New Jersey November 09, 2017
One Of The Worst Disasters In U.S. History Happened Right Here In New Jersey
Many of the worst disasters in U.S. history were natural disasters, the worst being a hurricane in Galveston, Texas that ravaged the city. Back in the year 1900, more than 6,000 (and up to 12,000) perished in a devastating storm. This tragedy is not nearly at the same level, thankfully, but it remains the worst airship disaster ever.
The USS Akron made her maiden flight on September 23, 1931.
Made at the Goodyear Factory in Akron, Ohio, this flight took place over Cleveland. She made eight more flights over Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana before being officially christened by the first lady, Mrs. Lou Henry Hoover, on August 8th. She was then transported to the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey. On November 2, 1931, the Akron cast off for a maiden voyage as a commissioned "ship" of the U.S. Navy. Everything seemed fine. In fact, her performance in a search exercise had her labeled remarkable —
unmatched in performance.
But some believe the airship was cursed from the start.
Her first accident occurred on February 22, 1932. Set to leave for a training exercise, she was being taken from her hangar. The tail came loose from her moorings, was caught by the wind, and struck the ground. There were no injuries but the ship's lower fin did take significant damage. Also, ground handling fittings had been torn from the main frame, necessitating further repairs. She was cleared for flight again on April 28th.
The airship's second accident occurred on May 11, 1932.
Following a cross-country flight, the USS Akron reached Camp Kearny and attempted to moor. Since neither trained ground handlers nor specialized mooring equipment were present, the landing quickly became dangerous. The helium gas had been warmed by sunlight, increasing lift; the lightened ship was uncontrollable. The mooring cable was cut to avert a catastrophic nose-stand. Most of the mooring crew released their lines —
four did not. One seaman let go at about 15 feet and suffered a broken arm; the three remaining seamen were lifted higher into the air. Aviation Carpenter's Mate 3rd Class Robert H. Edsall and Apprentice Seaman Nigel M. Henton tragically plunged to their deaths; Apprentice Seaman C. M. "Bud" Cowart held on to his line until being hoisted on-board the airship an hour later. The entire event was captured on newsreel film; pictured is a still.
The third accident happened on August 22, 1932.
Following the tragedy, the ship spent several weeks "showing the flag" over the West Coast. She then participated in scouting exercises and search operations before undergoing necessary repairs. In August, her tail fin became fouled by a beam in Lakehurst's Hangar No. 1 after a premature order to commence towing the ship out of the mooring circle. There were no injuries and repairs were swift. She then became part of extensive hook-on training before flying over Washington D.C. during the inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The fourth and final accident took place on April 4, 1933.
On the evening of April 3, the Akron cast off from the mooring mast to operate along the coast of New England, assisting in the calibration of radio direction finder stations. She encountered severe weather, the worst of which occurred when flying over Barnegat Light at 10 pm. At 12:30 am on April 4th, the Akron was caught by an updraft, followed almost immediately by a downdraft. Still off the coast of New Jersey, the ship was struck by massive wind gusts, tearing off rudder cables. The Akron was pulled further downward with the lower fin striking the ocean and being torn off. The ship rapidly ripped apart and sank into the Atlantic.
A nearby German merchant ship was the first to respond to the accident. The ship pulled several men from the water, one of whom was Lt. Commander Wiley who regained consciousness and informed the German sailors of the situation. The crew continued to search the area while additional backup came in the form of the USS Portland (pictured) and the Navy Blimp J-3 which also crashed. This accident resulted in two additional fatalities.
The accident left 73 dead and made a lasting impact on airship usage.
Only three men survived. Most casualties had been caused by drowning and hypothermia since the crew had not been issued life jackets, and there had not been time to deploy the single life raft. Following this catastrophic accident, airships were equipped with life jackets. When the USS Macon was damaged by a storm in 1935, the life jackets helped save the majority of the crew. However, frequent accidents involving rigid airships including the Akron, Macon, and Hindenburg led to their disuse by the military.
For footage of the airship’s first accident (mentioned earlier in the article, and resulting in no casualties) you can view the short video below:
With Veteran’s Day on the way, it is important to remember all that our servicemen and women risk for the safety of our nation. The loss of these sailors is a tragedy and should not be forgotten. To learn more about New Jersey’s most infamous (though less deadly) airship disaster (the Hindenburg),