The Day Of The Airship

In these days of GPS and jet aircraft it’s hard to believe how short a time it was that an  around the world journey was an adventure rather than a matter of connecting flights, yet in 1929, that’s exactly what it was. Here’s a great documentary about the around the world trip.

Here’s an article I found about the voyage.

It was an exciting time in the history of flight.  Two years before, Charles Lindbergh had flown from New York to Paris in about thirty-three hours, sparking a huge rise in popularity for aviators and a surge in the public’s interest in flight.  Commander Hugo Eckener and the Zeppelin Company wanted to build upon this fascination by using the Graf Zeppelin to circumnavigate the globe.

Freud, the radio operator aboard the Graf Zeppelin

The problem? They did not have enough money. Their solution came from the American news mogul William Hearst. Hearst wanted to capitalize upon the excitement that aviators and grand adventures sparked in the American public and, after some haggling, he offered to fund half of the money for the trip in exchange for the rights to the story in the U.S. and Great Britain. Hearst had three reporters on board: the famous explorer Sir George Hubert Wilkins, Lady Grace Drummond-Hay, and Karl von Wiegand.

Hearst's reporters.

Hearst also demanded that the trip begin and end in the U.S.  Eckener agreed, but planned to travel right back to the Zeppelin’s home base in Friedrichshafen, Germany after beginning in America, allowing for a complete circumnavigation from both Lakehurst and Friedrichshafen (thus satisfying both his home country and his primary sponsor).

This is how the Graf Zeppelin, after its inauspicious trial run in May, came to be traveling again across the Atlantic toward the U.S. on the 1st of August, 1929. Ninety hours after departure, the ship landed in Lakehurst, N.J. before returning to Germany. From Friedrichshafen, the Graf Zeppelin traversed Siberia before landing in Tokyo, Japan, and continuing across the Pacific Ocean to Los Angeles, California. The last leg was a jaunt across the United States, back to Lakehurst.

Front view of the Graf Zeppelin

Commander Eckener in the control room.

By this time, the Graf Zeppelin had run out of drinking water, though this did not stop Eckener from pushing forward. Instead the passengers subsisted on wine and other alcohol—substances still illegal on the U.S. soil below their feet. Upon its arrival, the Graf Zeppelin broke the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe and was met with massive fanfare and celebration.

George Hubert Wilkins, a famous Australian polar explorer and one of Hearst’s correspondents on the Graf Zeppelin, collected photographs and memorabilia related to the flight. Over two hundred of these images were recently acquired by The Ohio State University’s Polar Archives in 2015 and join the larger Wilkins Collection held by the repository. These images range include mass-printed German postcards; images of life aboard the airship; photos of the Graf Zeppelin in flight or in a hangar; as well as photos of crowds cheering and celebrations.

Wilkins himself is not featured in many images.  He is seen in only a few formal photographs, as well as several that depict him dining with Captain Eckener and his fellow correspondents. The exception is a fabulous photo in which Wilkins is examining a book of photographs in the dining area, with a small dog (one which greatly resembles an early Boston terrier) in his lap.

Wilkins, reading, with his dog in his lap.

Such depictions of life aboard the ship are numerous among the collection and cover everything from work to play. There are images of one crew member rather smugly playing the piano accordion; the radio operator Fruend precariously hanging out a window with a dangling wire; Chef Manz cooking; Commander Eckener solemnly monitoring everything on the control room; and Lady Drummond Hay happily climbing one of the gondolas while the ship was in flight.

Lady Drummond Hay climbing one of the gondolas.

Other images show the world in relation to the massive form of the Graf Zeppelin. Several images depict the Graf Zeppelin landing or taking off, surrounded by small white smudges that only vaguely look like people.  Another photograph, apparently taken from the Graf Zeppelin itself, shows the Zeppelin’s shadow, which looks rather like a large missile, over a field. Even from the air, the Zeppelin’s shadow is several times larger than the houses and barns on the ground. Some photos display the huge impact of the Graf Zeppelin’s flight, even without the Graf Zeppelin being the subject of the image. One such photo displays two long rows of U.S. sailors feasting after aiding in the landing and departure of the Graf Zeppelin. Another shows Japanese florists preparing flowers for those visiting the Graf Zeppelin while it was moored in Tokyo.

At the time the Graff Zeppelin was the most advanced flying machine existence.  The huge frame made from the latest aluminum alloys was the latest in advanced aeronautical engineering.  The giant airship could carry more than the largest fixed wing aircraft for longer distances more or less safely than the largest of the 1920’s fixed wing aircraft.  Here’s stuff on the Graf Zeppelin and Lady Grace Drummond Hay.
Here is a good series on the history of the airship.

The US built several airships over the years with the help of the Zeppelin Corporation and Goodyear. These culminated in the flying aircraft carriers Akron and Macon.

The Akron and Macon had tragically short careers, both going down over the ocean in bad weather with loss of lives. That was the end of the Navy’s use of airships.
Eckener’s passenger airships soldiered on until they met their own disaster right in front of the newsreel cameras.

Eckener, though started to rebuild almost immediately, building the Graf Zeppelin 2. Unfortunately politics intervened.

Click to access The-Graf-Zeppelin-II-in-pictures.pdf
Due to the actions of Hitler, Eckner was unable to convince the US government, the sole supplier of Helium to sell it. Without helium, the airship was no longer considered safe as a passenger transport and the Graf Zeppelin 2 never sailed with passengers. It’s only use was that of a propaganda tool of the Nazis.
Ekener’s dream was doomed anyway. It was doomed by an onrush of technologies that would put fixed wing aircraft on top, permanently. Courtesy of the US Army Air Corps.

Here’s what fixed wing aircraft looked like at the time of the Graf Zeppelin’s journey in 1929.
The 1930’s would be an explosive decade for fixed wing aircraft design. The decade would be the decade of the all metal moncoque fuselage and ever larger powerplants to push those aircraft through the sky. It started with the monomail.
By the mid decade, the US Army Aircorps embarked on a progam of large bombers capable of delivering large bomb loads transcontinental distances. This program produced a series of aircraft that would be the largest of the time. The program also created the perfect platform for the development of advanced transport aircraft. whic the industry did. Developments that ended the decade with the Boeing 307
In the end, the airships were too big, too fragile and used too many resources to be practical as an air transport. That in the end is what ended the airships.
The romantic time of the airships was a brief blip in history, about seven years from the Graf Zeppelin’s around the world voyage to the Hindenberg’s fire. Yet even today the airships still inspire the imagination even in their fundamental impracticality. But they are gone and it’s unlikely that the true need for such will happen again.


  1. Pingback: I Am The Voice That Cries in The Desert | The Arts Mechanical
  2. jccarlton · March 26, 2017

    Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:

    A while back I posted this about the early days of airship travel. I’ve since found a bunch of pictures on Pinterest and a great article with color photos of the Hindenburg. So here’s my Pinterst board of the Age of airships.

    And the article.


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