On this day in 1933, a dirigible crashes in New Jersey, killing 73 people in one of the first air disasters in history. The Akron was the largest airship built in the United States when it took its first flight in August 1931. In its short life of less than two years, it was involved in two fatal accidents.
In 1932, the Akron made a flight from New Jersey to the Camp Kearny military base, near San Diego, California. It attempted to land in high winds, with three groups of 30 men each assigned to help pull in the airship and secure it to the ground with ropes. But the Akron, which was filled with helium, began to rise again after the sailors had begun to secure it. Three men held on to their ropes as the Akron rose into the air; two of the three fell from 200 feet and were killed. The third man, Bud Cowart, managed to hold on at the end of the rope for two hours as the Akron dragged him 2,000 feet above the ground. Finally, the crew managed to pull him up into the airship through a porthole.
The second accident involving the Akron occurred on April 4, 1933, while the U.S. Navy was using the airship to obtain some technical data over New Jersey. It was well-known that dirigibles could experience problems in bad weather, but despite the violent thunderstorms in the area that day, the Akron was not grounded. While in the air over the Atlantic Ocean, a miscommunication over directions by crew members sent the Akron directly into the storm instead of around it. The storm’s winds caused the ship to plunge nearly 1,000 feet in a few seconds.
The crew then made its second mistake: the dirigible's water ballast was dumped in order to make the flying ship rise. However, the ballast dump thrust the Akron up too far, too fast. Critical devices and cables were destroyed and all control was lost. The Akron plunged into the ocean.
The rescue airship J-3 was sent to help the Akron crew. It also crashed in the storm, killing two of the seven crew members on board. Only three of the Akron‘s 76 crew members survived the disaster. One of the survivors was the commander who had ordered the fateful ballast dump.
This was the deadliest air disaster since the crash of the first rigid airship built in the United States, the Shenandoah, which killed 14 people on September 3, 1925.