1930s US Airships: Part 1.

By Simon White

Having seen postings about US airships on the "NavWarGames" forum on the Internet, I remembered something I had read years before in a copy of National Geographic. The article in question was one written about the discovery of the remains of the USS Macon, a rigid airship lost of the Californian coast. The Macon which was the sister ship of the USS Akron, (named after the location of the constructors - Goodyear-Zeppelin of Akron Ohio) were "rigid" airships as their means of lift was a metal "cigar", which was compartmentalised and filled with gas. Non-rigid airships or Blimps differ in having a bag filled with gas as their means of lift, and they are much smaller due to the need to keep the bag of gas from flexing.

After WW1, Zeppelin technology had been much sought after by the allies in fact examples of the German airships had to be delivered to Britain and the USA after the armistice. Now armed with this technology, including the ability to manufacture "duraluminium" (a light metal invented by Germany in WW1) both countries began experimenting with their own designs. Britain, which had already built rigid airships during the Great War even built the R-38 for the US, but after its crash in 1921, which killed forty-four people, lost interest in pursuing the rigid airship program. The US continued the development of rigid airships, perhaps as it had a major advantage - helium, which although had much less lift than hydrogen, did not have its nasty habit of exploding!

The US Navy was left responsible for the development of American airships after the Army's project was amalgamated with its own to save money. To support the program, airship bases were built at Lakehurst, New Jersey and Sunnyvale, California and airships were built and procured. One of the US' first airships was the Shenandoah, the gondola of which was a copy of the one recovered from a wrecked German Zeppelin, the L49. The Akron and the Macon, which followed up this ship, all ended their service careers as air disasters, the only US airship which ended its days safely was the USS Los Angeles. The Shenandoah was wrecked in storms above Ohio in 1925, with 14 of its 43 crew dying; the Akron was lost in a storm over the Atlantic on April 4th 1933, with only 3 of its crew of 76 surviving.

The USS Macon was built in 1933, and made its maiden flight just three weeks after the loss of the Akron, under the command of Comdr Alger H. Dressel. Lt. Comdr Herbert V. Wiley (the Akron's EO and one of its 3 survivors) succeeded Dressel soon afterwards. Under Wiley the Macon was used to seek out the vacationing President Roosevelt, who was headed for Hawaii on the cruiser USS Houston, because Wiley wanted to prove the airships scouting potential. In order to scout more effectively, and for some measure of self- defence the Macon carried four F-9C Sparrowhawk biplanes. These were stored in a hangar in the airship's belly, and were launched by being dropped from a crane once the aircraft were powered up. Recovery of aircraft was a very difficult task, as the pilots needed to fly their planes so that a loop on the top wing of the aircraft snagged on the hook of the crane (see image at end of article). In addition to the crane the Macon possessed a similar device (the "perch") which allowed a second plane to "land" while waiting for another plane to be brought inside. In times of war four mountings were fixed to the bottom of the airship, allowing the Sparrowhawks to be permanently ready for launch. The dangerous "landing" procedure earned the pilots of the Macon's air wing the name of "Trapeze artists", and hence their badge (below). Originally the F-9Cs were equipped with an under carriage, but eventually on over water operations this was replaced by an extra fuel tank.

On the 12th February 1935, the Macon was destroyed while returning to Moffett Field near San Francisco (See Map). A freak gust of wind caused the supporting ring of one of Macon's tail fins to collapse, thus puncturing 3 helium cells. Without control the airship plunged nose first into clouds, venting water ballast and fuel in an attempt to regain level flight but with out success (normally, to aid the alteration of trim, crew would run from end to end of the airship to provide a mobile form of ballast). However the pressure release valves, which operated automatically above 2 800 ft began venting helium, causing the Macon to plunge in to the sea, where the airship remained floating for 40 minutes. Of the 83 man crew, only two were killed, one a radio operator who jumped from the falling craft, and the other a mess steward who became trapped inside and was eventually drowned, the remainder were picked up by nearby cruisers.

Since the ultimate intended use of the Macon was as an airborne lookout over the Hawaiian bases, an interesting "what if" game can be created assuming that she was not destroyed, and continued to see service into WW2. The outcome of the attack on Pearl harbour could have been quite different if the Macon had seen the Japanese approach, and therefore warned the defences. Alternatively, what if the Akron had also survived into WW2, it would have made an interesting ASW weapon, using the F-9Cs to attack U-boats. In order to wargame these scenarios, I have prepared some stats and rules for Macon/Akron for use with General Quarters.

Stats for the other US airships, including some of the blimps have been supplied by Jimmy Sperling and are enclosed in the table with Akron. Additional rules to cover particular aspects of these vessels are included with the rules for Macon.

For the purposes of the game the airships should be considered like a plane under General Quarters 2 WW2 expansion rules, i.e. use the following stats, but they should also abide by the rules below.

Type Mission Cruising Speed (Hexes / map turn) Endurance (Map Turns) Tactical Speed ("/Game turn) Ceiling AA Strength Bombload
Akron Class R 6 72 9 H 1/2* 4 F-9Cs
Shenandoah R 5 60 8" H - - - -
Los Angeles R 5 60 8" H - - - -
K-13 A/R 4 48 7" M - - D.C.
K-3 R 4 48 7" M - - - -
L-4 R 3 36 6" M - - - -

* Strength due to 30cal MGs in Gondola etc.

Macon / Akron are subject to the following rules: The number and letter in brackets indicate a rule in GQ2 pages 40 - 42

Airships take 3 Game Turns to gain 1 altitude level and lose 1/4 forward speed (3a).

Die Roll AA Strength
1 - 5 6 - 10 11 - 15 16 +
1 Damaged Damaged Destroyed Destroyed
2 Chased Off Damaged Damaged Destroyed
3 Chased Off Chased Off Damaged Destroyed
4 - Chased Off Chased Off Damaged
5 - - Chased Off Damaged
6 - - - Chased Off

Chased Off - Airship Must move away from firer to a table edge and leave the table. It may return the following turn at the spot it left if it so wishes. The Airship can still be attacked by Aircraft etc while moving away

Damaged - An airship that is damaged has its movement halved and AA factor reduced to 0. Every Map Turn after being damaged on a D6 roll of 6 the Airship crashes, unless it makes a repair die roll. Airships filled with hydrogen must immediately roll a die: a 5 or 6 results in a catastrophic fire and destroys the airship.

Destroyed - The airship crashes and is removed from play.

The F-9C has the following stats in General Quarters, thanks to Jimmy Sperling for supplying these.

Type Mission Cruising Speed (Hexes / map turn) Endurance (Map Turns) Tactical Speed ("/Game turn) Ceiling AA Strength Bombload
F-9C F/R* 9 4/6 18 M 1 N/A

Part 2 will detail how to make a 1/3000 model of the Macon.

"USS Macon: Lost and Found" J. Gordon Vaeth, National Geographic Volume 81/1 January 1992

"Airships: History and Tactics" Larry Bond, Naval Sitrep Clash of Arms 1997, obtained via Magweb http://www.magweb.com

"General Quarters" Parts 1 &2 L.L. Gill, Navwar 1975/77

Additional General Quarters Aircraft statistics from Jimmy Sperling jimnavyman@hotmail.com

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