Bobbing for aircraft: The USS Macon exhibit in Monterey

One of the most popular exhibits at the Maritime Museum of Monterey was never intended to go into the ocean. The USS Macon exhibit, which will be on display through December, features the airship that crashed off the California coast in 1934.

“It’s a big part of the local history,” notes Tim Thomas, a museum historian. “People remember seeing it flying overhead. It was nearly 800 feet long so it must have been an impressive sight.”

The Macon was one of four airships operated by the United States Navy. A few months before the Macon went down, its sister ship, the USS Akron, crashed off the East Coast during a storm. The American taxpayers objected to their money being used to pay for these temperamental aircraft and complained to their elected officials. The Navy, smarting from the criticism in Congress, was eager to prove the USS Macon was worth the millions that had been spent on its construction and its massive hangar in Sunnyvale. Rather than ground the airship when the tail was damaged, the Navy did temporary repairs and sent it on a tour.

The Macon was on its way back to Sunnyvale about 20 miles from Monterey when a strong gust of wind tore the fins from the tail. The stricken airship lurched to the side and began an uncontrolled descent toward the water.

For Capt. Herbert Wiley, the Macon’s commanding officer, it was the second time he’d been on board a sinking airship. Wiley was one of three survivors of the USS Akron.

Although most of the crew survived, the Macon accident marked the end of the Navy’s airship program.

According to Thomas, for weeks after the crash pieces of the stricken dirigible washed up on local beaches. Some of the pieces ended up in homes and garages as souvenirs, but most of it stayed in the sea and the location of the Macon remained a mystery.

Ironically, it was Wiley’s daughter who led researchers to the crash several decades after the accident.

“She was in a local restaurant and happened to see a piece of wreckage that was up on the wall for decoration,” said Thomas. “She realized it was part of an airship and asked the owner where he’d gotten it.”

She learned the owner had acquired it from a fisherman. The fishermen reported that he had pulled up other pieces of wreckage from the site over the years. He had also lost gear there because his nets became snagged on something below the waves. The fishing there was great, he reported, speculating that there was something down there that had created a large reef teeming with sea life.

That something was the Macon.

In 1990 the United States Navy and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute launched a search mission. The wreckage was located using records, directions supplied by the fisherman and a remotely operated submersible vehicle (ROV). Two separate debris fields were found. Among the items they saw were the remains of a Curtiss Sparrowhawk reconnaissance aircraft. The Macon went down with four of her normal complement of five on board.

Some small artifacts were brought up, says Thomas, but the largest items, such as the aircraft, were left where they lay.

“It went down in 1,500 feet of water,” Thomas explained. “Getting to it is not easy.”

Scientists are not done with the area yet. Another survey expedition will be launched next year to explore a third debris field that was found last spring.

“They will be taking pictures,” Thomas said.

Much of the museum’s Macon exhibit consists of photographs and newspaper clippings about the ship.

“We were also fortunate enough to have recorded an oral history from Capt. Wiley’s son Gordon before he died,” Thomas said. “Gordon Wiley was also a Naval Aviator and a docent at our museum. He had lots of home movies and stories about the Macon.”

Among the Macon-related artifacts featured at the museum are a lens from the Point Sur lighthouse and an 8-foot-long model of the airship, complete with miniature Sparrowhawks. The ROV that was used to survey the site also is on display.

For more information: 831-372-2608.

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