Search for the Navy Zeppelin Akron that crashed during a storm 27 miles off Beach Haven, New Jersey, April of 1933. July, 1986.
The story of the Akron and her naval sister rigid airships the Macon and forerunner the Shenandoah grip the imagination. Once I began researching the early airships and their often tragic endings, I became hooked.
The Shenandoah’s crash site in Noble County, Ohio, is well known and marked by a memorial. The Macon went down in deep water off Point Sur, California, in 1937. And so the Akron became NUMA’s prime target, especially since she crashed in only 105 feet of water and took 78 men with her, including Admiral William Moffett, considered the father of Naval aviation.
My NUMA crew consisted of A1 and Laura Ecke, owners of our search boat; Dr. Ken Kamler, team physician and diver; and Mike Duffy, diver and oceanographer; and old dependable Bill Shea.
We gathered at a motel in Beach Haven on July 27., 1986. I flew in while some drove. The Ecke’s came down from Long Island on their boat. We were knocked out three days by bad weather and fog, but managed to get in 29 hours of solid search time. I used the position from the log book of the navy salvage ship Falcon as a the basis for a search grid. Unfortunately, a woman who was to do a report of the expedition for us departed to parts unknown with most of my research material. However, I do have the Loran coordinates that run on an east to west line at the southern end of the debris field. If you should decide to check out the Falcon’s log over the wreck site, be advised that the description of another salvage ship’s buoy (I can’t recall her name) 400 yards to the northeast is pretty much on the money.
We did, contrary to one newspaper report, get a dive down on one target, which proved to be the base of one tail fin. I was not on board that day to direct the operations so the Loran reading is off by about a hundred yards due to the crew’s late reaction to the cry of “Target!” and the fact they never got the hang of allowing for the distance between the sonar recording unit the sensor trailing nearly 150 feet behind.
Be that as it may, Loran coordinates 43076.7 by 26724.9 and 43076.0 by 26726.7 should put you in the southern end of the ballpark.
There is an excellent story on the expedition in the August 8th issue of the New York Times.
AKRON Built: 1931 Sunk: April 4, 1933 Previous names: ZR-4 Depth: 105 feet Grass Tonnage: 200 Dimensions: 785′ Type of vessel: Rigid dirigible Power: 8 Gasoline engines Builder: Goodyear-Zeppelin Company, Akron, OH Owner: United States Navy Port of Registry: Lakehurst, NJ Cause of sinking: Crashed in a storm Location:
The Akron is a ship, a ship of the air.
Because of the proximity of the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, and the sheer amount of traffic originating there, quite a few dirigibles have dived into the sea over the years. During W W 2 they were a common sight in the sky as the lighter-than-air craft patrolled coastal shipping lanes for German submarines, lost seamen, and downed pilots.
Two Akrons have been lost off the Jersey shore. The first one was a private venture operating out of Atlantic City. On July 2, 1912, the 258 foot semi-rigid airship began an attempt try cross the Atlantic. Melvin Vaniman, designer and engineer, steered the ship over Absecon Beach and headed north toward Brigantine. The trip barely began when, in front of the eyes of thousands of horrified sunbathers, 400,000 cubic feet of hydrogen burst into flames. The Akron crashed into the water, killing all five aboard.
The Z R-4 was built in 1931 in the largest hangar in the world, in Akron, Ohio, under U.S. Navy contract. The giant rigid dirigible was 785 feet long, and boasted 6,500,000 cubic feet of nonflammable helium in 11 gas cells. Instead of external engine pods, the 8 gasoline engines were set inside the hull with the propellers mounted on variable pitched outriggers.
On August 8 the Z R-4 was christened Akron, but within weeks became more popularly known as the “Queen of the Skies.” During the next 2 years she made 58 successful. flights, crossing the country many times. People were awed by her size, beauty, and streamlined profile. The Navy was proud too have such a ship, and made no pretense of showing her off.
Her reputation was somewhat tarnished on May 11, 1932, during a landing at San Diego. A combination of events caused the airship to bob back up in the sky with three ground crew men clinging to the ropes. Two fell off and were killed, one was reeled up to safety. Her final demise came during a short protocol hop. When a bong flight along the New England coast was cancelled due too weather, some of the Navy brass decided to take a quick tour of the skies. Among the 76 crew and passengers were Admiral William A. Moffett, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, and 6 survivors from the Shenandoah crash.
The Akron took off at 7:30 p.m., in a pea soup ground fog. By the time she reached 300 feet she was out of sight. The round trip was planned to take them to Philadelphia, the Delaware Capes, and up along the coast. She soared over the City of Brotherly Love in crystal clarity. By midnight, nearing the end of the flight, a storm caught up with her off the coast of Atlantic City.
Surrounded by thunder and lighting, she was pummeled by fierce winds. Girders cracked, and gas cells burst. The airship plummeted down, and struck the ocean stern fist. Men fought their way out of the sinking framework as the dirigible sealed to the bottom.
The Akron did not burn, but her navigation lights were by the Phoebus, a German tanker. Captain Karl Dalldorf, master, watched the lights near the water. He thought a plane must be crashing, so he altered course to investigate. In 45 knot winds and heavy seas, he found 5 men clinging to a 120 gallon fuel tank.
He veered his ship in sideways. Two men swam toward the tanker, caught life rings, and were hauled aboard. A lifeboat was lowered and 2 others were plucked off the makeshift raft. But during the hour and a half wait one man had been unable to hang on, and had drowned. Then, one of those rescued succumbed to his exertions; he slipped into unconsciousness and quietly passed away.
Commander Frank McCord, skipper of the Akron, and Admiral Moffett, went down with the airship. The 3 survivors were transferred to the Coast Guard destroyer Tucker and taken do the Naval Hospital at Brooklyn. Moffet’s body eventually washed ashore.
The death troll was compounded later that day when the 2 engine blimp, the J-3, set out to look for survivors. She cruised the coastline between Barnegat and Atlantic City, fighting vicious winds all the way. As she was backtracking the route the port engine shifted off its mounts and had to be shut down. The airship lost altitude, and came into Beach Haven for an emergency landing. The seven man crew dropped hang lines and released helium, but a gust of wind slammed the blimp into the dunes. She rebounded, was carried a thousand feet offshore, and crashed into the surf. The gondola was torn off and the men dropped into the waves. A New York City amphibious police plane saw the accident, landed in the water, and rescued 5 men. The other 2, including the blimp’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander David Cummins, drowned.
The famous salvage vessel Falcon, that had among other things raised the submarine S-51 under the leadership of Commander Edward Ellsburg in 1925, was called in. She located the wreckage and recovered enough material to make a positive identification.
In 1986, the National Underwater and Marine Agency, headed by author Clive Cussler, located by side scan sonar what he believes to the wreckage of the Akron. Although no divers were sent down to explore the wreckage, electronic equipment was able try record a 700 foot debris field consisting of beams and metal frames.
First of three search expeditions for the White Bird, the aircraft flown by Nungessor & Coli, who vanished on transatlantic flight in 1927. October, 1984.
Early on May 8, 1927, twelve days before Charles Lindberg was to make his historic flight, two famous WWI French flying aces took off from Le Bourget airfield near Paris on an east to west flight across the Atlantic to New York. They were one of the first who successfully managed to get off the ground with a fuel-over laden airplane and soar out over the Atlantic.
Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli were already the toast of France. Nungesser had shot down 44 German planes and barnstormed in Europe and the United States after the war. Coli was also an ace, but later gained fame on a long distance flight to Africa.
After takeoff the L’Oiseau blanc (the White Bird), a Levasseur bi-wing, open cockpit aircraft powered by a 450 horsepower Lorraine-Dietrich 12 cylinder engine, dropped its landing gear and flew out over the English Channel. It was last sighted heading over the ocean from the eastern shore of Ireland.
The White Bird then simply vanished and was never seen again. It was not until 1980 when Gunnar Hanson, a freelance writer, researched and published an article on a man by the name of Anson Berry who was living near Machias, Maine, in 1927 and who claimed to hear an aircraft fly over his isolated camp late in the afternoon of May 9th, 1927. Anson, told several friends and neighbors he had heard the plane overhead in the overcast and but could not see it. He also stated the engine sounded erratic and it sounded to him as if the plane crashed in the distance.
Gunner dug deeper and found a number of other reports and a few sightings beginning in Newfoundland and traveling on a line south past Nova Scotia and into the coastal region of Maine. He then ran onto a report by a hunter who said he’d found an old engine buried in the ground sometime in 1950. The site was within a mile of where Anson Berry heard the plane pass.
Gunner organized a group, including the hunter, a gentleman by the name of Ray Beck of Chatham, New York. Coincidentally, Bob Fleming and I were also researching the mysterious flight and heard about Gunner. I contacted him, offered to fund some of the search and flew up to Bangor, Maine.
The country is beautiful, and in the bog areas impossible to penetrate. The first trek we accomplished very little. While preparations were made for a second attempt, I contacted the well respected psychic, Ingo Swann, and asked him to take a crack at it.
He accompanied us on the second try and we came up dry. At the same time there was a group led by a Rick Gillespie who was also searching for the lost plane. Interestingly he didn’t know about our efforts. None of us wished to join his organization because he lived on media hype. And my feeling has always been not to make a big deal out of an expedition unless you can prove you actually discovered your intended target.
Swann later arranged for an experiment with several other psychics. Strange as it seems, working separately they all put the downed aircraft within a quarter of a mile from each other’s projections on the southern slope of the Round Hills near Round Lake.
What can I say. We combed the area foot by foot on the third attempt. The White Bird isn’t there.
The search goes on, however. No one wants to quit.
My personal theory, two in fact, is that it did not come down near where Anson Berry heard it, but some miles further south. Or, and I like this over any others, the plane went down in an impenetrable bog and chances of it ever being found are quite nil.