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Airship crash site declared historic

Posted: Tuesday, Feb 16th, 2010

The USS Macon, a 785-foot dirigible based at Moffett Field in Sunnyvale, crashed in 1935 five miles off the coast of Point Sur. The crash site, discovered in 1990, is now on the National Register of Historic Places. (Photo courtesy of Moffett Field Historical Society)

At the time it went down in 1,500 feet of frigid water five miles off the Point Sur coast, the USS Macon was among the largest airships ever built.

Now, after 75 years, the crash site has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Thursday.

The Macon was designed to serve as a reconnaissance dirigible in the Pacific Theater during World War II. She stretched 785 feet and carried four biplanes, which were released through a T-shaped opening on the Macon’s underside. The ship also carried a crew of 83 men, and with eight 560-horsepower engines, could cruise along at 80 miles per hour.

Additionally, the Macon came equipped with a “spy car,” a small compartment designed to hold a crew member and be lowered below cloud cover. The spy car and four biplanes served as the airship’s eyes.

On Feb. 12, 1935, the Macon was returning to its home base at Moffett Field in Sunnyvale when a massive tailwind hit, shearing off sections of tail that had been previously damaged but not yet repaired. The tail dropped as the pilot lost control. All but two men managed to escape as the Macon sank to the bottom of the ocean. The ship had been in service for less than two years and was on its 54th voyage.

For decades, the Macon languished undiscovered. In 1990, however, fishermen discovered the wreckage, prompting an expedition by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the U.S. Navy.

In 2006, scientists from Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, the National Marine Sanctuary Program, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Stanford University, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and the University of New Hampshire used a submersible research vehicle to get a closer look at the site.

At two debris fields, the scientists found the biplanes, five of the Macon’s engines and several items from the kitchen, including the stove.

Because there are no known examples of wartime dirigibles that can be studied on land, the USS Macon is considered to be an important link to aviation history.

“The USS Macon and its four associated Sparrowhawk biplanes are not only historically significant to our nation’s history, but have unique ties to our local communities, where public museums highlight the airship’s history,” Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary superintendent Paul Michel said. “The National Register listing highlights the importance of protecting the wreck site and its artifacts for further understanding our past.”

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