Thursday, September 28, 2006



Teh Mercury News
By Ken McLaughlin
September 28, 2006

Northern California scientists on Wednesday released the first high-definition images of the wreckage of the USS Macon, the monstrous Navy dirigible that crashed off the Big Sur coast 71 years ago.

In more than 40 hours of surveys with a deep-diving submersible, researchers spotted everything from biplanes to aluminum chairs to dining tables and a stove -- all part of a wreck considered California's own ``Titanic'' and a time capsule from a bygone era.

Once called the ``eyes of the Pacific fleet,'' the Macon crashed in severe weather south of Point Sur on Feb. 12, 1935, on a routine flight from the Channel Islands to its home base at Moffett Airfield in Mountain View.

In a five-day archaeological investigation, scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explored the site with the help of the ROV Tiburon, the institute's remotely operated vehicle. The 7,000-pound Tiburon -- which looks like a metallic octopus -- recorded high-definition videotape and made haunting still images that were combined to create an initial photo-mosaic of the Macon's two debris fields.

Although the wreckage was covered with a heavy layer of sediment, scientists were able to make out the airship's hangar bay, which contained four Sparrowhawk biplanes; five of the Macon's eight German-built Maybach 12-cylinder gasoline engines; two sections of the aluminum stove from the ship's galley; and even the enlisted men's dining table and bench.

A second debris field contained the Macon's bow section and aluminum chairs and desks that may have been in the office of a port side officer or meteorologist.

``Visiting the site again was like visiting an old friend that you haven't seen in years,'' said Chris Grech, the research institute's deputy director for marine operations.

Grech got his first peek at the Macon in the early '90s when he was involved in a less sophisticated mission sponsored by the institute and the Navy shortly after the Macon was found.

The site is too deep for human divers, so the scientists guided the Tiburon close to the Macon from a research vessel on the surface. Real-time images were beamed back to the Web via a series of relay stations -- including one at Big Sur's famed Nepenthe restaurant.

More than 10,000 people from five continents viewed the live streaming videos, said Robert Schwemmer, West Coast maritime heritage coordinator for NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program.

The scientists found that the wreckage had done little to damage the marine environment. If anything, it was just the opposite: The doomed airship has created a sort of artificial reef teeming with fish more than 1,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific.

``We were overwhelmed by the amount of fish,'' Grech said.

In fact, about a third of the time there were so many schools of fish that they made it hard for scientists to see, he said.

NOAA has not released the exact location of the wreckage, saying it doesn't want ``treasure hunters'' at the site.

The scientists said Wednesday that they weren't sure if anyone else had been poking around the Macon.

Grech said it was ``kind of strange'' that a few large objects -- such as a fire extinguisher and a bundle of rope -- were no longer there.

``I'm not sure why they moved,'' he said, adding that the forces of nature could have been to blame.

Scientists said they aren't sure when they will return to the Macon. But they would like to use the results of the new underwater survey to place it on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places.

The Macon is about four times longer than the ``blimps'' often seen today hovering above sporting events, flashing the names of tire companies. In fact, the 785-foot ship was only 97 feet shorter than the Titanic.

In its heyday, the Macon was a familiar sight in the Bay Area. Throngs would turn out to get a look at the ``flying aircraft carrier.''

Before its demise, the Macon was garaged at Moffett's Hangar One, a gigantic relic that is now targeted for demolition.

In its exploration of the site, the Tiburon was controlled by new software developed at Stanford University by Steve Rock, professor of aeronautics and astronautics. The software allows the submersible to maneuver with more precision than human operators could achieve alone. The mission was an important proving ground for software that might one day be used for planetary exploration, scientists at the institute said.

The Macon was only two years old when it crashed. All but two of the crew of 83 survived; the bodies of the dead were never found.

``This is a grave site of Navy personnel,'' said Bruce Terrell, senior archaeologist at the National Marine Sanctuary Program. ``We treated it with respect.''


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