Peering Into Undersea Grave of 1930s Dirigible





When the Macon was launched in 1933, the giant dirigible was more than just the biggest object ever to sail through the skies. To a nation laid low by the Depression, it was a symbol of hope. "Floating majestically in the sky, the Macon is a sight thrilling to every American and an impressive symbol of our Navy's airpower," crackled a newsreel of the day. Newspapers called the Macon "the queen of the airways."

Thousands would gaze skyward when the Macon's immense shadow passed slowly over their towns. Millions were saddened when it crashed off Big Sur on Feb. 12, 1935, killing two of its 83 crewmen. Today all that remains of the Macon and the four warplanes carried in its massive belly are ruins scattered on the seafloor -- a historic site that is being intensively explored for the first time in a five-day expedition that started Sunday.

Embarking from Moss Landing aboard the research vessel Western Flyer, scientists dropped an unmanned submarine to the wreckage more than 1,000 feet underwater, guiding it with cutting-edge computer technology supplied by Stanford University aerospace experts. In a twist that would seem like science fiction to the crew members aboard the Macon that day, the public can view streaming video of the exploration from their home computers.

"We're really excited," said Robert Schwemmer, a shipwreck expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "There are more than 400 shipwrecks and ditched aircraft in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, but this is far and away the most iconic."

Kept aloft by helium, the 785-foot-long Macon was just 97 feet shorter than the Titanic. It was more than three times as long as a 747 jet. It could carry a crew of 100. Its huge hangar at Moffett Field, north of San Jose, is visible not just from U.S. 101 but also from space.

The expedition is a collaboration between the sanctuary, which is run by the NOAA, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, with help from several other institutions.

It has been a long time coming.

Days after the crash in 1935, Navy crews scoured the waters off Big Sur for clues to the Macon's demise. Her sister ship, the nearly identical Akron, had crashed into the Atlantic two years earlier, killing 73 of the 76 men aboard. Although only two men were lost in the Macon's crash, it still was seen as a national tragedy and demanded answers, especially with plans for even larger airships being discussed in Washington, D.C.

Although the Macon's descent was witnessed by a lighthouse keeper at Point Sur, nobody could find the wreckage, which had been pushed south in churning seas.

It wasn't until 1990 that a clue surfaced in the unlikeliest place: on a plaque at a now-defunct Moss Landing restaurant called Jenny B's. Hanging on the wall was an odd, foot-long chunk of aluminum -- a piece from one of the girders that formed the Macon's frame -- along with a newspaper clipping about the dirigible.

"It had been there for years," said Chris Grech, a researcher with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. "It had a very distinctive shape."

So distinctive, in fact, that it was recognized by a woman who happened into the restaurant after an afternoon of birding in the marshes nearby. She was the daughter of Lt. Commander Herbert Wiley, the Macon's skipper, and as a child had made a number of jaunts aboard the Macon with her dad.

When she let searchers know about the find, they did some detective work and located the fisherman who had pulled up the telltale piece of metal in his nets. Relying on the meticulous records he had kept about his fishing grounds, scientists in a three-person sub discovered what was left of the Macon in 1990.

A crew last year did sonar mapping of the site, preparing for this week's extended dives by the Volkswagen-sized robotic submarine Tiburon.

"The billowing cloth material is gone, but you can see some aspects of the ship pretty clearly," sanctuary spokeswoman Rachel Saunders said. "Much of the frame is intact, but portions are covered with silt and encrusted by organisms."

The trip to the Macon will be the first archeological expedition in the 5,300-square-mile marine sanctuary, where known shipwrecks date to 1834.

One goal is to document the wreckage so the site can be named to the National Register of Historic Places. Another is to raise public awareness of an era in 20th century history now recalled mostly by historians, aviation buffs and people who were around when the Macon and three other huge dirigibles used by the Navy floated overhead.

Even today, Schwemmer said, he runs into old-timers who talk excitedly about childhood moments when "the flying aircraft carrier" blocked the sun as it hovered above.

Planned as crucial links in the nation's defense, the dirigibles were as avidly followed as today's space shuttle. In 1933, a Times reporter rhapsodized about the Macon, writing that it "gave a party to the Southland yesterday, condescending to cast her costly shadow over a region to which she has been assigned by the Navy to act as a sort of guardian angel."

Known technically as a "rigid airship" for its internal structure of girders and catwalks, the Macon was to be an eye in the sky for troops and ships below. While lumbering through the clouds at just 80 mph, the Sparrowhawk biplanes carried within could fly 300 miles, to spy and to attack. To launch, they were lowered from the Macon's belly on a gigantic hook. To return, they'd slow to near-stalling, fly beneath the ship, hook onto a "trapeze" and be hoisted back inside.

After the Akron disaster, one of the three survivors was named to command the new Macon. Herbert Wiley was at the helm as the ship fought stiff winds all the way up the coast from routine maneuvers over the Channel Islands on Feb. 12, 1935.

Wiley had as much experience on huge airships as anyone, recalled his son, retired Navy Capt. Gordon "Scroggy" Wiley in a videotaped reminiscence. When the family lived near the dirigible base in Lakehurst, N.J., the elder Wiley would veer low over his house, drop his hat in the yard and yell to his wife, "Bring the car! I'll be home in half an hour," his son recalled.

In the rugged Big Sur area where the ship went down, a wind shear ripped off a tail fin that had been damaged in an earlier trip. Flying shards of metal caused even more damage. Wiley managed to keep the Macon aloft for 25 minutes, but, after ordering an SOS sent to Navy vessels in the area, he was forced to lay the dirigible into dark, rough waters.

About a week later, Lt. Harold Blaine Miller, a naval aviator who later headed Radio Free Europe, wrote his uncle in Iowa about the ordeal.

"By dropping the remaining ballast, the Skipper was enabled to slow up the rate of fall sufficiently to give us the gentlest of landings -- just like a feather pillow."

Even so, gasoline that spilled from the Macon's engines ignited on the water. Men slid down on ropes into bobbing lifeboats as the dirigible upended and started to sink. Fog blanketed the chilly sea and help was still miles away.

"We could hear the ship breaking up and she would groan most ferociously," Miller wrote.

A panel convened by President Franklin D. Roosevelt concluded that Navy officials had played a large part in the Macon's demise. Insistent that he prove the dirigible's value to the government, they had refused Wiley's request for time to repair the damaged fin.

The government spent no more on aircraft like the Macon. Three of its four rigid airships had been destroyed in fatal accidents. The era of the Navy dirigible was over.



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