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Time Travel: Exploring a Sunken 1930s Airship

Using advanced survey techniques, a team of researchers headed into Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to shed new light on the fate of the USS Macon, the largest of the U.S. Navy's ill-fated fleet of military airships. A massive, cigar-shaped dirigible the size of three 747s, the Macon met its demise just two years after it was built, crashing into the Pacific Ocean in February 1935 during a violent storm off Point Sur, Calif.

A diver swims underneath the Amesbury's bow
Curtiss F9C-2 "Sparrowhawk" fighter
Hanging from the trapeze of USS Macon (ZRS-5) during flight operations in 1933 (Photo: National Archives)

Aboard the NOAA R/V McArthur II (May 1-4), the team conducted a side-scan survey at the wreck site of the rigid airship USS Macon, as well as the site of four Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk aircraft lost seventy years ago off Point Sur.

The science team included sanctuary staff Jean de Marignac (MBNMS), Robert Schwemmer (CINMS) working in collaboration with scientists from the United States Geological Survey, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.

Principal Investigators Chris Grech (MBARI)  and Roberto Anima (USGS) review the paper  printout of the USS Macon side-scan survey  onboard the NOAA research vessel McArthur II
Principal Investigators Chris Grech (MBARI) and Roberto Anima (USGS) review the paper printout of the USS Macon side-scan survey onboard the NOAA research vessel McArthur II (Photo: Robert Schwemmer)

The expedition is the first phase to determine the extent of the debris fields at the site. The most significant outcome of this sonar survey was the generation of a complete map that captures the extent of the debris fields that are on two submerged slopes. Additionally, the location of what appears to be a wide-ranging debris trail on the southeast slope provides a new area for further ROV explorations in 2006.

Side-Scan image of one of the major debris  fields of the USS Macon that includes four  Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk aircraft.
Side-Scan image of one of the major debris fields of the USS Macon that includes four Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk aircraft. (Photo: Robert Schwemmer)

A second expedition will return in September of 2006 and utilize a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to conduct a systematic visual survey and the creation of a photomosaic of the site as well as videotape and still imagery of site features. Phase II is in collaboration with the Monterey Bay and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuaries, NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration, National Marine Sanctuary Program, NOAA Maritime Heritage Program, U.S. Navy, MBARI, University of New Hampshire, State of California and regional museums.

The remains of the Macon and her Curtis F9C-2 Sparrowhawks provide an opportunity to study the relatively undisturbed archaeological remnants of a unique period of aviation history. The remains of the Macon are a significant resource both for the U.S. Navy and for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Additional Resources and Links

United States Geological Survey
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Moss Landing Marine Laboratories
US Naval Historical Center

Caption for header image: Flying over New York Harbor, circa Summer 1933. The southern end of Manhattan Island is visible in the lower left center. Image courtesy: U.S. Naval Historical Center

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