Home The History Of Flight An Airship Retrospective Howard Hughes

A Maverick Sets The Standard

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was a true visionary. With no engineering experience and with no prototype the first airship he built was over one hundred and twenty meters long and flew five and a half kilometers. It was the first airship with an interior frame made of aluminium. At the time it was the largest man-made object ever to float in the air.

Von Zeppelin took the guesswork out of airship aerodynamics by progressively building rigid structures of lightweight aluminium girders with strutted rings, a design that would hold the vessel’s streamlined shape under varying atmospheric conditions. Von Zeppelin incorporated a number of drum-shaped gasbags within compartments built into the airship structure. Unlike Alberto Santos-Dumont’s historic airship design which was made up of a single-unit envelope, von Zeppelin’s multi-gasbag construction would maintain stabilization should one of the bags become punctured or deflate. Von Zeppelin’s dirigibles were encapsulated by a fabric skin pulled tightly across their framework. Buoyancy was controlled by releasing water ballast to ascend or, for descent, slowly releasing the hydrogen gas through a venting system.

He observed that as he increased the surface area of the outer fabric skin the interior gas volume increased by an even greater proportion. Of course, a larger gas volume afforded better lift to raise the hull and maximized the airship’s overall lifting capacity.

In 1900 the Zeppelin Company became the world’s first aircraft manufacturer. During the course of his life Count Von Zeppelin designed and built about a hundred Zeppelins. After a short illness he died in 1917 aged 78.

It was due to von Zeppelin’s contribution to airship building that from the 1920’s into the ‘30’s Britain, Germany, Italy, and the United States were developing large airships for passenger travel. Through von Zeppelin, airships had become so large that their engine cars carried a dedicated crew during flight who maintained the engines as needed in addition to working the controls which were mounted directly on each engine. Instructions were relayed to them from the pilot's station by a telegraph system, as on a modern ship.

The Airship: Contemporary Romance versus Reality

Airships remained slow to catch on because they faced stiff competition from ever faster more opulent ocean liners which could cross the Atlantic in the same amount of time as it took an airship. Ocean liners offered more safety, more comfort, and more operating profit. In 1928 Germany’s Bremen and Europa both broke the ocean crossing record for the Atlantic.

Few know the original plans for the Empire State Building called for a structure with a flat top. Late in 1929, Alfred E. Smith, a previous New York City governor and the leader of a group of investors who were erecting the Empire State Building, announced that they were increasing the height of the building from 320 meters (1050 feet) to 381 meters (1,250 feet). When construction was completed in 1931, although this extension ensured it was taller than the Chrysler building it was claimed by the investors that the upper spire was actually a mooring mast added to accommodate airship travelers' arrival in New York City, this addition being built at a time that airship travel was considered to be viable. Theoretically, via this mast airship travelers would enter New York City through the second lobby built into the base of the spire at the top of the Empire State Building. This second lobby serves today as the observation deck for enjoying views from the top of this building.

However, the impracticality of adding an airship mooring mast to a skyscraper could be seen by anyone who was aware that Zeppelin landings of the day required scores of ground crewmen, hundreds of retaining ropes fore and aft, and even then the landings didn’t always go smoothly.

Whether the mooring mast was functional or not it was a tasteful addition that improved the completed appearance of the Empire State Building. It was generally believed that the mooring mast camouflaged the quest for boasting rights to the world’s tallest building, an ambition to which it seemed indecent to admit. Wind currents 300 meters (1,000 feet) above New York City were ferocious at times and no apparatus for winching airships to this mooring mast was ever designed. Notwithstanding this, by now various entrepreneurs were experimenting with commuting and shipping freight via airship.

After the successful world flight of the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, in 1929 the Zeppelin Company had proposed the building of LZ-128. In October 1930 disaster of the British airship R-101 prompted the Zeppelin Company to reconsider the use of hydrogen therefore scrapping the LZ-128 which was designed for hydrogen, in favor of a replacement airship designed for helium, the LZ-129.

The Helium Factor

In the early 1900’s the only abundant naturally occurring sources of helium so far discovered were in the United States, in Texas and in Kansas. Uniquely positioned, America didn’t want to give up such a military or commercial advantage which resulted in the Helium Control Act being passed in 1927. However, the Germans designed LZ-129 to use helium in the belief that they could convince the US government to license its export. When the Zeppelin Company learned that the Americans would refuse to lift the export ban they were forced to re-engineer Hindenburg to use hydrogen for lift. With the plans of LZ-129 now updated to use hydrogen more passenger cabins were added making it the first airship big enough to carry enough passengers to cover its own operating expenses.

As opposed to helium, hydrogen is inexpensive and easily produced. Hydrogen is also extremely flammable as a result of which many large passenger-carrying airships met with spectacular ends because they were filled with this gas. Comparing the fatalities resulting from this type of travel to the number of vessels built it can be observed that statistically these are high losses of life.

The Airship’s Downfall

Whether carrying passengers or otherwise there were too many invariables involved in the launches, flights, and landings of airships. Because of this, lighter than air vessels were never able to offer reliable, scheduled service.

The decline of airships was accelerated by a series of high-profile accidents in relatively quick succession. These included the aforementioned 1930 crash and burning of the British R-101 in France, the 1933 storm-related crash of the airborne U.S. Navy aircraft carrier helium-filled rigid the USS Akron followed by the 1935 crash in similar circumstances of it’s twin U.S. Navy aircraft carrier the USS Macon, and the most sensational and widely remembered catastrophe, the 1937 burning of the German hydrogen-filled Hindenburg.

By the mid-'30's the airship was the method of travel for millionaires, diplomats, and show business personalities so by happenstance the Hindenburg disaster happened before a large crowd while a radio news reporter was present recording the events of the hour. Because this was the first time that cameras happened to be present to record this airship disaster as it was taking place, thousands of theatre goers none of whom were used to the extensive and explicit media coverage we take for granted today, were able to see and hear in newsreels people running for their lives from the cataclysmic flames of the Hindenburg’s demise. Many of those viewing the newsreels ran screaming from the theatres.

The Hindenburg disaster shattered public confidence in airships, ended their romance with gigantic, lighter—than-air vessels, and brought a definitive end to the golden age of this method of travel.

Hugo Eckener: The Back Story And The Last Word

Hugo Eckener was initially a part-time publicist for the Zeppelin Company after which he became interested in airships and joined the company on a full-time basis. He eventually became a very successful airshipman. During his many years managing airship operations he had always made safety his absolute priority. Until the Hindenburg disaster, with Eckener's management the Zeppelin Company held an ideal safety record with no passenger ever sustaining a serious injury on any of the more than one and a half million kilometers (930,000 miles) flown by his airships.

The Nazis came to power in January 1933 and Eckener made no attempt to hide his dislike of the Nazis. To favor men who were more compliant with their wishes the Nazis sidelined Eckener and eventually declared him to be persona non grata with his name no longer being allowed to appear in print. In their desire to please the Nazi regime, newly promoted airshipmen did not always observe Eckener's safety procedures.

For a time Eckener considered defecting to the United States. The Nazis’ desire to arrest Eckener in 1933 was blocked by the fact that the LZ-129 was still being developed and that Eckener’s unimpeded input was necessary for its completion.

Captain Ernst August Lehmann was one of the most famous and experienced figures in German airship travel. He was criticized by Hugo Eckener for often making dangerous maneuvers that compromised the airships. By 1929, Lehmann himself had filed a declaration of intent to become a United States citizen, but changed his mind when in 1936 he was given charge of the LZ-129.

After the Hindenburg disaster sabotage was ruled out rather early on in the official inquiry. Upon reviewing all the facts and testimony Eckener concluded that leaking hydrogen was ignited by a static spark in the aft section of the ship. The leak would have been caused some time previously by the airship being steered through an inappropriately sharp turn which he believed overstrained a bracing wire, causing it to snap and rip open an adjacent gas cell. Von Zeppelin's design of multi-gas bags built into several compartments did maintain stabilization and minimize disruption during the flight of his airships but, regrettably it minimized the effect of the snapped bracing wire which went unnoticed until the disaster.

Hugo Eckener died in August of 1954 aged 86.

After The Hindenburg

Captain Ernst Lehmann was one of the victims of the Hindenburg disaster.

The day after the Hindenburg crashed, the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin landed at the end of its flight from Brazil. For decades this would be the last international passenger airship flight although shortly after this the German Government would make a final attempt to re-establish airship passenger services.

After the destruction of the Hindenburg the German Government's redesigned  the nearly-completed LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin II as a helium-filled ship. They envisaged that passenger flights would start in Germany and finish in the United States. Insurance from the Hindenburg’s demise helped fund the completion of the LZ-130. Because American sourced helium remained unavailable outside the United States Eckener headed for Washington and appealed to congress. Congress sympathized with Eckener’s appeal and plans were made to supply Germany with helium for the LZ-130. With the first helium canisters ready to ship from Texas, Hitler’s change to foreign policy brought this concession to a halt: in March 1938 German troops annexed Austria for the Third Reich after which the American Government rescinded and refused the export of helium to Germany. This ensured that the LZ-130 would never carry passengers. It was only ever used for propaganda flights, and spying missions.

At the start of World War II Germany had no more use for its airships. The LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin and the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin II were dismantled along with their hangars and were melted down to make bombers for the Luftwaffe. By then an LZ-131 and an LZ-132 had been proposed but they were never built.

During World War II the United States relied heavily on non-rigid airships. The long-range aircraft of their day, Congress ordered the construction of nearly fifty of these vessels for the US Navy. No sea vessels under US Navy airship escort were lost during World War Two.

The continued development of the passenger plane, the growth of the civil aviation industry, and the introduction in 1949 of the civilian jet engine further dashed any hopes for a resurrection of lighter than air passenger travel.

By the 1960s the use for lighter than air vessels had been marginalized. Whenever the ability to hover for a long time outweighed the need for speed and maneuverability, helium blimps answered to this in industries such as advertising, broadcasting, tourism, geological surveys, aerial observation, and for camera platforms. Apart from these uses the airship’s technology is irrelevant in today’s world.

No longer used for major cargo and passenger transport it seems that the large, rigid airship has been relegated to history.