. Herbert V. Wiley ordered from the control car, which hung beneath the dirigible’s huge helium-filled belly. “Slow all engines.”
Most of the crew’s 83 officers and men scrambled through the 785-foot silver air cruiser’s internal cavern of girders, cables and catwalks, dumping fuel and ballast, and preparing for the worst.
Commander Wiley glanced down at the white-capped sea below, where a wave of unpleasant memories surfaced. He forced himself to focus. The ship’s tail was still sinking towards the ocean, but now the vessel seemed to be gathering altitude thanks to the quick work of his men. Perhaps they would still be able to limp back to the barn at Moffett Field, near Mountain View, after all.
A whistle sounded in the voice tube and Wiley’s right-hand man, Lt. E.K. Van Swearingen, retrieved the message. It was a full damage report. The top stabilizing fin had been completely torn free—only the rudder was standing now. As a result, the number one cell was deflated and numbers zero and two were rapidly following suit.
Wiley knew it was the end. The USS Macon, the nation’s largest rigid airship, was doomed.
He ordered the vessel to be turned away from the sharp marine terraces of Big Sur and out to sea, towards the rescue ships that were closing in on his distress signals. Despite his tragic history, he was going to opt for the water landing.
Two years earlier, in 1933, Wiley had been serving aboard the USS Akron when the rigid dirigible had crashed in a storm off the New Jersey coast. The disaster had killed 78 of 81 men, including Admiral William Moffett, the father of Naval aviation. The only surviving officer of the Akron, Wiley was determined to avoid a similar tragedy by performing a controlled crash into the sea.
He ordered the crew to begin preparing to abandon ship. Throughout the mortally-wounded airship, the men leapt to it: unpacking rubber life rafts, opening hatches, cutting holes in the silver outer cover of the airship, and rigging lines to lower away.
The ship fell from the darkening sky at 600 feet per minute. It was 5:30pm on February 12, 1935. Soon, it would be night. To make matters worse, a storm had blown in, rain was falling and a significant northwest swell was chopping the frigid sea up into a frenzy below. Yet these were Navy seamen and a plunge into the cold, dark sea was part of the job.
The USS Macon had left its base at Moffett Field the day before to reconnoiter with the Pacific Fleet off the Southern California coast for training maneuvers. Eager to prove the embattled airship program’s versatility and effectiveness, Navy officials had performed a slapdash repair job on two tail fins which had sustained damage on the previous mission.
More modern and slightly faster than the Akron, her doomed sister ship, the Macon had a top speed of about 87 miles per hour and had cost $2.5 million to build in 1933. She had a stronger, improved internal design, which consisted of a hollow steel hull with three interior keels.
This strong internal spine was a direct result of another airship tragedy. In 1925, the USS Shenandoah had failed spectacularly by breaking in half over an Ohio valley and killing 14 crew members. As the Navy’s inaugural rigid airship, the Shenandoah proved to be just the first in a decade-long series of dirigible disasters.
As a result of this tremendously spotted history, the Navy’s rigid airship program had a great many detractors. Most considered the giant dirigibles to be too unwieldy, expensive and unreliable. The USS Macon was supposed to change that perception.
Kept aloft by non-flammable helium contained in 12 large, gelatin-latex cells, the Macon was considered faster and safer than her predecessors. Inside the hull, the ship had eight large 560-horsepower engines, which drove external propellers.
Amazingly, the Macon also carried its own protection—six Sparrowhawk fighter biplanes that the dirigible stored in its belly. The airplanes were slowly lowered on a trapeze and harness through a T-shaped hole in the dirigible’s underside. The pilots simply revved up their RPMs, yanked a release lever and dropped into the air in mid-flight.
Retrieving the planes, however, was a wild and white-knuckled ordeal. Each Sparrowhawk had a hook welded to its upper wing. The pilots had to match their speed to that of the dirigible and then gently set the tiny hook back on to the trapeze. The harness would then be attached to the fuselage, and the aircraft would be hoisted back up into the dirigible.
These daredevil pilots, known as “the men on the flying trapeze,” boasted a flawless record on both the Akron and the Macon. Unfortunately, the dirigibles themselves were quite a bit more accident prone.
Lt. Cmdr. Wiley and the USS Macon were returning from their successful maneuvers with the Pacific Fleet when they encountered severe storm winds off Point Sur.
A few minutes after 5pm, the great airship lurched sickeningly to port and then rolled slightly back towards starboard. The ship dove slightly, turned to starboard again and then stabilized. A crosswind had struck the ship with such force that the upper fins of the previously damaged tail were completely severed, sending shards of metal into the rear gas cells.
Wiley learned the extent of the damage and ordered all hands to abandon ship as the dirigible drifted slowly down through the cold, hard rain and into the ocean. As she came down, the Macon’s nose was inclined up between five and 10 degrees, plunging the lower fin into the water first.
In the nose, still 100 feet above the surface of the water, Radioman 1st class Ernest Dailey was panicking. He looked down at the dark stormy seas through a hole he’d cut in the shiny outer material of the dirigible, then without warning, leaped into the void. Witnesses say he did a flip in the air and landed on his back in the water below, never to be seen again.
As the airship began to settle into the water, the rest of the crew methodically abandoned her. They shimmied down lines or leapt into the water and boarded the rubber life rafts which dotted the dark seas around the dying dirigible.
Only one crewman, a Filipino mess steward named Florentino Edquiba, refused to abandon ship. According to reports, he was last seen trying to scramble up the material of the airship, perhaps looking for another way down. Like Dailey, he was never seen again.
Thankfully, the crew could already see the spotlights of rescue ships slicing through the dark rain. Within an hour the USS Richmond was on the scene, plucking survivors out of the water. In the end, Wiley did, in fact, manage to avoid another Akron disaster. Of his 83 men, only Dailey and Edquiba lost their lives.
Although Wiley and his crew didn’t know it at the time, the US Navy’s entire rigid airship program sank with the Macon into oblivion that night. The crash effectively marked the end of the military’s romance with long-range dirigibles.
More than half a century later, Wiley’s daughter was eating in a Moss Landing restaurant when she recognized a small piece of a rigid airship’s structural girder hanging on the wall. Beside it someone had hung an article about the crash of the USS Macon.
When she asked the owner of the restaurant where he’d gotten it, the man was cagey and less than forthcoming. It was a secret, he said. Yet after some explanation of the artifact’s personal significance, the restaurateur coughed up the name of fisherman who’d recently retired and moved to Richmond.
David Canepa had a magic fishing spot down in Big Sur. It couldn’t miss. And he thought he knew why. In addition to big rock cod, Canepa was also pulling up weird pieces of wreckage. There was something down there. Some big wreck, which had long ago formed an artificial reef and spawned lots of marine life.
Canepa had discovered the final resting spot of the USS Macon in 1,500 feet of water. But he was loathe to give up the numbers on his prime fishing spot, so he kept the coordinates secret and, instead, gave away the odd pieces of wreckage to his friends as gifts.
Long retired from fishing but still curious about the Macon, Canepa agreed to show scientists from the Monterey Bay Research Institute (MBARI) where the airship rested.
Because of the wreck’s bone-crushing depth, however, a traditional salvage operation was impossible. When the Navy became interested in recovering one of the rare Sparrowhawks, they called on MBARI to help them. So in 1990 and 1991, the Navy and MBARI teamed up to explore and document the crash site, sending first a manned vehicle and then an unmanned remotely operated vehicle (ROV), Ventana, down to photograph the site and to capture some of the wreckage with its robotic arm.
After the initial survey, Navy officials concluded any recovery of the Sparrowhawks would be impossible. Regardless, the expedition dredged up stunning images of the wreckage, including pictures of the intact—if green and ghostly—Sparrowhawks surrounded by huge, brightly colored fish.
The Macon had been rediscovered, but 15 years more years would pass before another significant research effort could be mounted.
In May, a team of researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Marine Sanctuary Program (NMSP), the US Geological Survey (USGS), Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML) and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) joined forces to further map the debris fields associated with the wreck site. Building upon information gathered by the US Navy and MBARI’s expeditions in 1990 and ‘91, the researchers generated a new map that not only documents the extent of the primary debris fields but also suggests the existence of a debris trail not previously recorded. The ongoing research efforts are currently on display at the Monterey Maritime Museum.
The research marked the fruits of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s first maritime heritage cruise within the sanctuary’s boundaries, and represents the first phase of a two-phase research effort to inventory and characterize the USS Macon’s wreck site. Phase II is slated for fall 2006. It will consist of photo documentation using an ROV. Ultimately, the researchers want to create a detailed photo mosaic of the wreck.
Like a whistle through the voice tube of history, the rediscovery of the USS Macon provides a fascinating and mysterious sounding of America’s short-lived love affair with the long-range rigid airship. As the final exclamation point on a romantic era of aviation history, the Macon is both a rich cultural heritage site and a solemn memorial to the men who lost their lives flying these magnificent airships.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE USS MACON AND SCIENTISTS’ EFFORTS TO STUDY ITS REMAINS, VISIT THE MONTEREY MARITIME MUSEUM, 5 CUSTOM HOUSE PLAZA, MONTEREY, 372-2608.