Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Press Room

September 7 , 2006                                   For Immediate Release
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Ocean expedition explores submerged wreck
of the historic naval airship USS Macon
in NOAA Monterey Bay Sanctuary

UPDATE (9-27-06):
Read the NOAA article and press release describing the initial findings of the 2006 Macon expedition.

On September 17, 2006 researchers from NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary program and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) will embark on an expedition off the Big Sur coast to conduct an archaeological investigation at the submerged wreck site of the rigid airship USS Macon, the nation's largest and last U.S.-built, rigid lighter-than-air craft.

Like its sister ship, the USS Akron (shown here flying over the city of San Francisco) the USS Macon was a familiar sight across the United States. Thousands of people would turn out to observe the “flying aircraft carrier” conducting training maneuvers. The USS Macon carried four biplanes on board.
Credit: Wiley Collection, Monterey Maritime & History Museum

The 785-foot USS Macon , a U.S. Navy “dirigible,” and its four Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk aircraft were lost on February 12, 1935 during severe weather offshore of Point Sur, California, on a routine flight from the Channel Islands to its home base at Moffett Field. The wreckage of the USS Macon provides an opportunity to study the relatively undisturbed archaeological remnants of a unique period of U.S. aviation history.

“A key mandate of the National Marine Sanctuary program is to explore, characterize, and protect submerged heritage resources and to share our discoveries with the public,” said Robert Schwemmer, West Coast maritime heritage coordinator for NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program and co-principal investigator for the expedition. “The USS Macon is a top research and stewardship priority in the Monterey Bay Sanctuary and we encourage the public to join in on the adventure via the sanctuary's web portal.”

Sparrowhawk biplanes such as this one were stored in the USS Macon’s hangar deck. They were released via a trapeze and a harness that lowered the planes through a T-shaped opening in the airship's underside. When returning to the airship, the Sparrowhawk pilots had to match their speed to that of the ship and catch the trapeze with a hook at the top of the plane. Because of their landing technique, the Sparrowhawk pilots were known as “the men on the flying trapeze.”
Credit: Wiley Collection, Monterey Maritime & History Museum

During the five-day expedition, researchers working from MBARI’s research vessel Western Flyer will deploy the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Tiburon and record the visual wreckage of the airship and aircraft through high-definition videotape and still imagery that will be used to create a photo-mosaic of the debris fields. A second objective of the mission is to identify and record specific features in more detail, including newly discovered artifacts, and assess their condition. The expedition will aid in the assessment of the USS Macon for eligibility to the National Register of Historic Places.

“The deepwater wreck site of the USS Macon is a unique time capsule of a bygone era,” said Chris Grech, MBARI deputy director for marine operations and co-principal investigator for the expedition. “Our advanced underwater technology in robotics, vessel design, cameras and computer imaging will allow us to better survey and document this nationally significant archeological site, as well as capture for historians and the public a permanent record in a high resolution photo-mosaic.”

For this expedition, ROV Tiburon will be rigged with custom-made light booms and a downward-pointing, high-resolution camera (green arrow). This equipment will be used, along with a precision ROV-control system developed at Stanford University, to produce large-scale photo-mosaic images of the seafloor and the wreck site.
Image: Chris Grech (c) 2006 MBARI

Starting September 18, 2006, students and the general public can share the expedition’s discoveries through Monterey Bay Sanctuary’s web site. Daily logs, live videos of the expedition, and archived video clips will be available on the sanctuary program’s web site and through the OceansLive web portal.

A public lecture series on the USS Macon also will be launched this month, beginning with a presentation on September 15 at the Monterey Maritime and History Museum. Free USS Macon memorabilia to commemorate the expedition will be available to those attending the lecture series.

The expedition is a collaborative venture involving NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program, NOAA’s Office of Exploration, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Stanford University, University of New Hampshire, U.S. Navy, state of California, Monterey Maritime and History Museum and Moffett Field Historical Society and Museum. In addition, Noah Doughty, an educator from Mission College Preparatory High School in San Luis Obispo, California, was selected as a NOAA “Teacher-at-Sea” and will participate in the expedition, assisting the crew and gathering information to create high school curriculum.

This photo was taken during a 1991 MBARI survey of the wreck of the USS Macon. It shows the remains of one of four biplanes that went down with the USS Macon, including the wings and part of the cockpit (now a refuge for fish). At the top of the photo you can see part of the "sky hook," which was used to catch the trapeze on the Macon.
Image: (c) 1991 MBARI

The expedition is designed to build upon information gathered by the U.S. Navy and MBARI, which first documented the aircraft's remains during expeditions in 1990 and 1991. A more recent site survey was completed in May 2005 utilizing side-scan sonar deployed from the NOAA research vessel McArthur II . This phase I expedition, in partnership with NOAA, MBARI, U.S. Geological Survey, and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, identified what is believed to be undocumented wreckage that may have been missed during the 1990 and 1991 surveys and will be investigated during the September expedition.

A press conference will be held at the MBARI campus in Moss Landing, California at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, September 27, 2006. Researchers at the conference will present the September 2006 expedition's findings to the news media. Still and video images from the cruise will be available as well.

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Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary media contact:
Rachel Saunders — Rachel.Saunders@noaa.gov, 831-647-4237

MBARI media contact:
Lisa Borok — lisab@mbari.org, 831-775-1807

Related Images

Sources of additional information on the web: