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Zeppelins—Sensational Giants of the Sky

Zeppelins—Sensational Giants of the Sky

 Zeppelins​—Sensational Giants of the Sky

 “MY FATHER was a radio operator on board a zeppelin, and he loved every minute of it,” Ingeborg Waldorf told Awake! Indeed, early in the 20th century, much of the world was in awe of these giant airships. Wherever they went, they were a sensation.

The era of the giant airships occupied the early part of the 20th century. They loomed large on the world stage because of their spectacular achievements​—offset by equally spectacular disasters. When the Hindenburg crashed at Lakehurst, New Jersey, U.S.A., in 1937, the era came to an abrupt end. But that era has a fascinating history.

From Hot-Air Balloons to Airships

Inventors tried for centuries to find a way for man to fly. Eighteenth-century Frenchmen Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier noticed smoke rising through the air and concluded that smoke must possess a special property that could perhaps be used to help men fly. Hence, they made a huge bag out of paper and fabric and held it over a smoky fire. Villagers who gathered to see the experiment were aghast when the bag rose into the sky. That was June 1783, and the Montgolfier brothers had invented the hot-air balloon. Five months later the first manned flight took place in a Montgolfier balloon.

The drawback with balloons, however, was that they drifted with the wind and could not be piloted in any particular direction. To make the balloon steerable, a method of propulsion was needed. The first person to combine lift with propulsion was Frenchman Henri Giffard, who in 1852 flew a steam-driven airship. Instead of using hot air to provide lift, Giffard used hydrogen, a gas lighter than air. Since Giffard’s vehicle could be steered, it was called a dirigible​—from the Latin dirigere, meaning “to steer.”

About ten years later, a German army officer went to North America to observe the Civil War, where both sides employed balloons to reconnoiter enemy positions. His first balloon flight high above the Mississippi River so deeply impressed the officer that his name came to be indelibly linked with airships. He was Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

Count Zeppelin’s Giant Airships

By some accounts, Zeppelin acquired a design for an aluminum-framed airship from a Croatian inventor named David Schwarz. The idea of an airship big enough to carry a large number of passengers or heavy cargo fascinated Zeppelin. His airships were distinctive because of their huge size and cigarlike shape. Zeppelins had a metal frame wrapped in an outer cover of fabric. * In or beneath the frame was a car, or gondola, that held the crew. Passengers were accommodated either in the gondola or in the airship’s belly. Lift was provided by hydrogen, held within a number of compartments​—gas cells or gasbags—​located within the frame. Propulsion came from motors mounted on the frame. As Count Zeppelin experimented with airships,  he was regarded as a foolhardy eccentric. But the count would have his day.

Count Zeppelin left the army and concentrated on designing and constructing airships. His first zeppelin made its maiden flight near Friedrichshafen, Germany, in July 1900. Crowds lined the shores of Lake Constance as the cylinder-shaped vehicle, some 420 feet [127 m] long, flew over the water for 18 minutes. The airship construction company Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH was founded, and other airships followed. The count was no longer an eccentric; he was a world celebrity. The kaiser called him the greatest German of the 20th century.

World’s First Passenger Air Service

Count Zeppelin saw his giant airships as a way of achieving air supremacy for Germany. During World War I, the German armed forces used zeppelins to spy on enemy territory and even to drop bombs. In fact, the most damaging air attack of that war was carried out by a zeppelin flying over London.

However, civilian airship enthusiasts recognized the potential of a passenger air service. Hence, in 1909 the Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktien-Gesellschaft (German Airship Transport Company) was founded, the world’s first passenger air service. In later years this service was extended beyond Europe. The zeppelins Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg made round-trips from Germany to Rio de Janeiro and to Lakehurst.

Zeppelin fever gripped the United States. Following the Graf Zeppelin’s maiden crossing of the Atlantic from Friedrichshafen to the U.S. East Coast in 1928​—during which the airship was damaged—​President Coolidge ran onto the White House lawn to look at the colossus passing overhead. New York’s enthusiasm knew no bounds; the city favored the Graf’s crew with a ticker-tape parade.

Climb Aboard the Hindenburg

Cruising in an airship was different from traveling in a modern airplane. Imagine climbing aboard the Hindenburg, which was three times as long as a jumbo jet and as tall as a 13-story building. You would be allocated, not a seat, but a cabin with a bed and washing facilities. For takeoff, no need to fasten your seat belt. Instead, you could stay in your cabin or wander through the lounge or the promenade, looking out of the windows that could even be opened. All these passenger facilities were situated in the huge belly of the airship.

According to the book Hindenburg​—An Illustrated History, 50 passengers ate meals in the dining room, seated at tables draped in white cloths and set with fine silver and china. On a typical Atlantic crossing, the kitchen staff used 440 pounds [200 kg] of meat and poultry, 800 eggs, and 220 pounds [100 kg] of butter, preparing meals in a galley equipped with electric stove, ovens, ice machine, and refrigerator. A baby grand piano graced the lounge, where a stewardess took care of the passengers.

The Hindenburg was built for comfort, not speed. At a cruising speed of almost 80 miles [130 km] an hour and at an altitude of 650 feet [200 m], the Hindenburg made its quickest North Atlantic crossing in 1936 in almost 43 hours. Normally, the passage was smooth. On one flight  from Lakehurst, a lady passenger was so tired when she boarded the airship that she stayed in her cabin to sleep. Later she called the steward and demanded to know when the airship would finally take off. The perplexed steward explained that they had been airborne for over two hours. “I don’t believe you,” she barked. The lady was convinced only when she went to the lounge and peered through the windows at the New England coast several hundred feet below.

The Most Famous Aircraft Ever Flown

The climax of the zeppelin era came in 1929 when the Graf Zeppelin flew around the world. Starting officially at Lakehurst, the airship circumnavigated the globe from west to east in 21 days, landing at Friedrichshafen, at Tokyo​—where a quarter of a million people flocked to welcome her—​and also at San Francisco and Los Angeles. Two years later the Graf made history again, flying to an Arctic rendezvous with a Russian icebreaker. Hindenburg​—An Illustrated History comments: “By now the Graf Zeppelin had achieved an almost mystical reputation. Wherever she went she caused a sensation. It is probably safe to say that she was the most famous single aircraft ever flown​—including the modern-day Concorde.”

Other nations also envisioned a great future for rigid airships. Britain planned a fleet of silver giants to unite the far-flung corners of its empire by regular flights to India and Australia. In the United States, the Shenandoah was the first rigid airship to use helium to provide lift instead of the inflammable hydrogen. The Akron and the Macon each had the capacity, in flight, to launch and retrieve small aircraft, which were stored in the ship’s belly. With its radio-homing equipment, the Macon became the world’s first fully effective airborne aircraft carrier.

Spectacular Disasters

“Yes, indeed, my father loved flying,” said Ingeborg Waldorf, mentioned at the outset. “But the risks bothered him.” Her father flew during World War I, but even in peacetime,  flying in an airship was​—despite all the famous achievements—​a hazardous business. How so?

One of the zeppelin’s greatest foes was the weather. Of the first 24 airships built by Count Zeppelin and his company, 8 were lost to the elements. In 1925 the U.S. airship Shenandoah was ripped apart in mid-flight by fierce winds. And two further airship crashes caused by severe weather​—the Akron in 1933 and the Macon less than two years later—​finally heralded the end of America’s era of giant rigid airships.

Britain’s hopes rested on the R 101. In 1930 on its first trip from Britain to India, the R 101 got no farther than France, where it ran into foul weather and crashed. One writer reports that “no disaster since the loss of the Titanic in 1912 had so shocked the British public.” The heyday of British rigid airships was at an end.

Nonetheless, in the German zeppelin industry, confidence was still running high. Then came the disaster that shook the world. In May 1937 the Hindenburg flew from Frankfurt to New Jersey and was maneuvering for landing at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. Suddenly, a tiny mushroom of flame appeared on the top of the outer cover, near the tail. Hydrogen in the gas cells quickly turned the airship into an inferno. Thirty-six people died.

For the first time, news cameramen were on hand to record a disaster as it unfolded. A newsreel of the 34-second calamity​—the time from the first flame until the colossus crashed to the ground—​was shown around the world, together with the emotion-choked commentary of the broadcaster: “It is burning, bursting into flames . . . Oh, the humanity and all the passengers!” The era of the giant airship lasted over 30 years; in a sense, it came to an end in 34 seconds.

A New Generation of Zeppelins

Friedrichshafen never lost its fascination for zeppelins. The Zeppelin Museum takes visitors back in time, offering them a chance to climb into a reconstructed section of the Hindenburg. A museum guide, who saw the real Hindenburg at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, told Awake!: “You cannot describe how you felt upon seeing a zeppelin. It was overwhelming.”

A new generation of zeppelins is said to be on the way, using up-to-date technology. Smaller than their giant forerunners, the new zeppelins are designed for “exclusive, gentle and environment-friendly tourism.” Will they reach the heights of their ancestors, the sensational giants of the sky? Time will tell.


^ par. 9 This type is known as a zeppelin, or a rigid airship, since it has a rigid frame, which maintains the shape of the vehicle. The nonrigid airship​—sometimes called a blimp—​has no frame but simply consists of a balloonlike bag kept in shape solely by the pressure of the gas inside. The third type is the semirigid airship, similar to the nonrigid but with the addition of a fixed keel under the envelope of gas. The common feature of all airships that distinguishes them from balloons is the motor, which enables airships to be steered.

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Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin

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Photos on page 10: Archiv der Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH

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Boeing 747



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Left to right: The “Graf Zeppelin” over Philadelphia; the control room; the guest lounge

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Archiv der Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH

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The “Hindenburg” disaster at Lakehurst in 1937 helped to bring the era of the giant airships to a dramatic close

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Photos: Brown Brothers