An early airship, blimping about in the sky

The eccentric engineer: the rise and fall of the airship

Image credit: Getty Images

This is the story of the airship, and how, for a brief time, it looked as if the future of intercontinental travel might be lighter than air.

I have talked in these articles before about the troubles Graf von Zeppelin had getting his airships airborne, but there was a moment, between the World Wars, when it looked like the future of intercontinental travel might be lighter than air.

The aircraft which held out this possibility was the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin. It is not a craft we hear about much today, although it nearly changed the shape of travel.

In 1925, with the relaxation of post-war limits on German aviation, Dr Hugo Eckener, chairman of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, wasted little time in calling in Ludwig Dürr, an engineer who had worked on LZ 1, to build the largest airship that could fit in the old Zeppelin hangar on Lake Constance.

The LZ127 was to be a demonstration platform for a new era of flight, where passengers, freight and mails could be taken around the globe non-stop. Unable to purchase helium from the USA, Germans used hydrogen to provide lift, but went to great lengths to ensure safety. The duralumin airframe was filled with cotton gasbags lined with goldbeater’s skins (a flexible animal intestine used for beating gold sheet) and the hole was covered in doped cotton. Power came from five Maybach 12-cylinder engines, turning ‘push’ propellers, each in its own nacelle which, rather alarmingly for the crew, were only accessible during flight from external ladders.

The problem with using petrol for the engines was that, as fuel was used up, the airship got lighter and rose further, forcing the crew to vent precious hydrogen. Dürr’s solution was to use blaugas – like propane – which had a similar weight to air and could be replaced with it as the gas was expended without altering buoyancy of the craft. Other innovations included echo-sounding altitude measurement (using a blank firing gun), a radio location finder, and a primitive autopilot to stabilise the rather unstable yaw axis.

The 30-metre gondola held a cockpit, navigation room, radio room and galley, behind which the 24 passengers enjoyed a large saloon where three meals a day were served. The elevator man was under strict instructions not to increase the attack angle beyond five degrees, at which point the bottles of fine wine on the tables might fall over. Behind the saloon, 10 passenger cabins held guests overnight. Washrooms and chemical toilets completed the facilities. With no room in the gondola for the crew, they slept in the main body of the ship: on the keel between the gasbags.

Eckerman, whose doctorate was in psychology, knew if his new age was to take-off, he needed some serious publicity and he quickly enrolled the help of newspapers and governments worldwide as he toured his craft. Flights were paid for by an eccentric combination of high-ticket prices, special first day cover stamp issues, commemorative postcards, and freight.

Having been photographed in the US and Europe, over the pyramids, Jerusalem, North Africa and the Dead Sea, the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin had been seen in all the right places but needed one big story to make it the future of travel. That came courtesy of US newspaper magnate William Randolph Hurst who, in 1929, sponsored the Graf Zeppelin to circumnavigate the world – the first airship to do so.

For this trip, passengers were handpicked. Vivacious English reporter Lady Grace Hay Drummond-Hay was there to become the first women to circumnavigate the globe by air, along with another US reporter. There was also an Australian polar explorer, a cameraman, a young US millionaire, and representatives from Japan, the US and the Soviet Union. Pictures were wired of Lady Hay Drummond-Hay at the ship’s wheel, flying over vast tracts of Siberia (having missed Moscow due to adverse winds – leading Joseph Stalin to make an official complaint that he had been slighted). Japan welcomed the travellers rapturously, before the ship undertook the first ever non-stop crossing of the Pacific. At the US coast, Eckener ordered the airship to slow so they would arrive over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. On the morning of 29 August 1929, the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin arrived back where it had started at Lakenhurst, having circled the globe in just 12 days and 11 minutes – the fastest circumnavigation to date.

So, why aren’t we now flying around in airships? With the rise of Nazism, airships took on a new role in Germany. As nations worried about this vast German ‘eye in the sky’, its routes across foreign nations became ever more restricted. When the party insisted on putting Swastika flags on one side of her fins for the Chicago World Fair, Eckener circled the site clockwise to ensure the visitors below could not see the symbol. By 1936, the outspoken anti-Nazi and very safety-conscious Eckener had been removed. The airship industry was fully turned over to Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda ministry, with the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg touring the country, playing martial music and dropping leaflets.

The Graf Zeppelin was over the Canary Islands when news of the Hindenburg disaster reached her. The captain kept the information from the passengers until he reached Germany. She never flew again and the age of the airship was over.

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