Home » Aviation » Photo Gallery: USS Macon, The Navy’s Last Flying Aircraft Carrier


Photo Gallery: USS Macon, The Navy’s Last Flying Aircraft Carrier

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Navy experimented with lighter-than-air craft in its fleet. In addition to work with blimps, it built and commissioned two dirigibles – with USS designation – to serve as flying aircraft carriers.

These rigid airships, which could stay in the air for about a week, would launch up to five Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk biplanes from a “trapeze” that would come down, and the planes would land again by hooking into loops in the trapeze.

The two airships, USS Akron (ZRS-4) and USS Macon (ZRS-5), were commissioned into the fleet to serve as early intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance motherships. Sailors lived aboard the airship, complete with a galley and other amenities, and the biplanes would go out on scouting missions as needed.

Though they solved a valid requirement, LTA aircraft proved difficult to handle, and four of five dirigibles the Navy built crashed. Only one – the German-built USS Los Angeles, given to the United States as part of the World War I reparations – survived, but the Navy dismantled it in 1939.

Naval History and Heritage Command, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and several other non-profits conducted an exploration of the wreckage on Tuesday.

The following are a collection of images from the National Archives and the U.S. Naval Institute’s photo collection of USS Macon.

USS Macon (ZRS-5) preparing to land.

USS Macon (ZRS-5) preparing to land.

USS Macon (ZRS-5).

USS Macon (ZRS-5).

USS Macon (ZRS-5).

USS Macon (ZRS-5).

Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk hangs from USS Macon (ZRS-5).

Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk hangs from USS Macon (ZRS-5).

USS Macon (ZRS-5) in 1933 or 1934.

USS Macon (ZRS-5) in 1933 or 1934.

USS Macon (ZRS-5) over New York City in 1933 or 1934.

USS Macon (ZRS-5) over New York City in 1933 or 1934.

USS Macon (ZRS-5) over San Diego Harbor on Feb. 9, 1934.

USS Macon (ZRS-5) over San Diego Harbor on Feb. 9, 1934.

USS Macon (ZRS-5) over San Diego Harbor on Feb. 9, 1934.

USS Macon (ZRS-5) over San Diego Harbor on Feb. 9, 1934.

A Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk recovery on USS Macon (ZRS-5) in 1934.

A Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk recovery on USS Macon (ZRS-5) in 1934.

Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk attached to USS Macon (ZRS-5) in 1934.

Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk attached to USS Macon (ZRS-5) in 1934.

Two Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawks drop simultaneously from USS Macon (ZRS-5) over Sunnyvale, Calif. in 1934.

Two Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawks drop simultaneously from USS Macon (ZRS-5) over Sunnyvale, Calif. in 1934.

Two Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawks, with landing gear removed, under USS Macon (ZRS-5) in 1934.

Two Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawks, with landing gear removed, under USS Macon (ZRS-5) in 1934.

  • Gray Stoke

    The 3rd paragraph should say that SAILORS lived aboard the airship…

    They were still commissioned SHIPS!

    • redgriffin

      I don’t believe so as they have had other ships that carry the name but it is considered a gravesite.

  • James Bowen

    Neat pictures. My grandfather was a Machinist’s Mate on the U.S.S. Oklahoma at the time and was involved in the search and rescue when the MACON went down.

  • Jim Valle

    The whole operation looks like something out of an old Republic Studios adventure serial, Don Winslow or somebody like that………

  • Pat

    Current age entrepreneurs are reviving this airship concept; imagine, cruising in a helium-filled (safe) cruiser at three hundred feet looking out an open window, sipping a drink. Retire to your private cabin for a nap, go for a swim in the outdoor pool, or visit the restaurant(s) then do some whale-watching or snap a shot of the Machu Picchu ruins. Cargo versions are already flying, and it’s being studied as a takeoff platform for rockets that could achieve low-earth orbit with much less fuel and more payload. Of course, solar panels could drive the electric motors so no pollution release either, just some green fuel thrusters for maneuvering..With the new observation technologies weather will no longer be a bane to Airships either. Hundreds of acres of useful land is not needed for a port. Imagine how they could fight forest fires, or provide evacuation for floods or earthquakes where every surface facility is largely destroyed. Of course, DOD has scrapped the development programs, citing lack of funds.

    • old guy

      WOW, what a picture. The large surface area certainly lends itself to solar panels. BUT, despite the obvious advantages, there are many down checks. In low altitude flight that same large area makes it deadly in a rainstorm, (we lost 3 ridgids that way), in snow and sleet and always at the whim of winds. At higher altitudes you lose gas lift rapidly as the atmosphere gets less dense.
      An approach to a solution for many of these problems is a compound design, similar to an Eggers lifting body, where only a portion of the lift is gas, the remainder is aerodynamic. A great subject

  • Secundius

    Up until 2014, DARPA and the Pentagon. Were researching the Plausibility of the Comic Book Avenger’s S.H.I.E.L.D. “Helicarrier” Concept as a Serious Proposal. I don’t know weather that still holds true, Today…

  • old guy

    WONDERFUL photos. In my younger days(1958) I was privileged to work with Admiral Rosendahl (commander of the Shenandoah) on an 11,000,000 Cu. Ft. Nuclear powered dirigible to replace the Dew Line. He still felt that manned LTAs were a valuable asset. There is much to be said on this and I would sure like to hear COGENT, constructive commentary, both pro and con on the subject.
    One of his favorite arguing points was that NO convoy in WW2 was attacked by U-boats, if escorted by blimps
    I never rode in a ridgid, but I rode in the last of the Navy’s blimps (ZPG-3W) out of Lakehurst, N.J. back in the late 50s.Terrific fun.

    • Secundius

      @ old guy.

      Wasn’t the Nuclear-Powered Airship, suppose to support the McDonnell F-85 Goblin, Parasite Fighter…

      • old guy

        YES. The world’s ugliest airplane, ever.

  • chuck myers

    Having led a six year JCS/J4 investigation into the potential of current technology (materials/fuels/electronics,propulsion) applied to advanced design of a form of LTA referred to as Hybrid Airships I can report that the potential warrants immediate and significant investment. A manned prototype hybrid (Lockheed Skunk Works) demonstrated a prototype control and propulsion system in January 2006 at Palmdale California (google Lockheed P-791) and search for a dissertation: “A Road Not Needed” if you are interested. Why isn’t the DoD rushing to exploit this technology?
    It would clearly expose the fallacy of a number of heavily funded current projects ergo there is no industrial “push”. It is an opportunity to be exploited by some outside commercial interests (like hauling rare earth and diamonds from Northern Canada or opening the NW Passage or carrying aid to victims of a global disaster). The airborne aircraft carrier could be created and exploited with today’s in hand technology but would reveal the fallacy of continuing with the current business if building/supporting our huge ultra expensive sea based systems. The total scene is a classic example of our DoD in action.

    Chuck Myers [email protected]

  • Peggy Deiter

    My husband’s grandfather was the Chief Warrant officer aboard when it crashed. We donated his original life vest with all surviving crew signatures on it and in his handwriting the names of the 2 crew lost. It and other items are at the U.S. Navy Aviation Museum in Florida.