SAN FRANCISCO - 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 (235.5-meter) rigid dirigible three times longer
than a 747 jet, was one of the largest aircraft ever built when it fell into
Pacific waters about five miles (eight kilometers) off Big Sur on February 12,
A team of scientists spent five days at sea last week exploring the Macon's
remains, submerged about 1,500 feet (450 meters) underwater, with a 7,000-pound
(3,150-kilogram) remotely operated vehicle equipped with powerful lights and
high-definition cameras. Video from the expedition was broadcast live over the
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 fisherman 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 (180,000 kilograms) 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
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 non-rigid blimps. None of the Navy's four other zeppelins
survived. Three of them crashed, and the other was scrapped.