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Sad 79th — loss of the Akron and Moffett, naval aviation would never be the same

4 April 2012

Sad 79th — loss of the Akron and Moffett, naval aviation would never be the same

— U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

This is the 79th anniversary* of the tragic demise of the airship USS Akron (ZRS-4), 73 of her crew of 76, as well as two more crew of the USN J-3 blimp sent on a rescue mission. The crash during a storm on that evening in 1933 did more than destroy one of the largest flying objects flown; it signaled the end of the airship era and killed the greatest champion of U.S. Naval aviation, Rear Admiral William Moffett.

Perhaps, in retrospect, airships seem to be rich in potential but more difficult to implement than their value. However, in 1933 the world was markedly different as compared with today’s. Radar did not exist, so eyes were needed to patrol far and wide to protect the nation’s shores. Aircraft were not reliable and airfields for large long ranged aircraft were few. Yet, airships could remain aloft for days — having capability that aircraft lacked at the time.

— U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

Admiral Moffett is known as a champion of airships but that view is myopic. He was a strategic thinker and furthered naval aviation’s many facets, lighter-than-air being only one of them. Aside from aircraft design he accomplished at least two other prime accomplishments — he made naval aviation a career track (at the time officers in naval aviation could not advance to higher ranks) and defended against Billy Mitchell who sought to have all aircraft under one service, ruthlessly using all means available to him.

On that stormy night, while the Akron was apparently piloted to penetrate a storm front, she met wind gusts that pitched her into a 20–25 degree nose up attitude. This placed her bow hundreds of feet up in the air but dropped her stern into the wave tossed Atlantic Ocean. Unable to absorb the pounding of the waves, or the dragging through the water, she lost her rudders and the rear framework failed — Akron suffered a fatal loss of structural integrity plunging her into the sea where most of her crew perished due to impact or hypothermia.

— U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

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  • An excellent book on Admiral Moffett — his naval career and especially the military as well as political events which were part of how naval aviation came to be as we know it — is: Admiral William A. Moffett: architect of naval aviation, William F. Trimble, 2007, ISBN 978-1-59114-880-7, 338 pp. and a post on this book’s review can easily be found by pasting the title into the search window, then selecting ENTER
  • The USS Akron page from the Naval Historical Center is exceptionally rich in detail

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Erratum — my thanks to Ed Gronenthal for correcting my math (see his comment). I had thought this was the 80th anniversary but he noted it is the 79th and he is right — I amended the text. Thanks Ed, Joe

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 April 2012 08:22

    Good write up! We here in the “Tampa bay” central Florida area, much like many other places, have venues we “pass by” and “speak about” of on a dailey basis, without thought of “the name” per se or where it came from, and that is a real shame. We have so many popular places named after great aviators and most folks don’t even know anything about them or even who the name belonged to, or that they were aviators, for that matter. I am of the opinion that the folks who honor these legends by naming roads and venues as memorials, actual fail to keep that name alive in the public eye, by reminding the public, who and why the name was used and what they did! In that respect I think we drop the ball in honoring our legendary heros. Admiral William A. Moffett is a fine example of that… Perhaps as pseudo-journalist (Blogger) I should keep that in mind while writing my articles and try to rectify that huh? Maybe we all should keep that in mind as you have, thanks!
    However, this is a grand article and I have had my sense of awareness peaqued and as always when I read you, I always learn something. That is why I am a regular reader of your blog, because it is very instructive as well as instructive. Thanks for that! “JR” Hafer, Aviation Writer JRHaferAviationBlog.com

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      4 April 2012 21:23

      Thanks JR. I agree with you, it is important to not forget those who made history as not all achieve fame. I learned of Admiral Moffett only through learning of Glenn Curtiss. We know of Billy Mitchell and the Wright Brothers, of course, but once one studies the matter one may became aware that Moffett and Curtiss did more for the country but I’m not meaning to take away from Mitchell and the Wrights — only trying to keep all the pieces on the board. Joe

  2. E Gronenthal permalink
    4 April 2012 13:22

    Nice article, but the Akron accident was on April 4th, 1933, so by my math this is only the 79th anniversary and not the 80th…

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      4 April 2012 14:25

      Ed,

      Indeed your math is correct. I’ve amended the text and added an erratum noting your contribution.

      Thanks again,

      Joe

  3. 4 April 2012 22:21

    Joe, speaking of famous people who were foremost in promoting aviation who are needlessly fading into obscurity and should be saved from being swallowed by the waves of time; one is Arthur Godfrey. Arthur flew every military aircraft the United States had in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Would you believe as far as I know there is only one obscure book written about his life and love of broadcasting and aviation? And you really have to search hi and low for it.
    Joe, it is essential we keep these names and legends alive by remembering them and pronouncing them over again what they have done for aviation and the history of our nation and the world. Don’t you agree? When He (Arthur Godfrey) and Captain Eddie Rickenbacker said what they said to me on that September day in 1953 on the ramp of Hickory airport, I’ll never forget… The “old Redhead” said as he ruffled my blond hair, “If you want to fly bad enough boy, then you will learn to fly” and the other skinny man laughed (Captain Eddie) and said, ” You listen to’em boy he knows what he’s talking about!” and then they boarded the loud blue and white Modified DC-3 and taxied out and took off, back toward Charlotte. I didn’t know until years later, the suggnificence of those few minutes; I was only 7 years old.
    I never understood what an unscheduled, unannounced personal stop into my small hometown airport ment to the three of us present. It is a memory burned into my mind and I will never let the memory of those to great Aviators die as long as I live…
    Sorry Joe, didn’t mean to be so self serving, but you and the readers get my meaning I hope… JR Hafer, (JRHaferAviationBlog.com)

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      5 April 2012 10:14

      JR — you have a great story from your childhood worth retelling. I’ve learned that history which is best recalled is the history that had a public relations effort behind it. Your story shows the affect a single instance involving historic figures can have and how important it is to keep dointg the small things. I lament that — with some exeptions — public appearances now occur only when scripted, athletes do not sign or give autographs away and increasingly that taking photographs legally invites attention and interrogation from the authorities. So, I agree, it is important to keep the good names alive as well as recall the lessons we learned at such high cost. Thanks again, Joe

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