aviation comes of age

the dirigible
the great airships


Ferdinand von Zeppelin
Zeppelin passenger ships
Zeppelin posters
Hindenburg disaster

HMA 1 Mayfly
HMA 23
R 31
R 32
R 33
R 34
R 36
R 38
R 80
R 100
The R101 airship disaster

USS Los Angeles
the Akron
the Macon


The End of the Airship Era: The Hindenburg Disaster

With the building of the Los Angeles, the German dirigible industry was given a great psychological boost, which emboldened Eckener into building (with the help of funds donated by the German people) an even greater craft: the L-127, to be known as the Graf Zeppelin. Launched in 1928, the Graf Zeppelin conducted regular flights across the Atlantic to North and South America, as well as several trips around the world and to the Arctic region. On the ship’s maiden voyage, Hugo Eckener had to use all his experience and piloting powers to maintain control when the Graf Zeppelin was caught in a storm over the East Coast of the United States.

 Lieutenant Rosendahl, the flier who had escaped death in the crash of the Shenandoah, was also on board. In 1929 the British finally reentered the airship arena with two immense airships: the R-100 and the R-lO1. The R-100 was caught in a storm over the St. Lawrence Seaway during its maiden voyage to Canada; the dirigible barely made it back to England and was placed in its hangar as the authorities waited to see how the R-1O1, boasted to be safe enough to have an enclosed smoking room, would fare on its trip to India. Unfortunately, a new device that controlled the distribution of ballast water did not function properly, forcing the ship to fly at very low altitudes. As the airship at very low altitudes.

 As the airship passed over the French town of Beauvais, it struck a church steeple and exploded. Forty-eight passengers were burned almost beyond recognition. The British did not need any further evidence that the airships were unviable; the R-100, which was awaiting repairs, was summarily dismantled. But the United States was not swayed, and the ever-optimistic Admiral Moffet pointed to the U.S. supply of helium as the reason that no similar tragedy would occur with an American dirigible. The navy ordered two airships that were to be the largest yet produced: each nearly eight hundred feet (244m) long with a capacity of 6.5 million cubic feet (182,000 cubic in).

The Macon, launched in 1933 (seen here over Manhattan), was really a flying aircraft carrier, able to carry, service, and launch five fighters that could return and land.

In August 1931 the ZRS-4, the Akron, took its place alongside the Los Angeles at Lakehurst. Earlier in the year, the Empire State Building had been completed and its roof structure was designed to be a mooring for the Los Angeles and later for the Akron. Although a test with a smaller dirigible made it clear that the system was not going to work, promotional photographs showing the Los Angeles docking at the top of the Empire State Building were published in newspapers around the country, sometimes without the photograph being identified as a “photographic composite.”

On April 3, 1933, the Akron was on a flight off the Jersey shore, when it crashed into the Atlantic and sank quickly. Seventy-seven crew members were killed; the three survivors had to swim up from under the craft to the surface to save themselves. This disaster was the worst in the history of dirigible flight, and Admiral Moffett, who had called the Akron “the safest dirigible ever built” was not available to defend the program—he was among the fatalities. Lieutenant Rosendahl, who had been slated to captain the ship in the flight, had been replaced at the last minute, and thus escaped death in a dirigible disaster for the third time.

The navy’s second great dirigible, the Macon, was a bit smaller and sleeker than the Akron; it was also faster, being able to cruise in still air at eighty-five miles per hour (l37kph). On February 12, 1935, the Macon was practicing manoeuvres off the California coast when it encountered a storm and crashed into the Pacific. This time, eighty-one of the eighty-three crew members were rescued. The Naval Court of Inquiry rendered the same judgment about the Macon crash as it did of the Akron’s: the crashes were not caused by structural problems with the aircraft. But this time Congress suspended the program, and the United States did not build another dirigible until after World War II.

In spite of the loss of seventy of the seventy-three aboard the Macon’s sister ship, the Akron, when the latter crashed into the Atlantic off the New Jersey coast (here,  rescuers survey the  Akron’s wreckage), the builders of the Macon believed that the ship was safer because it had multiple gas cells instead of one large cell. On February 12, 1935, the Macon also  crashed (under the same captain), this time into the Pacific, with only  three fatalities (among a crew of eighty-three).

The Germans prided themselves in developing sophisticated controls for their Zeppelins. Ludwig Felber, who was a junior elevatorman at the wheel of  the Hindenburg on its final voyage, is seen here at the controls of the airship on an earlier Atlantic crossing.

Landing was a  problem the great  airships never solved. Ground crews had to pull the ship to its mooring in scenes that seemed to be out of films about Egyptian slaves.  The great airship swayed gently, even in a light breeze, while passengers were disembarking.

When Hitler came to power in Germany, neither he nor Hermann Goring, the head of the Luftwaffe (Germany’s air force), believed that dirigibles had any value either as military or commercial aircraft. They allowed the propaganda minister, headed by Josef Goebbels, to take charge of the two mammoth Zeppelins then in service under German control: the Graf Zeppelin  and the newly launched Hindenburg, the ultimate luxury airship, which was put in service in March 1936.

Both ships were designed to be run with helium, but the United States had already placed a ban on exporting any of its helium supply, so hydrogen had to be used instead. The Germans used these ships as instruments of propaganda and espionage as the ships criss-crossed the globe during the 1936 season, flying north of the equator from May to September, and in the Southern Hemisphere the rest of the year. During the 1936 Olympics, which were held in Germany, the Hindenburg was everywhere, providing a sinister psychological edge for German athletes as it hovered over the games. In May 1937, after a late summer run to Rio de Janeiro, the Hindenburg began its service to the United  States with a flight from Berlin to New York.

On May 6, as it approached Lakehurst, it waited for a squall to pass (as many other dirigibles had done in the past). At 7:20 in the evening, the Hindenburg headed for New Jersey and prepared to tie up at the mooring tower. What happened next has been the subject of many hundreds of hours of investigation and speculation. What was apparent to the eye and to the camera (and what was described by radio reporter Herb Morrison in one of broadcasting’s most unforgettable moments) was that an explosion engulfed the rear of the dirigible and quickly spread to the entire ship, bringing it crashing to the ground in flames.

The manifest listed ninety-seven passengers, unusually large because it included trainees for the Graf Zeppelin II, then under construction. Commanding the flight was Captain Max Pruss, one of the Zeppelin Company’s most experienced pilots, and along for the flight (supervising the training program) was the company’s premier pilot, Ernst Lehmann.

Of the ninety-seven  aboard, thirty-six died, including thirteen “civilian” (paying) passengers, the first passengers of this kind killed in a dirigible accident. (Past fatalities had been crew members and military personnel, never paying passengers.) Captain Pruss was saved, but Captain Lehmann staggered out of the fire only to die in the hospital a few hours later. Before he died, however, he was interviewed by one of the investigators sent hastily to Lakehurst to determine what had happened—none other than Charles Rosendahl. As Lehmann lay dying, he muttered to Rosendahl that the explosion must have been caused by an incendiary bullet shot from the ground. Lehmann’s dying words, “It must have been an infernal machine,” were often quoted, though no one was quite sure what he meant. The Germans conducted an elaborate Nazi funeral in New Jersey for the victims, milking the occasion for maximum propaganda and implying that the tragedy could have been averted if the United States had been willing to sell Germany some of its helium.

When Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes refused to let Germany have any helium, Hugo Eckener came to Washington to appeal to him personally. At first, Ickes relented, and tankers were dispatched from Germany. Before the pickup could be made, however, Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938, and Ickes, convinced that the Nazis were bent on war, rescinded the order.

Right up to the invasion of Poland by Germany in September 1939, U.S. agencies pressured Ickes to let the Germans have the helium. When war came, Ickes gloated that he had been right all along. The Los Angeles was dismantled and sold for scrap. In Germany, the two Graf Zeppelins were stripped of anything that could be used in aircraft, and then the Germans did what the Allied countries had threatened to do since the end of World War I: they levelled the  Zeppelin hangars at Frankfurt and closed down the factory at Friedrichshafen.

The age of the great airships had come to an end.

A sequence of news photos of the Hindenburg disaster.

Newspaper readers, seeing only the centre photo, believed the airship had crashed into the mooring tower in the foreground had exploded when a spark of static electricity from the tower ignited the hydrogen. The other photos show however, that the centre photo is misleading and that the craft was in fact well away from the tower at the time of the initial explosion. (Otherwise, the men seen at the top of the tower in silhouette would have to have been several stories taller) Also, the ground lines are dangling from the airship’s nose, while the explosion begins in the stern. The accident was caused by the new paint used  on the Hindenburg which contained an explosive mixture.  The static electricity at the prevailing weather conditions would have  been  sufficient to have triggered the fire.