I think most of us have heard of the Hindenburg…the hydrogen filled blimp like airship the crashed in a ball of fire on May 6, 1937, bringing with it a loss of 36 lives…amazing when you consider that there were 97 people on board when that ball of fire crashed. What many people may not know is that the Hindenburg was not the only hydrogen powered airship. The USS Macon (ARS-5), named for Macon, Georgia and operated by the United States Navy for scouting and served as a “flying aircraft carrier” as well. It was designed to carry biplane parasite aircraft. Macon held single seat Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawks for scouting or two seat Fleet N2Y-1 for training. The Macon was a little under 20 feet shorter than the Hindenburg. The USS Macon also had a sister ship…the USS Akron (ARS-4).
The USS Macon was in service less than two years, when on February 12, 1935 it was damaged in a storm and crashed off California’s Big Sur coast. Most of the crew was saved, and the wreckage remains on the ocean floor. The site of the wreckage remains on the United States National Register of Historic Places. I find myself interested in things like shipwrecks and plane crashes, but the ones underwater are especially interesting, because they are so inaccessible to most people. The USS Macon, like the Hindenburg proved not to be the best choice of an airship. There were really to many conditions that could easily bring them down. And the fact that they contained so much helium made then a flying bomb, in all reality. I don’t suppose that was something they considered when making these machines, but I’m sure it later became the reason that they discontinues this type of airship. I find it quite sad that it too two crashes to realize that they were not the safest way to fly.
I suppose they served their purpose though. I think it’s amazing that they could actually carry a plane on a hook and let it take off from the air. Launching and recovery from the airship in flight was done using a skyhook. The Sparrowhawk had a hook mounted above its top wing that attached to the cross-bar of a trapeze mounted on the carrier airship. For launching, the trapeze was lowered clear of the hull into the moving airship’s slipstream. With engine running, the Sparrowhawk would then disengage its hook and fall away from the airship. For recovery, the biplane would fly underneath the airship, until it was beneath the trapeze. The pilot would climb up from below, and hook onto the cross-bar. Once the Sparrowhawk was secure, it could be hoisted by the trapeze back within the airship’s hull, the engine was cut as it passed the hangar door. To me, this seems like a tricky maneuver, but the pilots soon learned the technique and said it was much easier than landing on a moving aircraft carrier. Soon, the pilots acquired the nickname “The men on the Flying Trapeze” and their aircraft were decorated with appropriate emblems. Now to me…that is cool!!