But it would help if you had a plane for such a ship to transport. A task that was entrusted to the historic company Curtiss Aircraft. From what we can understand, US Navy officials in the 1920s and 1930s believed that airborne airship carriers were the way forward for naval aviation. Following in the footsteps of Germany’s iconic Zeppelin, the Navy commissioned Goodyear.
One of the lesser-known arrangements of the end of World War I was a business merger between two-thirds of the aerospace department of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and one-third of the original German company Zeppelin. In truth, the British first used semi-rigid aircraft carriers in combat in the last weeks of the First Great War.
These prototype ships were out of service in the early 1920s. It would be another three years before the combined German-American effort created what would become the USS Macon and USS Akron. These sister ships were over 700 feet (239 m) long and moved over seven million cubic feet (209,589 m3) of helium gas as they sailed through the sky with their eight Maybach VL II 12 piston engines. respective cylinders. The two ships were the only ships ever built under the designation of Akron-class airship.
The planes that these airships could carry were of a very special type. Navy aircraft with acceptable power-to-weight ratios, good visibility and low overall gross weight. One of the largest of this group of aircraft was the Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk. A single-engine biplane built by Curtiss of Hammondsport, New York. Navy records indicate that at least seven such examples were built between the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The little fighter was only 20ft (6.14m) long and 10.6ft (3.2m) high, which was positively puny even in his day. It also weighed less than 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg), roughly the same as a ’90s Honda Civic for context. Up to five of these planes, alongside the Consolidated Model 14 Husky Juniors, could be carried inside the Akron-class airship. Which makes it a formidable foe for any potential war of the early 1930s.
The planes would be stored in the hull of the airship. He used an intricate trapeze system to lower combat planes and return them to the hangar at the end of the mission. This required the pilot to carefully control his hawks to re-engage their wing-mounted hooks to the mothership mooring mechanism.
If you think this sounds like an anxiety attack bad enough to cause your blood pressure to spike, that’s because it was. Navy pilots dreaded returning with their aircraft carriers. The ability to pop the top of their upper wing with the locking hook exposed was enough to make some people nauseous. Only a handful of the most skilled Navy pilots have been tasked with this dubious order.
Tragically, the only people the Akron-class airships ever killed were their own crew members. In two separate accidents, nothing less. The Akron crashed off the coast of New Jersey on April 4, 1933. Surprisingly, almost none of the crew were wearing flotation devices. 73 of the 76 crew members on board died, some from drowning and others from burns and blunt trauma. Fortunately, the Macon’s more reasonable crew were wearing safety gear when it crashed off the coast of California on February 12, 1935. Only three of the crew aboard the Macon were lost.
At least four Sparrowhawk cells were also lost with the ship when it crashed. Only serial number 9056 survives. This specimen resided at the National Museum of Naval Aviation until its transfer to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The aircraft was recolored in the scheme it would have displayed flying in support of the USS Macon in 1974. The “Men on the flying trapeze” The symbol on the plane represents the balance that the pilots of the Sparrowhawk had to endure each time they returned to base.
The airships that once housed it may have served as fish food for nearly a century. But the legacy of those who served and died on board will live on as long as people can marvel at this strange plane in the flesh. Check back for more about our trip to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center right here on self-evolution.