The Age of Zeppelins

The Hindenburg bursts into flames as it approaches its mooring mast. Thirty-six people died.
The Hindenburg bursts into flames as it approaches its mooring mast. Thirty-six people died.

by Ray Setterfield

July 8, 1838 — Mention the name Zeppelin and many people think immediately of the airships that bore the aircraft pioneer’s name. But there was more to him than that. A lot more. In fact, he was born in Germany on this day as Ferdinand Adolf August Heinrich Graf von Zeppelin. Quite a mouthful!

After an unremarkable childhood Zeppelin joined the army at the age of 20 and became a member of an expedition that went to North America searching for the source of the Mississippi river.

While in Minnesota, he made several balloon ascents at St. Paul, acting as a military observer for the Union Army during the Civil War. This triggered his fascination for balloon aviation and after he retired from the army in 1891 with the rank of brigadier-general he began to study aeronautics.

In 1894, at the age of 60, he decided to invest all his own money in a company producing airships after the German government rejected his ideas. Within four years, at his factory in Friedrichshafen, Germany, he had assembled his first machine – the LZ1. The initials stood for Luftschiff Zeppelin (Zeppelin Airship).

Rigid airships, now also called a dirigible or Zeppelin, have a covered steel framework that houses gas-filled bags. The LZ1 weighed 12 tons, contained 400,000 cubic feet of gas bags within its steel cigar-shaped 128 metres (420ft) long structure, and was driven by propellers connected to two 15hp Daimler engines.

Even the sceptical government was impressed and after the LZ1’s first flight on July 2, 1900, state money was poured into the project.

The world’s first passenger-paying airline – Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-AG (DELAG) – began commercial flights using Zeppelins in 1910. Within four years it had operated more than 1,500 flights carrying over 10,000 passengers.

Then came the First World War and militarised Zeppelins were used for air raids on Britain and France. The airships could fly at 136kph (84.5mph) and reach a height of 4,250 metres (14,000ft). They were equipped with five machine guns and could carry 2,000kg (4,400lb) of bombs.

During the war about 500 people in Britain were killed by Zeppelin bombs. But the airships were big and slow – an easy target for anti-aircraft guns – and 40 were shot down over London before the Germans withdrew them from military service.

Ferdinand Zeppelin died in 1917, aged 78. But that didn’t stop airship construction continuing. Indeed, Zeppelin’s successor, Hugo Eckener, built one of the most successful dirigibles, the Graf Zeppelin which, between 1928 and 1937 made 590 flights, including 144 ocean crossings.

It was around this time, in 1936 to be precise, that Germany made a fateful decision that would spell the end of airship travel. It inaugurated a regular transatlantic passenger service with the dirigible LZ129 Hindenburg.

The Hindenburg was scheduled to carry 1,002 passengers on 10 round trips between Germany and the United States. The giant airship, 804-foot long and powered by four 1,050hp engines, had a top speed of 135km (84 miles) per hour, a cruising speed of 126km (78 miles) per hour and a range of 8,000 miles.

In an echo of the Titanic, Hindenburg’s luxurious amenities included a dining room, cocktail lounge, a library and a sitting room equipped with a grand piano. Passengers could take long walks along promenades edged by large windows.

And the trip was all so smooth and pleasant. Journalist Louis Lochner wrote: "You felt as though you were carried in the arms of angels."

There was, however, a fatal flaw. The airship was of conventional Zeppelin design and was made to be filled with helium gas bags. But because of export restrictions by the United States against Nazi Germany, it was instead filled with bags of highly flammable hydrogen.

On the second of its scheduled transatlantic crossings, on May 6, 1937 the Hindenburg came in to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey. As it approached the mooring mast witnesses saw a small flame rise from the tail section. To the horror of onlookers and cameramen recording the event, the airship then burst into flames.

It took only 34 seconds for the entire airship to be consumed by fire. Thirty-five of the 97 people on board died, as did a member of the ground crew.

It was believed at the time that the fire was caused by a hydrogen gas leak ignited by a spark of static electricity, but the precise reason for the disaster is still unknown.

Whatever the cause, it spelt the end for Zeppelins and their brief history of commercial flight.

Published: January 10, 2020

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