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Researchers map wreckage of Depression-era airship

Terence Chea
The USS Macon is seen flying over San Francisco in the early 1930s. The USS Macon was one of the largest aircraft ever built when it sank into Pacific waters on Feb. 12, 1935. (Wiley Collection, Monterey Maritime and History Museum)
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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – With help from an underwater robotic explorer, researchers are mapping the submerged wreckage of a massive blimp-like airship that crashed off the California coast more than 70 years ago.

The USS Macon, a 785-foot rigid dirigible three times longer than a 747 jet, was one of the largest aircraft ever built when it sank into Pacific waters about five miles off Big Sur on Feb. 12, 1935.

A team of scientists spent five days at sea last week exploring the Macon’s remains, submerged about 1,500 feet underwater, with a 7,000-pound remotely operated vehicle equipped with powerful lights and high-definition cameras. Video from the expedition was broadcast live over the Internet.



The researchers plan to assemble a complete map of the wreckage from 6,000 individual images, and make recommendations about whether the government should retrieve artifacts, excavate the site or leave it alone.

The wreckage, which was discovered by a fishermen in 1990, has deteriorated markedly and some debris has shifted since it was last visited 15 years ago, said Chris Grech, a researcher at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing.



The researchers found a variety of artifacts from the Macon: aluminum chairs, tables, cabinets, desks, bottles and plates. They also examined four relatively intact Navy biplanes that the airship was carrying.

“It’s an underwater time capsule,” Grech said Wednesday. “It’s from a bygone era of Navy aviation that’s completely disappeared.”

The Macon became a symbol of hope during the Great Depression when it was built by Goodyear-Zeppelin Co. in Ohio and launched in 1933.

The giant airship, kept aloft by helium in an aluminum shell, weighed about 400,000 pounds and could carry a crew of 100 and up to five small planes. The Navy wanted to use the airship to spot enemy submarines.

“It was like a flying Titanic because of its massive size,” said Robert Schwemmer, a maritime heritage expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “As the Macon would approach, it would cast this shadow for blocks.”

The Macon was flying from Southern California to its hangar in Moffett Field in Mountain View when its tail fin was blown off during a storm, causing it to slowly fall into the Pacific Ocean. All but two of its 83 crew members managed to board lifeboats and make it to shore.

The crash brought an end to the era of giant rigid airships, opening the way for smaller, safer nonrigid blimps. None of the Navy’s four other zeppelins survived. Three of them crashed, and the other was scrapped.

On the Net:

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute: http://www.mbari.org


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