No, the Hindenburg wasn’t the biggest airship disaster in history: the USS Akron and the British R.101

The 1937 Hindenburg disaster is so much part of the public memory in the US, that the iconic “oh, the humanity!” live radio broadcast coverage received tribute-by-way-of-spoof in the memorable Thanksgiving “flying turkeys” episode of WKRP.

It was one of the greatest flying airship disasters in history, but not the greatest. In terms of fatalities, that extremely dubious honor goes to one virtually unknown outside aviation history buffs: the 1933 loss of the USS Akron, in which 73 of the 76 people on board lost their lives — including Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, head of the US Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics and the biggest advocate of the dirigible airship program. The USS Akron and her sister ship USS Macon still hold the record for largest helium-filled dirigibles ever built (the slightly larger Hindenburg was hydrogen-filled). Both helium dirigibles were lost in storms, though fortunately all except two of the Macon crew survived thanks to life vests and the fairly warm water off Monterey Bay, CA. The entire program was scrapped following this second accident.

The Air Ministry of the UK had its own dirigibles program, which was intended to establish air links between Great Britain and its far-flung colonies and Dominions. There were two prototype ships, R100 designed and built by the private sector under government aegis, and R101 designed and built outright by an Air Ministry-appointed team (those were the days of the Labour government of Ramsay McDonald).

The ship left for a journey to India with 54 people on board, including the Air Minister himself, Lord Thompson. Over France, the ship lost height in the bad weather, until it hit the ground, and shortly later the hydrogen caught fire. Only six people survived. The Imperial Airship Scheme was cancelled in the wake of the disaster, which had claimed its greatest advocate.

Heavy metal superstars Iron Maiden, whose lyrics often deal with historical events, devote an 18-minute epic to the story of R101.

Kudos to them for bringing to life this nearly forgotten story that deserves to be remembered.

3 thoughts on “No, the Hindenburg wasn’t the biggest airship disaster in history: the USS Akron and the British R.101

  1. The Macon and Akron were both “flying aircraft carriers”, with a complement of 5 F9 (biplane) fighter aircraft. They had a hook on the top wing, which caught a “trapeze” mechanism that brought the aircraft inside so the pilot could get in and out, and for service.

  2. There was also USS Shenandoah (ZR-1) which was lost over the hills of southeast Ohio in a summer squall. The death toll was lower there, because most of those in the hull survived when the sections drifted down to the ground. Her navigator, Charles Rosendahl, survived and later served as commander of Lakehurst Naval Air Station, where Hindenburg exploded.

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