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A Niche in Time: Behemoths of the Sky

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
September 25, 2017
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Zeppelin LZ-1 flying over Lake Constance.

Part 1 of 5

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Six months into a new century in an age already known for astounding technological progress, a strange cigar-shaped vehicle slowly rose from a shed on Lake Constance in southern Germany and began to move forward.

Stretching 128 meters (420 feet) from bow to stern, the LZ-1 (Luftschiff Zeppelin, or “Airship Zeppelin”) consisted of a cylindrical aluminum frame covered in fabric with two gondolas suspended below it. Lift was provided by 17 gas bags made of rubberized cotton that contained 11,298 cubic meters (399,000 cubic feet) of flammable hydrogen. The LZ-1 was propelled forward by a pair of 11 kW (14 hp) Daimler engines.

The ship’s maiden voyage on July 2, 1900, covered 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) at an altitude of 410 meters (1,350 feet). Seventeen minutes into the flight, the failure of an engine and a moveable weight used to control the airship’s pitch forced it to descend for an emergency landing that damaged the fragile lighter-than-air vehicle.

Despite the problems, the test had been a success. More than three years before the Wright Brothers would fly a small one-person airplane at Kitty Hawk, LZ-1 had carried five people in the first successful flight of a rigid airship. A new era in human flight had dawned with the predecessor of airships that would dominate early passenger aviation.

An Aristocrat with a Dream

Ferdinand von Zeppelin

LZ-1 was the creation of a 61-year old German aristocrat named Fernindand von Zeppelin. Born in Konstanz in 1838, he entered the polytechnic institute at Stuttgart in 1853 before embarking upon an army career two years later.

Count Zeppelin’s introduction to ballooning came in 1863 when he traveled to America to serve as an official observer with the Union Army during the Civil War. He visited the camp of Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, a balloonist who had been conducting aerial reconnaissance for the Federals.

Count Zeppelin later made his first ascent in a balloon with German-born balloonist John Steiner in St. Paul, Minn. The experience stuck with him in the years that followed as he worked on plans to improve ballooning.

After resigning from the army in 1891, Count Zeppelin spent nearly a decade getting LZ-1 into the air. His efforts were not immediately successful. The airship flew only two more times before it was retired when Count Zeppelin ran out of money and an unimpressed German government refused to invest any money in his company.

But, Count Zeppelin continued to find investors and continued to build airships, much to the delight of an increasingly enthusiastic public. In August 1908, he was attempting to keep the LZ-4 airship aloft for 24 hours — a requirement set by the German military to purchase the company’s next airship — when he  was forced to make an unscheduled landing near Stuttgart due to engine problems.

The ship was moored then Count Zeppelin went off for a meal. While he were gone, a wind storm ripped the LZ-4 from its mooring  and sent it aloft. A crew member who had remained aboard managed to bring the airship down, but it struck trees that ripped the gas bags and set the hydrogen on fire. The Zeppelin was destroyed.

The accident was witnessed by an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 spectators who had gathered to see the count’s latest creation. Instead of losing faith in airships, the public contributed more than 6 million German marks to help build the next airship. The amount was the equivalent of more than $960,000 at the time or $24.4 million in 2017 dollars.

The Zeppelin Company was on a much firmer footing as a result. As Count Zeppelin’s airships grew more capable, the German Army began purchasing them.

In 1909, Count Zeppelin founded the world’s first airline, DELAG, using seven rigid airships. By July 1914, the airline had carried 34,028 passengers on 1,588 commercial flights that covered 172,535 kilometers  (107,208 miles) in about 3,176 hours of flight, all without an accident or passenger fatality.

After World War I broke a month later, the Zeppelin Company was placed under government control. A total of 84 Zeppelins were built during the war for use by Germany’s army and navy for surveillance and offensive operations. Rigid airships conducted 51 raids over England, dropping 5,805 bombs that killed 557 people, injured 1,358 more and greatly disrupted British wartime munitions production. The airships were dangerous to fly; more than 60 of the 84 Zeppelins were lost to enemy fire or accidents.

A Changing of the Guard

Count Zeppelin did not live to see the end of the war or his nation’s humiliating defeat. He died in March 1917 at the age of 78. Regarded as a national hero, the count was given a state funeral and buried with full military honors.

Although its founder was gone, the Zeppelin Company endured under the leadership of his successor, Hugo Eckener. It would not be easy. Although the large-scale production of Zeppelins had greatly advanced the state-of-the-art in rigid airships during the war, their very success would nearly destroy the Zeppelin company after it.

Hugo Eckener

The Treaty of Versailles imposed by the Allies included strict limits on the size of rigid airships that Germany could build, making them unsuitable for transatlantic service. Zeppelins were also seized by Great Britain and Italy as war reparations.

On the verge of bankruptcy, the Zeppelin Company was saved when it received an order for an airship from the U.S. Navy. Delivered in October 1924, the USS Los Angeles became the most successful rigid airship ever flown by the United States, operating for eight years.

That same year, the Zeppelin Company forged a joint venture in 1924 with Goodyear to build airships in Ohio for the U.S. Navy. The company would build two large airships – USS Akron and USS Macon – for patrol duties along the East and West coasts. They would serve as flying carriers for smaller airplanes that extended the airships’ range.

Despite the benefit of having access to German patents and expertise in building and flying rigid airships, both of these behemoths would come to grief after brief two-year service lives. In 1933, the USS Akron crashed in a storm off New Jersey with the loss of 73 of its 76 crew members.

The Navy had failed to include any life jackets or rafts aboard the ship, leaving airmen to drowned in the frigid waters of the Atlantic. Among those who perished was the U.S. Navy’s biggest backer of rigid airships, Rear Admiral William Moffett. The West Coast base for airships in California, which Moffett is credited with creating, was renamed in his honor.

USS Macon over New York

Two years later, the USS Macon was lost at sea in a storm off the California coast. Having learned from the USS Akron tragedy, the Navy had equipped the ship with life jackets and rafts that saved the lives of 81 of the 83 crew members on board.

The USS Macon crash marked the end of a U.S. rigid airship program that had experienced repeated failures over the years. The U.S. military would limit itself to using non-rigid blimps.

O-1 1919 Late 1921 or Early 1922 Italian semi-rigid airship operated by U.S. Navy; scrapped after two years of service
Roma (T-34) 1920 1922 Italian semi-rigid airship operated by U.S. Army; burst into flames when it struck high-voltage power lines 34
ZR2 (R38) 1921 1923 British rigid airship sold to United States; broke up during flight to train American airmen before U.S. Navy took possession 44
USS Shenandoah 1923 1925 U.S. Navy rigid airship; broke apart during a storm over Ohio 14
USS Los Angeles 1924 1932 German-built rigid airship provided as reparations for World War I; operated by the U.S. Navy
USS Akron 1931 1933 U.S. Navy airship lost in a storm off coast of New Jersey 73
USS Macon 1933 1935 U.S. Navy airship lost in storm off coast of California 2

The dismal American experience with airships was replicated in its former mother country. The British built a number of airships after World War I. Many of them were destroyed in various accidents or scrapped after they were damaged beyond repair. Few of them lasted more than two years.

On Oct. 4, 1930, the nation’s largest airship, the R-101 set sail on a trip to India. It only got as far as France before it crashed in a storm, killing 48 of the 54 people on board. The dead included the air minister who had championed the project, various high-level government officials, and almost all of the R-101‘s designers.

Thus ended the British airship program.

A New Lease on Life

Graf Zeppelin over Rio de Janiero

In 1926, post-war restrictions on German airship construction were lifted. Relying once again on donations from the public, the Zeppelin Company began building its largest airship to date. Measuring 236 meters (776 ft) long and 33.3 meters (100 feet) in diameter, the Graf Zeppelin was about 33 meters (107 feet) shorter than the Titanic. The airship contained 75,000 cubic meters (2,648,585 cubic feet) of hydrogen in 17 gas cells and 30,000 cubic meters (1,059,435 cubic feet) of blaugas to fuel its five engines. The ship included 20 sleeping berths for passengers.

Launched in 1928, the Graf Zeppelin would become the most successful rigid airship in history. It would fly 590 times during its 9-year service life, covering more than 1.7 million kilometers (1.1 million miles) while making 144 oceanic crossings. A total of 34,000 people would fly aboard the ship, including 13,110 paying passengers, without any loss of life or injury.

The highlight of the Graf Zeppelin‘s service was a 22-day round-the-world voyage in 1929 that culminated in a ticket tape parade through New York City. Eckener, who had served as captain on the globe-circling voyage, became world famous and a hero in his native Germany.

In 1931, the German Zeppelin company began work on a new class of airships. Three nearly identical ships larger and more luxurious than the Graf Zeppelin, would serve the transatlantic passenger routes between Germany and the United States and Brazil.

The new ships would be about 9 m (28 ft) longer than the Graf Zeppelin and have sleeping berths for 50 passengers, later expanded to 72. Eckener would name the first of these new ships after his friend, German President and war hero Paul von Hindenburg.

Joseph Goebbels (Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-17049 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Two years after work on the ship began, the Zeppelin Company went bankrupt in the midst of the Great Depression.  It looked as if the age of the rigid airship might be coming to a close.

Then a savior appeared: the new Nazi government of Adolf Hitler. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, thought airships would be useful to the new regime. He contributed 2 million marks to the struggling company; not to be outdone, Goebbel’s rival, Air Minister Hermann Goering contributed an additional 9 million marks. The 11 million German marks were worth $4.2 million at the time, or $77 million in 2017 dollars.

The money came with a steep price; Hitler’s regime effectively nationalized Zeppelin operations and pushed aside the strongly anti-Nazi Eckener, who was relegated to a largely figurehead role as chairman. Goebbels eventually declared Eckener persona non grata and banned the German press from even mentioning his name.

Launched in early March 1936, the Hindenburg was adorned with giant swastikas and quickly pressed into service to serve Hitler’s regime. Joined by the Graf Zeppelin, the Hindenburg made a 74-hour propaganda flight in support of the March 29 election and referendum that consolidated Nazi one-party control over the German Parliament and approved the re-militarization of the Rhineland. In August, the Hindenburg flew over the Olympic Games in Berlin.

The Hindenburg was placed on the trans-Atlantic passenger route for the 1936 flying season. In its first year of operation, the airship would make 10 round trips to the United States and eight more between Germany and Brazil.

The German Zeppelin program now had two airships flying transatlantic routes with two more Hindenburg-class airships under construction. As the Hindenburg prepared for the first of 18 planned flights to America in the 1937 flying season, the future looked bright.

The Series

Introduction: Human Flight Through the Ages
Part 1: Behemoths of the Sky
Part 2: “One of the worst catastrophes in the world”
Part 3: “Lock the doors”
Part 4: One Chute
Part 5: First Flight

6 responses to “A Niche in Time: Behemoths of the Sky”

  1. Jeff Smith says:

    Doug, will the moral be “past performance does not predict future results?”

  2. Kirk says:

    I’m sorry to see a story which brings up the R101 but fails to mention the successful R100.

    Nevil Shute’s Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer is a good read, and half of it deals with his experience on the R100 development team. (Those who haven’t read Mr. Shute’s fiction might consider starting with Trustee from the Toolroom for lighter fare or Round the Bend for something a bit more serious.)

  3. Stanistani says:

    An excellent first chapter.

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