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Local Man Heads Up Investigation Of U.S. Airship Lost Off California Coast

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U.S.S. Macon went down 75 years ago after maneuvers in Channel Islands.

 

It's hard to imagine a time when giant zeppelin-like air ships roamed the coast of California; however 75 years ago that was the case. The U.S.S. Macon, a helium infused floating scout craft for the U.S. Navy, was stationed at Moffett Field in Sunnyvale California in the 1930's. The craft was roughly the size of the Titanic, capable of delivering four Sparrowhawk biplanes and a bird's eye view of the world below.

On this day in 1935 the Macon was conducting maneuvers near the Channel Islands under command of Lt. Commander Herbert Wiley. After the mission was finished, the airship had begun its journey back to Moffett Field when it ran into a storm. The wind ripped off the upper tail fin, which had been previously damaged and was scheduled to be repaired in March of that year. The incident caused one of the helium bags of the ship to be punctured.

After exhausting salvage efforts, the U.S.S. Macon went down into the Pacific Ocean about 7 miles off the coast of Point Sur. Of the 83 men on board, all but two survived. Since that day, the remains of the Macon have rested undisturbed 1,500 feet below the surface.

Santa Clarita resident Robert Schwemmer serves as the Maritime Heritage Coordinator for the West Coast Region NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. He has studied the U.S.S. Macon extensively, and served as the principal investigator during a 2006 expedition to the wreckage site that mapped its artifacts.

That expedition was paramount in convincing the federal government to add the Macon crash site to the National Register of Historic Places, which it did yesterday. The designation means that the wreckage site will be preserved, although there are no immediate plans to take artifacts off the sea floor.

"In this case, this is the most complete archeological site for an airship known in the U.S., probably in the world," Schwemmer told KHTS.

The deep water that encases the U.S.S. Macon likely helped preserve the wreckage. The Macon's sister ship, the U.S.S. Akron, went down off the coast of New Jersey in 1933 in about 150 feet of water. The conditions at that depth caused a much quicker degradation of the ship's aluminum frame.

For some California residents, the U.S.S. Macon is still a vivid part of their memory. The ship's size cast a massive shadow, and was difficult to miss as it flew across the state. In the Monterey area, many still remember seeing the airship on a regular basis.

"I actually interviewed Lt. Commander Wiley's daughter," Schwemmer recalled. "When he would be returning home, he would fly over the house and signal his wife that he was coming home so she would have dinner ready."

 

Perhaps the biggest debate surrounding the demise of the U.S.S. Macon is directed at the mission it never flew. Built as a scout, the Macon's job was to detect enemy forces in the pacific. Had the ship survived another six years, there's no telling whether or not it might have been on duty in the area surrounding Pearl Harbor.

"We know the Japanese pilots had instructions that if they saw the enemy at any point, they were to return to their carriers," Schwemmer said. "Could you imagine if the airship was out there, or one of the Sparrowhawks doing their scouting? Would we have changed the course of that war?"

To see a National Geographic Channel video detailing the airship's history and crash, click here.

Photo courtesy of the Moffett Field Historical Society.