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Scientists piece together a US Navy zeppelin's past

Archaeologists have completed a comprehensive survey of the USS Macon, an airship that crashed off the California coast in 1935.

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An 18-inch piece of metal wasn't exactly what commercial fisherman David Canepa and his two-man crew expected to see when they hauled in their sablefish traps during a five-day cruise off California's Point Sur 27 years ago.

They weren't sure what it signified, but they figured their catch of corroded aluminum might be from some sort of aircraft, he recalls. "By looking at the piece and its structure, we knew it wasn't any kind of ship or boat."

During the past 17 years, marine archaeologists have followed that clue from its display on a restaurant wall to Mr. Canepa's meticulous ship logs to the ocean bottom. Last week, researchers completed the first exhaustive survey of the metal chunk's source – the Navy dirigible USS Macon and its small complement of fighter aircraft. Launched in April 1933, the dirigible and four of its planes went down in a storm off Point Sur in February 1935. All but two of its 100-man crew survived. The USS Macon's loss marked the end of one of the most colorful periods in US aviation history.

The survey is the third visit to the wreck since researchers first reached it in 1990. The results will help federal and state agencies, including the US Navy, devise a management strategy for the sea-floor site. It lies under more than 1,500 feet of water within the boundaries of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

The USS Macon was one of four zeppelins the Navy flew in the 1920s and '30s. It measured 785 feet from nose to tail and was a flying aircraft carrier designed for reconnaissance work over the Pacific Ocean. It drew its lift from 12 helium-filled bladders and its thrust from eight 12-cylinder engines along its flanks. Five gnatlike biplanes, armed with machine guns and lowered through the bottom of the hull on a trapeze, called its cavernous interior home.

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