Flying aircraft carriers sound like fantasy, something you’d only see in a crappy Marvel movie. But they’re real. Or rather, were real. In the 1930s, the United States made two plane-carrying airships. This video has the remains of one, the USS Macon, lying at the depths of the Pacific Ocean.
The Macon and her sister ship, the USS Akron, were huge vessels, less than 20 feet shorter than the ill-fated, hydrogen-filled Hindenburg. But the Macon and the Akron were inherently safer, borne aloft by less-flammable helium, and propelled by eight 12-cylinder Maybach engines. The engines themselves could rotate downwards and backwards, enabling a modicum of thrust-vectoring control.
The idea behind the Macon was actually pretty brilliant. Doubly so in the pre-radar days, when much of reconnaissance was just what one person could see with their eyes. The basic concept had the long-distance, long-duration Macon serve as a sort of mothership to five Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk “parasite” biplanes.
The Macon could actually deploy the Sparrowhawks, far ahead of its own line of sight, which could then report back on any troop movements they may have encountered out beyond the horizon. The Sparrowhawks would be launched and recovered using a trapeze-and-skyhook system. One hook would be mounted on the top of the plane, and it would latch onto the bottom of the airship above it. I know my description is a bit clunky, so here’s a picture of the system in action:
The Macon regularly carried four such planes, and four Sparrowhawks still sit inside the Macon’s hangar bay, albeit more than 1,000 feet below the surface of the ocean.
The huge airship actually flew around for two years without much incident, just generally being awesome. But it crashed off the beautiful Big Sur, California coast in February of 1935, through a combination of design deficiencies, incomplete repairs, and human error. There was no massive fireball like with the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg, and only two of the 76 crew were killed in the accident, thanks in large part to the warm water and adequate life jackets and rafts.
One of the crew died when he jumped from the airship too early as it made its graceful descent into the water, slamming into the ocean surface. The other died when he decided to try and swim back into the wreckage to carry some personal belongings.
This past Tuesday, the Naval History and Heritage Command, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and a bunch of non-profits all got together to explore the final resting spot of the Macon once more, using a few underwater remotely operated vehicles.
Bruce Terrell, chief archaeologist and historian at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ Maritime Heritage Program, told USNI that the main goals of the expedition were to simply understand the past:
“We want to know basically what’s there, identify objects, things like that. We want to know how it wrecked, how all that happened,” he said.
“But then we want to understand the more human story. Now with Macon, there were two losses, a radioman and a steward; we know the radioman jumped from too high and broke his back, so they may have recovered his remains. But the steward ran back into the galley and was never seen again, so we may have a military grave there. But then the other human question we want to answer is, since there were people onboard, we want to know basically how the workspaces were arranged on Macon, how this big complex ship in the sky actually operated – how they interacted with each other, how they communicated, what kind of personal effects may have been onboard. We know we’ve got a lot of the galley there, it would be interesting to know how they cooked and ate their food up there in the sky.”
The site was last explored in 2006, and in the intervening years it has deteriorated quite a bit. For example, here’s what remains of one of the Sparrowhawks:
As you can see, it’s a bit worse for the wear.
But that doesn’t make it any less neat!