Lighter Than Air, Larger Than Life: The U.S.S. Akron Onscreen
The deadliest airship disaster in history was not the crash of the Hindenburg but the U.S.S. Akron, which claimed the lives of 73 crew members (nearly twice the body count of the Hindenburg disaster). Unlike the famous German zeppelin, the Akron’s demise was not immortalized on film, but its birth was, thanks to the motion picture department of its builder, the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company.
In 1928 Goodyear, in partnership with the German company Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, won a U.S. Navy contract to manufacture two rigid airships, to be designed by Luftschiffbau engineers led by the renowned Dr. Karl Arnstein. The first of these dirigibles, launched on Sept. 23, 1931, was the U.S.S. Akron. 785 feet long and with gas capacity of 6,850,000 cubic feet, it was at the time the largest flying object in the world. Today it remains tied with its sister ship as the largest helium-filled aircraft ever made. The Navy planned to use it as a long-range reconnaissance platform, able to house and deploy five biplanes from an interior hangar.
After its launch, it was occupied with trials to determine its effectiveness as an aircraft carrier, along with goodwill and demonstration flights. Though state of the art, the Akron had a short and bumpy term of service: it endured three accidents, including a mooring mishap that killed two sailors, before its final crash on the morning of April 4, 1933. Severe winds encountered off the coast of New Jersey sent the airship tail-first into the Atlantic Ocean. Most of the deaths resulted from drowning, since no lifejackets were aboard. Only three crew members survived.
Deemed a national disaster by President Franklin Roosevelt, the loss of the Akron marked the beginning of the end for rigid airships in the U.S. Navy, especially since Rear Admiral William A. Moffett—leading airship proponent and Chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics—was among the dead. The subsequent nail in the coffin was the loss of the Akron’s sister ship, the U.S.S. Macon, off the coast of California on February 12, 1935 (this time life jackets were aboard and only two crew members perished). The Navy’s expensive rigid airship program was cancelled and Goodyear turned exclusively to building non-rigid airships, also known as blimps.
Though pieces of the Akron’s wreckage are extant, the 785-foot behemoth has survived intact on strips of film 35 millimeters wide. Goodyear had made sure to document its genesis and even filmed the construction of the building it was assembled in, the Goodyear Airdock. Located in Goodyear’s hometown of Akron, Ohio, it was the world’s largest airship hangar and for four decades was the largest building in the world without interior supports. It still exists today, listed as a National Historic Site by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The footage of the Akron’s construction begins with Rear Admiral Moffett driving a golden rivet into the first main frame before showing its massive girders being assembled, as massive duralumin alloy frames are raised into position. Fabric “skins” are applied while nose and tail fins are installed. Suspended in place is a cell (one of 12) able to hold a million cubic feet of gas. The second reel depicts the end of construction and gives a tour of the finished craft before showing its christening by First Lady Lou Hoover, followed by its maiden flight. Gracefully plowing through the sky, the behemoth returns to base, where the Navy’s Inspection Staff shakes hands with Goodyear’s president and Dr. Arnstein, all blissfully unaware that the Akron’s career would last only 18 months.
Goodyear donated its footage in 2013 to the University of Akron, which applied for a NFPF preservation grant to preserve the original nitrate negatives. Film-to-film lab work was carried out by Fotokem, which afterward provided long-term storage for the hazardous nitrate. Digital copies were placed online, after a standing-room-only public screening that generated local press coverage, and the films were later screened at the annual banquet of the Lighter-Than-Air Society. The results allow the public to watch the Akron’s birth, eight decades after its death.