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Uncovering the USS Macon: The Underwater Airship

The military zeppelin USS Macon was meant to be a floating American aircraft carrier over the Pacific Ocean — but it crashed, sank and has been lying on the ocean floor for more than 70 years. Now scientists have discovered and documented the unique wreck off the coast of California.The tragedy unfolded unusually slowly for an aviation catastrophe: The crew fought to control the USS Macon for more than an hour. US naval officers threw fuel canisters overboard in an attempt to reduce the weight of their vessel. The canisters imploded on their way to the ocean floor and the Macon hit the water surface only five kilometers (three miles) off the Californian coast near Monterey, on Feb. 12, 1935. The zeppelin broke apart and sank into the deep water. Two of the 83 crew members died.

Neither enemy fire nor sabotage was to blame for the giant airship’s doom. A heavy storm above the picturesque Big Sur coast tore off the Macon’s vertical tail fin. The airship’s structural framework was so badly damaged that the Macon broke apart when it hit the water.

Why and how that happened is the question an interdisciplinary research team now wants to answer. While an investigative commission formed by the US Navy following the catastrophe was able to determine that shoddy repair work was to blame for the crash, however the commission’s researchers had to content themselves with speculation — after all, the evidence for their hypothesis lay 450 meters (1,476 feet) below the ocean surface.

It was only in June 1990 that Chris Grech, the deputy director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) discovered the first pieces of wreckage on the ocean floor. Grech discovered the Macon’s remains in the middle of a deep-sea reservation area. The reservationís existence is the only reason why what Grech calls a “unique time capsule from another era” has remained untouched for more than 70 years. If commercial fishing had been allowed in the area, dragnets would long since have destroyed the ghostly remains at the bottom of the ocean.

Updated: July 18, 2011 — 3:27 PM
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