February 12, 2010
MBARI-documented wreck added to National Register of Historic Places.
On February 11, 2010, seventy five years after the dirigible USS Macon crashed into the Pacific Ocean, its crash site was added to the National Register of Historic Places. This underwater wreck was extensively documented using MBARI submersibles.
At 785 feet long (similar in size to the RMS Titanic), the USS Macon was one of the largest dirigibles ever built. Designed for military surveillance, it carried five Sparrowhawk biplanes that could be launched and recovered in mid-air. Only two years after its construction, however, the Macon crashed into the ocean off the Big Sur coast during a storm on February 12, 1935, and sank to the seafloor. All but two of its crew were rescued by nearby Navy ships. The exact location of the wreck was unknown until 1990, when MBARI’s Chris Grech used Navy and MBARI vehicles to search the seafloor and find debris that could only have come from the Macon.
In 2006 MBARI collaborated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and other organizations on an expedition to explore and map the debris of the USS Macon. Using MBARI’s remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Tiburon, the team scoured thousands of square meters of seafloor. The expedition returned with hundreds of photographs and dozens of hours of video showing pieces of the dirigible and of the biplanes that it carried when it plunged into the sea.
After analyzing the images and video, historical researchers identified remnants of the Macon‘s airship-hangar bay, its four Sparrowhawks, five of its eight engines, and various structural components. Video from the dives also showed numerous objects used in the daily life of the crew on board the airship, including sections of a stove, the enlisted men’s dining table, and chairs and desks from an officer’s or meteorologist’s office. All these items were made of aluminum (to save weight). The expedition did not recover any portions of the wreck, but only documented its extent and condition.
The extensive documentation of the wreck of the USS Macon was instrumental in allowing this underwater feature to be added to the National Register of Historical Places. According to Paul Michel, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary superintendent, “The National Register listing highlights the importance of protecting the wreck site and its artifacts for further understanding of our past.” The National Register is the nation’s official list of cultural places considered worth preserving. Places listed in the National Register can also qualify for federal grants for historic preservation.
As Bruce Terrell, senior archaeologist, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Maritime Heritage Program points out, “Dirigibles were an important development in the history of aviation and the Macon‘s remains represent the only archaeologically-documented example of such aircraft in the United States and possibly the world.” MBARI is proud to have played a role in helping preserve this unique underwater historical site.
High-resolution images from the 2006 expedition to the wreck of the USS Macon.
Note: These images may not be copied, reprinted, or used without explicit permission from MBARI. Members of the media needing higher-resolution versions should contact Kim Fulton-Bennett, firstname.lastname@example.org, 831-775-1835.
This rough photomontage was compiled from several thousand overlapping frames from high-definition video collected during the expedition to the USS Macon. The most visible objects are the wings of four sparrowhawk biplanes that were carried aboard the Macon. This montage was created by “flying” the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Tiburon over the seafloor in the grid pattern, using special control software developed by professor Steve Rock at Stanford University. Over the next few months, these rough images will be combined and color corrected by a computer to create an exquisitely detailed map of the wreck of the Macon.
This color-corrected undersea photograph shows the wing and cockpit of one of the Curtiss Sparrowhawk biplanes that went down with the USS Macon. The tube at lower right was a telescopic gun site. Just above the cockpit is the frame for the “sky-hook” that allowed the biplane pilot to dock with a trapeze hanging beneath the belly of the USS Macon.
Here is another color-corrected undersea photograph showing the wing and cockpit of one of the Curtiss Sparrowhawk biplanes that went down with the USS Macon. The tube at lower right was a telescopic gun site. Just above the cockpit is the frame for the “sky-hook” that allowed the biplane pilot to dock with a trapeze hanging beneath the belly of the USS Macon.
This undersea photo shows a rockfish swimming through the frame for the “sky-hook” that allowed this Curtiss Sparrowhawk biplane to dock with the USS Macon.
Image credit: (c) 2006 NOAA/MBARI
This color-corrected undersea photograph shows the wing tip of one of the Curtiss Sparrowhawk biplanes that went down with the USS Macon. If you look closely you can see bits of fabric that originally covered the plane’s wing, as well as portions of a red, white, and blue star design that was painted on the wing.
This color-corrected underwater photograph shows the remains of the nose or “bow” of the USS Macon. The thick rod was part of a docking assembly that was used to moor the airship to a ground-based “mooring mast” after landing.
This color-corrected underwater photograph shows portions of some of the USS Macon‘s fuel tanks. The circular baffles prevented the fuel from sloshing around while the airship was in flight.
For additional information or images relating to this article, please contact: Kim Fulton-Bennett