Today, when we think of lighter-than-air dirigibles, we think of ungainly blimps emblazoned with corporate logos that float over football stadiums. But back in 1933, when the USS Macon was commissioned by the U.S. Navy, they were called airships, and their enormous size inspired not amusement, but awe. The Macon was among the mightiest of the giants. At 874 feet in length, it was the biggest aircraft ever built in the U.S., almost four times as long as Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose seaplane and nearly as big as the Titanic.  It weighed over 200 tons. But beyond its sheer size, the Macon was a marvel of 1930s high-tech, with an aluminum alloy skeleton and 12 helium-filled gas cells to keep it aloft, without risk of igniting, as hydrogen-filled airships sometimes did. Its eight German-made, 560-horsepower engines enabled it to fly at speeds of up to 87 miles per hour. 

Essentially the Macon was a flying aircraft carrier. According to an article on the Macon at Airships.net, a historical web site, the dirigible was equipped with a 75 foot-by-60-foot hangar, capable of storing, launching and retrieving up to five Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk biplanes. The fighters could be launched and retrieved by using an ingenious trapeze that dangled from the Macon’s underside. 

In an era before aircraft could fly long distances without refueling, the Macon provided a way to extend their range—and to perform aerial surveillance for extended periods. Some saw the airship as the military aircraft of the future, harbinger of a fleet of radar-equipped floating giants that could patrol the skies over the oceans and create an early warning system for the U.S. military. ““One of the things that the Japanese orders contained is if while you are on your way to attack Pearl Harbor somebody finds you, discovers you and discovers you are there to immediately call of that attack,” explains airship historian J. Gordon Vaeth, author of “They Sailed the Skies,” a history of the U.S. Navy’s dirigible program. “And if there had been some airships based in Hawaii out there that would have spotted those Japanese ships the attack would have never taken place.” 

But the Macon never got a chance to protect the nation. In February 1935, the airship crashed in a storm off Big Sur on the northern California coast. Fortunately, all but two of the 83 officers and crew on board were rescued by Navy ships. 

A subsequent investigation revealed that the Macon’s upper vertical stabilizer fin, which had been modified from the original design to make it more visible to the control room, had suffered a structural failure. Pieces of the stabilizer had broken away and punctured the Macon’s rear gas cells, causing helium to leak. Even so, the Macon might have made it back to the airfield, but the operator made the mistake of flying the ship over pressure height, so that the too much of the helium leaked out. 

Today, the Macon’s crash site is within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, whose web site offers this informative page about the airship. The wreck is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

Tune in tonight at 10P et/pt for the full story of the famous Flying Aircraft Carrier.