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Reliving The Era of The Great Airships

by David Child-Dennis

Most of our readers are too young to remember the great airships that sailed, ever so majestically, across the Atlantic between Europe and the Americas. Those fortunate enough to do so, remember them as a sight never to be forgotten.

Probably the best remembered, not only for her tragic end at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937, but also for her size and grace, was the Hindenburg. Built by the Zeppelin Company at Lowenthal near Friedrichshafen, Germany and launched in March 1936, the Hindenburg was the largest and most sophisticated commercial airship ever built. She was some 804 feet long, only 78 feet less than the Titanic, and carried 50 first class passengers in a style and comfort never equalled in a commercial aircraft. She was an object of public fascination from the moment she appeared.

Airships were, and remain, one of the most enigmatic flying machines of all time. Massively proportioned to carry the gigantic gasbags needed to lift them, they were nevertheless completely in their element, once free of their docking masts. Hindenburg crossed the Atlantic from Germany to New York ten times in the 1936 season, covering the 3,000 miles in just under two days, rather than the six days required by the ocean liners, and in greater comfort. Hindenburg was so steady in flight that one of the party tricks the crew loved to display to passengers was standing a fountain pen vertically on a table, to see how long it remained in place before falling. One was observed standing for several hours. In another instance, a passenger approached a steward demanding to know why the Hindenburg had not left its mooring in Germany that evening. She was politely informed they were crossing the Bay of Biscay, 200 miles from their departure point in Germany.

The Zeppelin company, under the inspired leadership of their elderly chief officer, Hugo Eckener, planned to open airship routes from South America to India and beyond to China. Eckener, a highly cultured man of exceptional flying skill, believed the massive airships, like the Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg, could help usher in a new era of international cooperation and understanding, defusing the political tensions of 1936. In 1933 he had managed to bring Graf Zeppelin safely to America, after a severe storm front had damaged the port horizontal stabiliser, ripping a large piece of fabric off the framing. This made the Graf corkscrew and be almost uncontrollable. It took many hours to effect repairs as the Graf was slowed enough to allow the crew to abseil down the tail to rejoin the fabric, but in doing so, lost altitude and risked landing in the sea. It was a case of repair and then retreat as the engines were restarted to regain height, then allowing Graf to drift as repairs continued. Out of communication with the world, having lost all battery power for their radios, international attention focused on the plight of the Graf, with a number of newspapers expressing the fear that yet another airship had been lost.

But just as hope for the Graf was waning, she crossed the American coastline at Cape Charles, Maryland. Eckener, ever the publicist, altered Graf’s in-bound route, and instead of heading to New Jersey, made a triumphant tour over Baltimore and Washington. Even President Coolidge broke away from an official engagement to watch her pass overhead, the wounds on her tail clearly visible. The next day, New York gave Eckener and the Graf a tickertape parade the likes of which had not been witnessed for many years. Eckener was to later remark they no longer felt like ‘old enemies, but new friends’.

The Hindenburg, larger than the Graf Zeppelin, was designed for the then, longrange flights from Europe to South America, specifically Brazil, where a large German population resided. This required some innovative thinking and flying. In light of their trans-Atlantic experience with Graf, the designers soon realised the replacement of water for both passengers and ballast was going to present a major difficulty on the longer trips. Because airships flew at around 1,000 feet above the ocean, and at a leisurely 120 mph at best, avoiding weather fronts and storms became an art. However, the Zeppelin designers soon realised that by fitting gutters to the outer skin and brushing the massive flanks of the airship down the leading edges of a storm cloud, they would induce the clouds to drop their moisture, thus refilling the airship’s water tanks. This procedure was considered ‘great sport’ by the passengers, many of whom expressed disappointment at the apparent lack of movement as the airship ‘milked’ the cloud of its water.

Fire was the ever-present danger aboard hydrogen filled airships, hence smoking was forbidden, except for a strictly controlled fireproof smoking lounge. Smokers were required to leave their tobacco and lighters with the steward - no exceptions! But hydrogen was a much more efficient lifting gas than helium, especially when crossing the equator, or the North African deserts, en route to India. It is unlikely, even if the Americans had been willing to supply helium to Zeppelin, that they would have preferred to use hydrogen. As an extra precaution, diesel engines were used, requiring no electrical ignition system. Although Graf carried wind generators for electrical power supplies, Hindenburg carried a generator attached to a diesel engine pod, ensuring they retained electrical power even when stationary in the air.

The cause of the tragic fire that destroyed Hindenburg was not the result of a bomb or any other explosive device. It was the aluminised outer fabric, in combination with a static discharge, that caused the explosion. The Zeppelin Company knew the risk this material posed, but given its exceptional strength and aerodynamic qualities, not to mention development costs, chose to ignore what they perceived as a minimal risk.

The loss of the Hindenburg was only one of a number of airship disasters that finally destroyed public confidence in the largest flying machines we have ever seen. While there has been a number of proposals to reinstate airships, the airline industry has refused to reconsider their use. Given the airline industry’s close ties to defence aviation contractors only interested in high performance jets, this is not surprising.

Would there be any advantages in a modern airship? There certainly are. At around 120 mph, they travel slowly enough to prevent ‘jet lag’. With modern satellite communications, no one travelling in an airship needs to be out of contact. But the greatest advantage is the ability to travel very low and slow to experience the best of any feature en route. Imagine being able to loiter over a pod of whales, or the edge of the Victoria, or Niagara Falls. Ponder over a pride of lions on the African veldt? And, as for Somali pirates, no problem, not unless they grow wings! The possibilities are almost endless.


  • Construction of Hindenburg began in Friedrichshafen, Germany in 1931 and was completed in 1936.
  • Total length: 803.8 feet (205 metres)
  • Diameter at largest point: 135.1 feet (41 metres)
  • Total gas capacity: 7,062,100 cubic feet (199976.40m³)
  • The framework was made of an alloy of aluminium and copper with traces of magnesium, manganese, iron, and silicon. This alloy is commonly known as duralumin.
  • Each of the 16 gas cells was coated with a gelatine solution to ensure against permeability of the hydrogen lifting gas. Here, a partially-inflated gas cell has begun to rise within the framework.
  • The control car was divided into three areas: control room and bridge, navigation room, and observation area. In addition to rudder and elevator controls, the control room contained instruments such as the altimeter, inclinometer and gas-cell-pressure monitor along with toggles to release hydrogen gas and water ballast. The navigation room contained two gyro compass repeaters, a radio compass and the telephone switchboard. The radio room was located above the control car and was accessed via a ladder in the observation area at the rear of the control car. An alternative control area was located in the interior of the lower vertical fin.
  • Hindenburg was powered by four 16-cylinder diesel engines, two per side in a staggered arrangement. Each engine developed 1300 HP for five minutes at takeoff, and 850 HP for cruising.
  • Crew quarters, located toward the rear of the airship, were quite cramped.
  • The officers’ mess provided a comfortable location for officers to relax while not on duty. A large bank of windows allowed a view of the earth passing below.
  • Passenger cabins measured only 78 x 66 inches (198 x 167 cm). Each room was equipped with an upper and lower berth, folding wash basin, a collapsible writing table and a signal used for calling the steward. The accommodations were quite plain compared to those of the luxury steamships of the day. However, most of the passengers’ time was spent elsewhere in the ship.
  • The lounge was decorated with a large wall mural which traced the path of famous explorers. A Bluthner baby grand piano, made mostly of aluminium and covered with pigskin, was provided for the passengers’ entertainment.
  • The reading and writing room was a quiet place where passengers could write letters on special Hindenburg stationery.
  • The smoking room, seemingly dangerous in an airship filled with hydrogen, was kept under positive pressure to prevent any of the gas from entering. A single electric lighter was provided to light your pipe, cigar or cigarette.
  • The promenade provided passengers with a spectacular view of the earth below. The adjacent dining area could accommodate all fifty passengers in one sitting.

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elocal Digital Edition – August 2019 (#221)

elocal Digital Edition
August 2019 (#221)

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