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America’s Most Deadly Airship Disaster

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Although the Hindenburg is better remembered, America’s most deadly airship disaster involved the U.S.S. Akron. The airship was commissioned on November 7, 1931, as a vessel of the U.S. Navy and was tested extensively to determine possible uses during wartime. Both the Akron and its sister ship, the U.S.S. Macon, were intended for use as aerial aircraft carriers. Five trapeze-like devices on the bottom of the airship served to launch and retrieve “Sparrowhawk” fighter planes.

Unfortunately, the project was doomed. Several accidents marred the experiment in the short life of the Akron. On February 22, 1932, a ground handling accident at Lakehurst, New Jersey damaged the lower fin, and the ship was moored over two months for repairs. An accident while landing at Camp Kearny, California, on May 11 of the same year resulted in the deaths of two sailors. A second fin mishap at Lakehurst occurred on August 22, 1932, while the ship was leaving the hangar.

The biggie happened early in the morning of April 4, 1933. In the midst of an angry cold front, the Akron crashed violently into the ocean off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey, killing 73 of the 76 people aboard. To add insult to injury, a second Navy airship sent to help search for survivors also crashed, resulting in the loss of two more lives.

This event marked a rather abrupt end to the Navy dirigible program. Only 36 people (less than half the Akron’s toll) perished four years later in the crash of the Hindenburg, which would bring to a close the age of the airship as a form of commercial transportation.

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