USS Akron (ZRS-4) was a rigid helium-filled airship of the United States Navy that crashed off the New Jersey coast early on 4 April 1933, killing 73 crew and passengers. At long, 20 ft (6 m) shorter than the Hindenburg, she and her sister, Macon (ZRS-5), were amongst the largest flying objects in the world. Although the Hindenburg was longer, the two airships still hold the world record for helium-filled airships.
There was a hydrogen-filled airship built in Brigantine, New Jersey in 1911 also named Akron. It caught fire a year later.
Once completed the Akron could store of gasoline, which gave it a range of . Eight gasoline powered engines were mounted inside the hull. Each engine turned one twin-bladed propeller via a driveshaft which allowed the propeller to swivel vertically and horizontally.
On 8 August 1931, Akron was launched (floated free of the hangar floor) and christened by Mrs. Lou Henry Hoover, the wife of the President of the United States, Herbert Clark Hoover. Akron conducted her maiden flight on the afternoon of 23 September, around the Cleveland, Ohio, area, with Secretary of the Navy Adams and Rear Admiral Moffett embarked. She made eight more flights — principally over Lake Erie but ranging as far as Detroit, Michigan, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Columbus, Ohio — before her delivery flight from Akron to the Naval Air Station (NAS) at Lakehurst, New Jersey, where she was commissioned on Navy Day, 27 October, Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Rosendahl in command.
As historian Richard K. Smith says in his definitive study, The Airships Akron and Macon, "...consideration given to the weather, duration of flight, a track of more than flown, her material deficiencies, and the rudimentary character of aerial navigation at that date, the Akron's performance was remarkable. There was not a military airplane in the world in 1932 which could have given the same performance, operating from the same base."
Akron, and her sister Macon (ZRS-5) (still under construction), were regarded as potential "flying aircraft carriers", carrying parasite fighters for reconnaissance. On 3 May 1932, Akron cruised over the coast of New Jersey with Rear Admiral George C. Day, President of the Board of Inspection and Survey, embarked, and for the first time tested the "trapeze" installation for in-flight handling of aircraft. The aviators who carried out those historic "landings," first with a Consolidated N2Y trainer and then with the prototype Curtiss XF9C-1 Sparrowhawk, were Lieutenant Daniel W. Harrigan and Lieutenant Howard L. Young. The following day, Akron carried out another demonstration flight, this time with members of the House Committee on Naval Affairs on board. During this operation the same fliers gave the lawmakers a demonstration of Akron's ability to handle aircraft.
Following the conclusion of those trial flights, Akron departed Lakehurst on 8 May 1932, and set out for the west coast of the United States. The airship proceeded down the eastern seaboard to Georgia thence moved across the gulf plain and continued on over Texas and Arizona. En route to her base at Sunnyvale, California, she reached Camp Kearny, California, on the morning of 11 May, and attempted to moor. Since neither the trained ground handlers nor the specialized mooring equipment needed by an airship of Akron's size were present, the landing at Camp Kearny was fraught with danger. By the time she started the evaluation, the heat of the sun's rays had warmed her, and her engines had further lightened the airship by using of fuel during her voyage across the continent. As a result, Akron became uncontrollable.
Her mooring cable cut to avert a catastrophic nose-stand by the errant airship, Akron headed up. Most men of the mooring crew, predominantly "boot" seamen from the Naval Training Station at San Diego, let go their lines. However, one man was carried into the air before he let go and suffered a broken arm in the process. Three others were carried up even farther. Two of these men — Aviation Carpenter's Mate 3d Class Robert H. Edsall and Apprentice Seaman Nigel M. Henton — lost their grips and fell to their deaths. The third, Apprentice Seaman C. M. "Bud" Cowart, clung desperately to his line and made himself fast to it before he was hoisted aboard Akron one hour later. Nevertheless, Akron managed to moor at Camp Kearny later that day and proceeded thence to Sunnyvale. The tragic accident was captured on Newsreel film.
With Akron in need of repairs, she departed Sunnyvale on 11 June, bound for Lakehurst. The return trip was studded with difficulties, principally due to unfavorable weather. After a "long and sometimes harrowing" aerial voyage, she ultimately arrived on 15 June.
Akron underwent a period of voyage repairs upon her return from the west coast, and in July took part in a search for Curlew, a yacht which had failed to reach port at the end of a race to Bermuda. (The yacht was later discovered safe off Nantucket.). She then resumed operations with her "trapeze" and her planes. On 20 July, Admiral Moffett again embarked in Akron but the next day left the airship in one of her N2Y-1s which took him back to Lakehurst after a severe storm had delayed her own return to base.
Among the tasks undertaken was that involving the maintenance of two aircraft patrolling and scouting on Akron's flanks. During a seven-hour period on 18 November 1932, the airship and a trio of planes searched a sector wide.
Soon thereafter, Akron returned to Lakehurst for local operations which were interrupted by a two-week overhaul and poor weather. During March, the rigid airship carried out intensive training with her embarked aviation unit of F9C-2s, honing her hook-on skills. During the course of these operations, she cruised to Washington DC, and overflew the capital on 4 March 1933, the day Franklin D. Roosevelt took the oath of office as President of the United States.
On 11 March, Akron departed Lakehurst bound for Panama. She stopped briefly en route at Opa-Locka before proceeding on to Balboa. There an inspection party looked over a potential air base site. While returning northward the rigid airship paused at Opa-Locka for local operations exercising her gun crews with the N2Y-1s serving as targets for the gunners. Finally, on 22 March, she got underway to return to Lakehurst.
As she proceeded on her way, Akron encountered severe weather, which did not improve as she passed over Barnegat Light, New Jersey, at 2200 (10:00 PM) on 3 April. Wind gusts of terrific force struck the airship unmercifully. Akron was being flown into an area of lower barometric pressure than at take-off; this caused the actual altitude flown to be lower than that indicated in the control gondola. Around 0030 (12:30 AM) on 4 April, 'Akron was caught by an updraft, then immediately by a downdraft. Her captain, Commander McCord, ordered full speed ahead, ballast dropped; the executive officer, Lt. Cdr. Herbert V. Wiley, was handling the ballast and emptied the bow emergency ballast. This, coupled with the elevator man holding nose up, caused the nose to rise. It also caused the tail to rotate down. Akron'''s descent was only temporarily halted, and downdrafts forced her down further. Wiley activated the 18 'howlers' of the ship's telephone system, a signal to landing stations. At this point the airship was nose up at between 12 and 25 degrees.
The Engineering Officer called out "800 feet" (240 m), which was followed by a 'gust' of intense violence. The steersman reported no response to his wheel. The lower rudder cables had been torn away. While the control gondola was still hundreds of feet high, the lower fin of Akron had struck the water and was torn off. ZRS-4 rapidly broke up and sank in the stormy Atlantic. Akron had been destroyed by operator error: it was flown into the sea while operating in an intense storm front. The German motorship Phoebus in the vicinity saw lights descending toward the ocean at about 0023 (12:23 AM) and altered course to starboard to investigate, thinking she was witnessing a plane crash. At 0055 (12:55 AM) on 4 April, Phoebus picked up Commander Wiley, unconscious, while a ship's boat picked up three more men: Chief Radioman Robert W. Copeland, Boatswain's Mate Second Class Richard E. Deal, and Aviation Metalsmith Second Class Moody E. Ervin. Despite desperate artificial respiration, Copeland never regained consciousness and died aboard Phoebus.
Although the German sailors spotted four or five other men in the stormy seas, they did not know their ship had chanced upon the crash of Akron until Lieutenant Commander Wiley regained consciousness half an hour after being rescued. Phoebus combed the ocean with her boats for over five hours in a dogged but fruitless search for more survivors. Navy blimp J-3, sent out to join the search, also crashed, with the loss of two men.
The United States Coast Guard cutter Tucker, the first American vessel on the scene, arrived at 0600 (6:00 AM) and took aboard Akron survivors and the body of Copeland, releasing Phoebus. Among the other ships which relentlessly combed the area for more survivors were the heavy cruiser Portland, the destroyer Cole, Coast Guard cutter Mojave, and the Coast Guard destroyers McDougal and Hunt, as well as two Coast Guard planes. Most of the casualties had been caused by drowning and hypothermia, as the crew had not been issued life jackets and there had not been time to deploy the single life raft. The crash left 73 dead, making it the deadliest air crash up to the time.
Macon and other airships received life jacket packs in order to avert a repetition of the tragedy.
Songwriter Bob Miller wrote and recorded a song, "The Crash of the Akron," within one day after the disaster.