Can You Name the Deadliest Airship Disaster in US History


People often think the Hindenburg was the worst airship disaster, with 35 dead, but it wasn’t. Before that, it was the Goodyear-Zeppelin Akron. There weren’t any videos, which meant the history faded faster than the Hindenburg disaster.

The deadliest dirigible accident in US history was the USS Akron on April 3, 1933. It crashed at sea off the coast of New Jersey when unbeknownst to them, a storm was chasing them and finally engulfed them.

Seventy-three died out of a crew and passengers numbering seventy-six.

The USS Akron crashed at sea off the coast of New Jersey, and with 73 dead – many drowned – and three survivors, this remains the deadliest airship accident. The water temperature was about 45 degrees, and people only survived for about ten minutes in that temperature. No lifeboats were available.

Two crew members were killed while looking for the USS Akron survivors.

The Deadly Flight

After casting off at 19:28, Akron soon encountered fog and then severe weather, which did not improve when the airship passed over Barnegat Light, New Jersey, at 22:00. According to Richard K. Smith, “[u]nknown to the men on board the Akron, they were flying ahead of one of the most violent storm fronts to sweep the North Atlantic States in ten years. It would soon envelop them.”

Enveloped in fog, increased lightning, and heavy rain, it became extremely turbulent at 00:15. The Akron began a rapid nose-down descent, reaching 1,100 feet (340 m) while still falling. Ballast was dumped, stabilizing the ship at 700 feet (210 m), and climbed back to 1,600-foot (490 m) cruising altitude.

Then a second violent descent sent the Akron downwards at 14 feet per second (4.3 m/s). “Landing stations” alerted the crew as the ship descended tail-down. The lower fin struck the sea, water entered the fin, and the stern was dragged under. The engines pulled the ship into a nose-high attitude; then the Akron stalled and crashed into the sea.

Akron broke up rapidly and sank in the stormy Atlantic. The crew of the nearby German merchant ship Phoebus saw lights descending toward the ocean at about 00:23 and altered course to starboard to investigate, with her captain believing that he was witnessing an airplane crash.

At 00:55, executive officer Lieutenant Commander Herbert V. Wiley was pulled from the water. At the same time, the ship’s boat picked up three more men: Chief Radioman Robert W. Copeland, Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Richard E. Deal, and Aviation Metalsmith Second Class Moody E. Erwin.

Despite artificial respiration, Copeland never regained consciousness, and he died aboard Phoebus.


Although the German sailors spotted four or five other men in the water, they did not know their ship had chanced upon the crash of Akron until Lt. Commander Wiley regained consciousness half an hour after being rescued. The crew of Phoebus combed the ocean in boats for over five hours in a fruitless search for more survivors. The Navy blimp J-3—sent out to join the search—also crashed, losing two men.

Most casualties had been caused by drowning and hypothermia since the crew had not been issued life jackets, and there had not been time to deploy the single life raft. The accident left 73 dead and only three survivors. Wiley, standing next to the two other survivors, gave a brief account on 6 April.


The man who speaks at the end is Bub Cowart, who lived in Alameda in the late 1960s and early 70s.


The Hindenburg was one of many airship crashes, and, amazingly, only 35 people died, but 62 survived. This airship was destroyed in less than half a minute. There were many others. We still fly dirigibles.

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