Called the “Queen of the Skies,” the doomed airship was an incredible sight.
The USS Macon, its engines thrumming against the prevailing northwest wind, was headed to the Bay Area. Evening winter sun glinted off the silver skin of the 785-foot-long cigar-shaped dirigible.
As she glided past San Luis Obispo County, she was in the final minutes of life.
Near Big Sur on Feb. 12, 1935, the crash of the USS Macon (ZRS-5) would be the death knell of the Navy’s dirigible program.
The airship was designed by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corp., a partnership created in 1923 between the U.S. and German companies.
The USS Macon and the USS Akron were gigantic twins and among the largest helium-filled ships ever built. They were only 20 feet shorter than the ill-fated Zeppelin ship, the Hindenburg.
The rigid-framed dirigibles were designed to be scouts for the seagoing fleet, but the helium-filled behemoths would be an easy target for attacking airplanes. Their reign was brief; they were obsolete before they were built. Seagoing aircraft carriers would prove more durable, flexible and strike harder.
Even absent the explosive potential carried by hydrogen-filled German Zeppelins, the lighter-than-air craft were fragile.
The Akron and the Macon would each last less than two years.
The Akron crashed off the coast of New Jersey during a storm in April 1933.
Of the 76 aboard, only three survived.
The 785-foot-long Macon, like her twin, was slow to maneuver and delicate, requiring the captain to anticipate problems long before they became critical.
An incident a few days before the Macon’s February 1935 demise had weakened the upper vertical fin. Modifications to the original design to allow an unobstructed fin view from the control car further compromised strength.
In an attempt to save weight, the fins also were not connected internally via a cruciform framework like Zeppelins.
Macon’s weakened fin broke as a “gale” closed in near Big Sur.
Lt. Commander Herbert V. Wylie had survived two airship crashes — Akron and Shenandoah — and now was in dire straits for a third time.
Gas cells were damaged, and up to 20 percent of the lift was at risk.
Some critics fault the captain’s decision to quickly drop large amounts of fuel, causing the airship to rise rapidly. This in turn forced automatic venting of additional helium to prevent cells from rupturing during ascent.
The Macon, with a crew of 83 souls aboard, was sinking over the ocean as the sun set.
Ralph Duncan, a shortwave radio operator in San Luis Obispo, heard the distress calls as the “Queen of the Skies” went down.
“We have had a casualty.”
“SOS falling —AS.”
(AS means wait a minute.)
The final message was transmitted at 5:31 p.m. — “We will abandon ship as soon as it lands on water. We are 20 miles off Point Sur, probably 10 miles at sea.”
The fleet converged, searchlights probing the darkening ocean.
Thanks to the efforts of Macon radioman E.E. Dailey, many of the crew escaped via raft as the airship settled to sea.
“Dailey stood by his post crackling out those messages,” Lt. Commander Peck said. “I gave Dailey the last message that we were abandoning ship. We could hear water swishing around us, but Dailey just sat there chewing away at a hunk of gum and sending out our location. The location probably saved our lives, but the sending of it cost Dailey’s own life.
“I left him, and the boys told me later they saw him jump from a huge height, about 125 feet. He probably had no idea how far the water was below him. He just bailed out.”
Lt. G.W. Campbell told reporters he and Lt. Commander Herbert V. Wiley were the last to leave the control car of the giant ship. They jumped as the Macon floated on the rolling Pacific; Campbell was half stunned by a blow to the head exiting the airship. Wiley swam to Campbell and dragged him to the safety of a life raft.
One other man was killed when he apparently swam back to retrieve personal effects.
Flares dotted the ocean as survivors bobbed in the water, according to a Telegram-Tribune story by David Congalton from July 3, 1990. San Luis Obispo resident Ivan Kerkove was on a rescue ship when the distress call came in.
Said Kerkove, “Most of those lifeboats were floating right on top of all these inflammable liquids. There was oil and gas everywhere and any contact with the flares were creating these great balls of fire.
“Those poor guys didn’t know if they were sitting on one of those pools or not.”
It was called a miracle, or a triumph of naval discipline; 81 of the crew of 83 survived.
Launched April 21, 1933, USS Macon flew less than 2 years.
The Pacific grave of last U.S. dirigible was located in June 1990 in 1,500 feet of water by a small Navy submarine exploring the coast.
It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Video of the Macon in flight.