Airships over California!

If you tracked the frequency of Google searches, you’d find a large spike last week for “Bay Area airship”, but not because of a sudden invasion of dirigibles over the San Francisco Bay.

The Germans were the acknowledged leaders in airship technology during World War I. But they lost the war anyways and as part of war reparations, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin built an airship for the US–USS Los Angeles (ZR-3).  After the successful tests of this airship, the US Navy commissioned two airships from the Goodyear Zeppelin Company. The two airships were christened the USS Akron (ZRS-4) and the USS Macon (ZRS-5).  The ships were huge, only slightly shorter than the Hindenburg.

USS Macon entering Hangar One

The Akron was assigned to Lakehurst, New Jersey. She had an accident-plagued career that lasted less than two years which ended with its crash into the ocean off the New Jersey coast with the loss of all but three of her crew.

The Macon was stationed at Naval Air Station Sunnyvale at the southern tip of San Francisco Bay. (Ironically, while most of the base is in Mountain View, it was named after the neighboring city of Sunnyvale as it was feared that Congressional officials would worry about airships colliding with mountainsides.)

A hangar built for the Macon, Hangar One, is one of the largest freestanding structures, covering over eight acres of area. To give some sense of scale, at one open house I attended, there were full-sized hot air balloons giving rides for visitors inside the hangar.

The USS Macon had a number of technological advances.  Unlike the Hindenburg which was built later than the Macon, the American airship used helium gas for lift, rather than the infamously inflammable hydrogen.  The Macon also could operate as an aerial aircraft carrier.  She carried five Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk biplanes which could be launched and recovered while the airship was in flight.

A Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk hooked on to the trapeze and hoist arrangement of the USS Macon. Photograph source: National Air and Space Museum.

A Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk hooked on to the trapeze and hoist arrangement of the USS Macon. Photograph source: National Air and Space Museum.

Unfortunately, like her sister ship, the Macon had a short lifetime.  In February 1935, the Macon ran into a storm off of Big Sur, California.  She had been only partially repaired after an encounter with wind gusts several months earlier.  A crosswind snapped its weakened upper tail fin, and shards of metal punctured its aft gas cells.  The ship eventually settled onto the surface of the ocean where all but two crewmen made it to life rafts.  Fatally damaged, the airship slowly sank beneath the waves.

While the sinking of the Macon was the end of the rigid airships for the US Navy, it was not the end of lighter-than-aircraft.  During World War II, the immense Hangar One at Moffett Field (as NAS Sunnyvale was renamed) was joined by Hangar 2 and Hangar 3, twin structures that were built of wood (because of wartime steel scarcity) and are still among the world’s largest unsupported wooded structures.  The three hangars held a fleet of blimps (non-rigid airships) which patrolled the coastline for enemy submarines.

Submarine patrol blimps inside Hangar One during World War II.

Submarine patrol blimps inside Hangar One during World War II.


Blimps flying over Moffett Field during World War II.

After the war, the blimp activity ended at Moffett Field.  Submarine patrols continued during the Cold War using Lockheed P3 Orion aircraft.  The NASA Ames Research Center took over part of the base.  There was even a commercial airship company–Airship Ventures–offering sightseeing flights out of Hangar 2 for a while.  But there was no need for the huge dirigible hangar, so Hangar One languished.  Compounding the issue was the lead paint used to paint the skin of the structure for many year, and the PCBs and asbestos on the interior.  Eventually, the Navy decided to strip the contaminated skin off Hangar One, leaving only its skeletal support frame.

hangar1Fortunately, Google, specifically a subsidiary of Google’s called Planetary Ventures, announced that it had agreed to take over management of Moffett Field from NASA and as part of the deal, would commit to re-skin Hangar One and renovate Hangars 2 and 3.  There are apparently still details to iron out in the agreement, but for now, at least, the legacy of the Bay Area’s airship history has a somewhat brighter future.

If you’re in the area, Moffett Field has an excellent museum on base with exhibits representing all the various activities that have been performed at Moffett, including all sorts of steampunky airship history, as well as, somewhat unexpectedly, a great model train setup!


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