Monday, December 20, 2010

A Reminder Of A Time Gone By

Caption: An N2Y trainer aircraft at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Image credit: Armyjunk/Bitbucket

I ran across this picture the other day while looking at this photo journal of a visit to the National Naval Aviation Museum. What caught my eye was that I didn't recognize the aircraft, even though it was clearly a U.S. Navy aircraft from the 1930s. The other thing that caught my eye was the name "U.S.S. Akron" on the side of it. After a bit of digging, I figured out that it was a Consolidated N2Y trainer. What's interesting about the name U.S.S. Akron is that, at least in the 1930s, there was no aircraft carrier with that name. That was the name of a rigid airship, one of the largest ever constructed.

How could an aircraft be assigned to a airship? That's an interesting question.

Like the famous Hindenberg, the U.S.S. Akron was a very large aircraft. With a hull that was 785 feet (239 meters) long, she was about as long as the aircraft carriers of her day. Here's a picture of her, with an aircraft crossing over her bow:

Image credit: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia

So the idea of carrying airplanes in an airship didn't seem so outrageous. It wasn't easy, of course. Even compared to landing and taking off from an aircraft carrier, this wasn't easy.

Notice the bar on the top of the N2Y's wing. That's for the mechanism they used to pull those aircraft up into the airship when it was "landing", and release it to fly away. The mechanism was called a "trapeze", for what should be obvious reasons. Here's a picture of one of Akron's fighter planes trying to get hooked to it:
Image credit: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia

It looks like the pilot of that biplane, a Sparrowhawk fighter, is trying to guide the aircraft onto the trapeze using his hand. That would take some nerve; it would have been very easy to lose a hand doing that, or even an arm.

Akron carried four of those fighters, and generally a trainer or two. Her mission was to do what is now done by AWACS aircraft - early warning and reconnaissance. They could fly thousands of miles from their base, and even the limited number of aircraft they had could have covered a substantial area. Had they been operational at Pearl Harbor in 1941, it's possible the Japanese attack there would have been discovered in time.

Unfortunately for Akron and other Navy airships, they were victims of budget cutting during the Depression. They were difficult and dangerous to fly in heavy weather, and they crashed alarmingly often. Akron crashed in April, 1933, less than two years after she was commissioned. Her sister ship, U.S.S. Macon, also crashed after less than two years in operation. No Navy airship lasted a decade.

Compared to a fleet aircraft carrier of the time, which could carry anywhere from 50 to 100 aircraft and operate them in all but the worst weather, the costly and fragile airships just weren't worth the money and the lives lost.

Caption: U.S.S. Akron flying over Manhattan, New York City, in 1932.

Image credit: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia

Still, they must have been majestic sights, if you were lucky enough to see one. The hazardous task of flying them and operating aircraft from them was a testament to the courage and determination of the people who did it.

As with most changes, we lost something as the price of a gain.


One Fly said...

I remember but not that there were more than one plane. These could be seen from miles away. Good story.

Cujo359 said...

I read about this a long time ago in some airplane magazine. It was something that went on when my parents were still kids, so it's one of those things that, while fascinating, are things most of us aren't likely to be aware of.

Sometimes it's good to remember that the technology we have now didn't come to us from a single straight line of development. There were plenty of costly, and sometimes disastrous, failures along the way.