Certainly, LZ-127 stands out as the most triumphant zeppelin ever constructed and was officially named “Graf Zeppelin” by the daughter of Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin on July 8, 1928, in honor of what would have been the late count’s 90th birthday.
Nine years following its christening, by its last flight, the Graf Zeppelin had traversed over a million miles in 590 flights, conveying thousands of individuals and transporting hundreds of thousands of pounds of cargo and postal mail efficiently and safely.
The Graf Zeppelin achieved global circumnavigation and gained worldwide renown, triggering a zeppelin craze internationally in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
- $10 Million in Today’s Money
- Blau Gas as Light as Air
- Flight Across the Atlantic in 1928
- Close to Disaster
- Third Reich
The evolution of rigid airships marked a significant chapter in aviation history, commencing with the inaugural successful flight of Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s LZ1 in Germany in 1900.
This pioneering venture was followed by extensive developments between 1910 and 1914 when Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft (DELAG) became instrumental in ferrying thousands of passengers via airships.
During the turmoil of World War I, airships became strategic assets for Germany, being employed to bombard London and other strategic locations.
A noteworthy development occurred in 1917 when the German LZ 104 (L 59) achieved the first intercontinental airship flight, covering a nonstop journey of 6,800 kilometers from Jambol in Bulgaria to Khartoum and back.
The period during and immediately following the war saw increased interest and developments in airship construction by various nations, including Britain and the United States, while France and Italy conducted explorations with seized German models.
A significant endeavor in July 1919 involved the British R34, which flew from East Fortune in Scotland to New York and returned.
$10 Million in Today’s Money
In October 1924, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin supplied LZ 126 to the US Navy as part of war reparations, with Hugo Eckener, the company’s chairman, overseeing the delivery flight. The airship was subsequently commissioned as the USS Los Angeles (ZR-3).
The post-war conditions, underscored by the Treaty of Versailles, imposed stringent restrictions on German aviation.
However, a relaxation of these restrictions in 1925 provided a unique opportunity for Eckener to conceptualize an intercontinental air passenger service.
He embarked on an extensive lobbying campaign with the government, seeking permissions and funds to construct a new civil airship.
The public displayed considerable interest, contributing 2.5 million Reichsmarks (equivalent to US$600,000 at the time, or $10 million in today’s money), coupled with a government grant exceeding 1 million Reichsmarks ($4 million).
Eckener’s vision and the combined financial support from the public and the government played a pivotal role in advancing the development of civil airship technology, paving the way for future innovations in intercontinental air travel.
The creation of Graf Zeppelin was marked by a fundamentally conservative approach, drawing upon the proven technologies that the Zeppelin Company had refined over decades of experience.
The airship’s framework consisted of triangular Duralumin girders, with the ship’s frames, or “rings,” being spaced 49 feet (15 meters) apart.
Design Limitations of Graf Zeppelin
The aerodynamic efficiency, structural integrity, and economic feasibility—in terms of payload—of Graf Zeppelin were far from ideal due to the limitations imposed by the size and shape of the ship.
The constraining factors in the design process were the dimensions of the construction shed at Friedrichshafen, which measured 787 feet (239 metres) in length and 115 feet (35 metres) in height internally.
Given that a larger size translates to enhanced efficiency for long-distance operations, the crucial task for Ludwig Dürr and his team was to devise a ship that could optimize gas capacity while conforming to the spatial constraints of the construction shed.
The resultant design was a lengthy, slender cylinder measuring 776 feet (236 metres) in length and 100 feet (30 metres) in diameter, with a gondola positioned significantly forward to be suspended beneath the hull as it ascended towards the bow.
Efficient Teardrop Configurations
The ship’s height, from the base of the gondola to the summit of the hull, was 110 feet (33 metres), narrowly accommodating the arches of the shed.
While the elongated and slim contour of LZ-127 did not represent the pinnacle of aerodynamic proficiency—a realization drawn from the efficient teardrop configurations of Bodensee and Nordstern—it also lacked in structural resilience due to the susceptibility of the thin hull to bending stresses.
Furthermore, it did not fulfill economic practicality as its restricted size limited payload capacity during extended voyages. Nevertheless, given the constraints of the hangar at Friedrichshafen, this was the most optimized design achievable, striking a balance between structural feasibility and operational efficiency.
Blau Gas as Light as Air
Blau gas, known in German as Blaugas, is a synthetic illuminating gas with properties akin to propane. It is named after its developer, Hermann Blau, who hailed from Augsburg, Germany.
Blau gas, a synthetic illuminating compound, held paramount importance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, serving various essential purposes.
It was utilized primarily for lighting and heating. A less refined variant of it, known as Pintsch gas, played a crucial role in powering illuminated buoys, beacons for navigational assistance, and fueled lights and stoves in railroad cars.
These implementations of Blau and Pintsch gas were crucial during a time when such innovations were pivotal for nocturnal navigation and daily activities.
However, the most notable application of Blau gas was in the operation of the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin as a buoyancy-compensating fuel.
The significance of Blau gas in this context lies in its density, which is roughly equivalent to that of air. When Blau gas is combusted, its volume is replaced by air, resulting in no alteration in the weight of the gas cells of an airship.
This unique property eliminated the necessity to modify buoyancy or ballast during flight, allowing for more stable and manageable airship navigation, marking a significant advancement in airship technology during the early 20th century.
Dangers of Blau Gas
Deployment of Blau gas in airships was fraught with considerable risk, a fact accentuated by numerous assertions that the incorporation of Blau gas in the Graf Zeppelin posed more substantial safety threats than the ship’s hydrogen.
The gas cells of the time were not completely impermeable, consistently exhibiting minor leaks and sporadic small tears, compromising the integrity of the gas containment.
Given that the density of Blau gas is comparable to air, any leakage did not ascend as hydrogen would but instead settled at the lower sections of the hull, permeating the keel and the gondola.
This gas accumulation had the potential to extend toward the engines, creating a hazardous environment.
This concern was particularly accentuated when the ship was grounded, especially within the confines of an enclosed hangar, where the absence of air flow exacerbated the accumulation of gas.
It is imperative to understand that the Graf Zeppelin was fundamentally an exploratory endeavor, a tangible manifestation of a “proof of concept” design.
The design parameters were predominantly dictated by practical constraints such as the dimensions of the construction shed at Friedrichshafen.
Despite being a novel response to such constraints, the use of Blau gas in the zeppelin was unprecedented, highlighting the experimental nature of the Graf Zeppelin.
This venture into uncharted territories of design and application underlined the inherent risks and uncertainties, ultimately leading to the decision to abstain from using Blau gas in any subsequent zeppelin developments.
Graf Zeppelin was managed by Hugo Eckener, the head of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin.
Hugo Eckener, who had secured his doctorate in Psychology from Leipzig University under Wilhelm Wundt, utilized his profound knowledge of mass psychology to the advantage of Graf Zeppelin.
He discerned that the key element influencing the public acceptance of the ship was its safety, and he pursued this with unwavering determination and precision.
Eckener assumed comprehensive responsibility for the zeppelin, overseeing technical aspects, financial management, and strategizing the subsequent flight paths in its extensive public relations journey, creating and spreading “zeppelin fever” across nations.
During one of its trips to Brazil, Eckener allowed British Pathé News to film onboard, emphasizing his acumen in leveraging media to augment the airship’s popularity.
He meticulously cultivated relationships with the press and appreciated the accolades from Lady Grace Drummond-Hay, a British journalist, whose depiction of Graf Zeppelin as a “ship with a soul” reached millions, echoing the sentient and magnificent nature of the airship.
The Graf Zeppelin, in its initial voyages, received overwhelming receptions, with enormous crowds, numbering 100,000 in Moscow and approximately 250,000 in Tokyo, gathering to witness it.
Its visit to Stockholm was marked by the display of fireworks around it, and its return from Moscow was marred by rifle shots near the Soviet Union-Lithuania border.
Furthermore, during its visits to England, the zeppelin conducted photographic surveys of Royal Air Force bases, the Blackburn aircraft factory in Yorkshire, and the Portsmouth naval dockyard.
These actions raised speculations regarding potential espionage activities orchestrated by the German government.
Flight Across the Atlantic in 1928
The Graf Zeppelin, known for pioneering milestones in aviation, accomplished the inaugural commercial passenger flight across the Atlantic.
It embarked on its journey from Friedrichshafen at 7:54 AM on October 11, 1928, and concluded at Lakehurst, New Jersey on October 15, 1928, clocking in a total flight time of 111 hours and 44 minutes.
This groundbreaking voyage was managed by Hugo Eckener and included 40 crew members and 20 esteemed passengers such as American naval officer Charles E. Rosendahl and Hearst newspaper correspondent Lady Grace Drummond-Hay.
However, this historic transatlantic crossing was fraught with peril when, on the morning of October 13th, the ship confronted a robust squall line.
Contrary to his customary caution in adverse weather conditions, Captain Eckener navigated the storm with unabated power.
Swift Interventions by Eckener
The ship, under the guidance of an inexperienced elevatorman, experienced severe turbulence, reminiscent of the calamities that befell airships R-38 and USS Shenandoah.
Swift interventions by Eckener and his officers regained stability, but a quick assessment revealed significant damage to the lower covering of the port fin, posing imminent threats to the ship’s control.
To address this, Eckener orchestrated an in-flight repair operation, delegating it to a specialized team, including his son, Knut Eckener; seasoned elevatorman and future zeppelin commander Albert Sammt, and Ludwig Knorr, the prospective chief rigger on LZ-129 Hindenburg.
Facing the daunting prospect of his ship’s destruction, Eckener transmitted a distress signal, fully aware of the potential repercussions on the reputation of his newly commissioned ship and the future of zeppelin ventures.
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The media promptly intercepted this distress signal, fueling a worldwide flurry of speculative and sensational reporting on the impending doom of the Graf Zeppelin on its maiden voyage.
This voyage, marked by both groundbreaking achievement and unexpected tribulations, underscored the vulnerability and resilience inherent in early airship navigation, shaping perceptions and dialogues around the evolution of zeppelin enterprises.
The journey back consumed 71 hours and 49 minutes, amounting to just shy of three days; a stark contrast to the ocean liners of that period, which necessitated double the time to transport passengers across the Atlantic.
Following the restoration of the tail, the Graf Zeppelin commenced its journey from Lakehurst at 1:24 am on October 29.
On this journey back, Clara Adams earned the distinction of being the first female paying passenger to traverse the Atlantic by air.
This voyage, however, wasn’t without its challenges as the ship faced a nocturnal gale, pushing it in retrogression and displacing it 200 miles (320 km)off its intended course towards the coast of Newfoundland. The potency of the wind even induced visible deformations in the airship’s structure.
An unexpected development occurred when a 19-year-old stowaway, Clarence Terhune, who managed to board the airship at Lakehurst, was discovered mid-voyage in the mail room.
Upon reaching Germany, his unexpected journey garnered significant attention, resulting in him receiving several job proposals. The airship concluded its return on November 1.
Subsequently, on November 6, the Graf Zeppelin ventured to Berlin Staaken, receiving a commendatory reception from the German president, Paul von Hindenburg.
He lauded the revolutionary accomplishments of the ship and extended his accolades to the visionary minds and diligent hands that contributed to its design, construction, and successful navigation.
Mediterranean Tour 1929
In late March 1929, the Graf Zeppelin embarked on a significant voyage to Palestine. During its journey, it conveyed salutations to Benito Mussolini and King Victor Emmanuel III while in Rome.
The airship, upon entering Palestinian airspace, navigated over eminent locations such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and ventured to proximate altitudes above the surface of the Dead Sea, which is situated 1,400 feet (430 meters) below sea level.
Throughout its journey, the Graf Zeppelin facilitated the delivery of approximately 16,000 letters through mail drops at various cities including Jaffa, Athens, Budapest, and Vienna.
However, the airship faced restrictions from the Egyptian government, which under British influence, denied it entry into their airspace.
Subsequently, the Graf Zeppelin undertook a second Mediterranean expedition, traversing over nations like France, Spain, Portugal, and Tangier before concluding its journey, returning via Cannes and Lyon between April 23 and 25.
These expeditions of the Graf Zeppelin not only symbolize the technological advancements of the time but also highlight the intricate interplay of geopolitical dynamics and international relations in the backdrop of aviation exploration in the early 20th century. Basically, Germany was flexing its technical prowess to the world.
Crash Landing in France
On the evening of 16th May 1929, during its second voyage to the United States, the Graf Zeppelin encountered a critical situation when it lost power in two of its engines near the southeast coast of Spain.
This malfunction compelled Eckener to abort the mission and revert the course of the airship.
The ensuing afternoon, while navigating against potent headwinds up the Rhône valley in France, the airship suffered the failure of two more engines, rendering it adrift towards the sea.
Amidst the burgeoning crisis and the pursuit of a suitable emergency landing location, Eckener received permission from the French Air Ministry to land at Cuers-Pierrefeu, near Toulon.
Post the emergency landing, the Graf Zeppelin was stationed in the hangar that previously accommodated the Dixmude (LZ 114) and the Méditerranée (LZ 121).
Replacement engines were swiftly dispatched from Friedrichshafen by rail, facilitating the airship’s return on 24th May. This incident, necessitating forced collaboration, subtly altered France’s stance towards Germany and its airships. Investigations attributed the engine failures to modifications made by the chief engineer.
Months later, on 1st August 1929, the Graf Zeppelin successfully traversed to Lakehurst, reaching its destination on 4th August.
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Intriguingly, both voyages had an unusual passenger—Susie, an eastern gorilla captured near Lake Kivu in the Belgian Congo and sold to an American dealer by her German owner. After touring the US, Susie found her permanent abode in Cincinnati Zoo in 1931, where she remained until her demise in 1947.
The Big one Graf Zeppelin Round the World Flight
William Randolph Hearst’s media conglomerate significantly subsidized the groundbreaking venture to circumnavigate the globe with the Graf Zeppelin, covering half of the project’s expenses.
This voyage was not only an aeronautical feat but also a media spectacle, with Hearst ensuring representation from his empire by placing four staff members aboard.
They were, Lady Hay Drummond-Hay, Karl von Wiegand, Australian explorer Hubert Wilkins, and cameraman Robert Hartmann. Lady Drummond-Hay earned the remarkable distinction of being the first woman to complete a circumnavigation of the world by air.
Hearst orchestrated the official commencement and culmination of the flight in August 1929 at Lakehurst, setting the terms for this unprecedented journey.
The tickets for this round-the-world adventure were priced at nearly $3000, equivalent to $51,000 in 2022. However, the majority of the participants were sponsored, mitigating their incurred costs.
To offset the expenses of the flight, souvenir mail was transported between Lakehurst, Friedrichshafen, Tokyo, and Los Angeles. For a letter stamped in the US and flown throughout the entire journey from Lakehurst back to Lakehurst, the postage required was $3.55, amounting to $61 in today’s money.
The Longest Leg
The most extensive segment of Graf Zeppelin’s journey spanned 11,247 km, taking 101 hours and 49 minutes, stretching from Friedrichshafen to Tokyo.
This monumental flight traversed vast, uninhabited expanses of Siberia. An intended flight over Moscow had to be relinquished due to unfavorable winds, leading to formal grievances from the government of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who felt snubbed by the deviation in the itinerary.
Navigating over Russia’s Stanovoy mountain range in Eastern Siberia propelled the Graf Zeppelin to elevations of 6,000 feet.
Upon its descent in Japan, the airship was met with colossal media attention and a jubilant reception, with an estimated 250,000 people congregating to witness its arrival, and Emperor Hirohito hosting Eckener and other distinguished guests for tea.
Following this, the next phase of the voyage involved traversing the Pacific Ocean, heading towards Los Angeles.
Eckener, with meticulous precision, orchestrated the airship’s journey along the American coast to ensure its majestic entrance through San Francisco’s Golden Gate was accentuated by the backdrop of a setting sun.
This visual spectacle was imbued with symbolic significance, as highlighted by F.W. “Willy” von Meister, who later represented Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei in New York.
He recounted Eckener’s sentiments: “When for the first time in world history an airship flies across the Pacific, should it not arrive at sunset over the Golden Gate?”
Close to Disaster
Following a leisurely journey down the California coast to ensure a daylight landing the subsequent morning, the Graf Zeppelin encountered a challenging landing at Los Angeles on August 26th.
A prevailing temperature inversion complicated the descent of the ship, necessitating the release of substantial volumes of hydrogen.
The hydrogen, once expelled, could not be replenished in Los Angeles, rendering the subsequent takeoff even more precarious due to the airship’s unusual heaviness.
The Graf Zeppelin barely evaded collision with power lines bordering the field.
Navigating a challenging route over the arid landscapes of Arizona and Texas during the summer, the Graf Zeppelin progressed eastward across the United States.
Upon its arrival in Chicago, the airship was met with overwhelming excitement and jubilation from the locals.
This remarkable journey concluded with the Graf Zeppelin touching down at Lakehurst on the morning of August 29, 1929.
The expedition, spanning from Lakehurst back to Lakehurst, was completed in a mere 12 days and 11 minutes of flight time. This record-setting journey catapulted both the Graf Zeppelin and its commander, Hugo Eckener, into global prominence, earning them accolades and widespread recognition.
The Third Reich Were Not Going to Miss Out on the Act
The pr machine of the Third Reich was will oiled and very effective and proficient. Hugo Eckener was openly critical of his aversion towards the Nazi Party, a stance that drew warnings from Rudolf Diels, who was at the helm of the Gestapo.
Upon the Nazi ascendancy to power in 1933, Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, and Hermann Göring, the Commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, effectively marginalized Eckener. They elevated the more compliant Lehmann to oversee the newly founded airline, Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei (DZR), tasked with managing German airships.
Not long after the National Socialist Party assumed power, the Graf Zeppelin quickly became an instrument of Nazi propaganda.
Merely three months post Adolf Hitler’s instatement as chancellor, the Propaganda Ministry orchestrated a flight by the Graf Zeppelin over Berlin.
This was a part of the government’s commemoration on May 1, 1933, of the “Tag de Nationalen Arbeit,” the Nazi reinterpretation of the traditional May Day labor celebration.
Later that May, the Graf Zeppelin undertook a journey to Rome, aligning with Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’ inaugural official engagement with Italy’s fascist regime.
During this encounter, Goebbels extended an invitation to Italian Air Minister Italo Balbo to accompany him on an aerial excursion over Rome.
Subsequently, in September 1933, the Graf Zeppelin was maneuvered over the Reichsparteitag congress in Nuremberg, known as the “1933 Nuremberg Rally,” serving as a dramatic precursor to Hitler’s presentation to the assembly.
These instances exemplify how the Graf Zeppelin, a symbol of aeronautical advancement, was co-opted as a spectacle to reinforce and disseminate the ideologies and theatrical politics of the Nazi regime.
Graf Zeppelin – Her Days Were Numbered
While flying from Brazil to Germany, the crew of the Graf Zeppelin learned of the Hindenburg disaster via radio on May 6, 1937.
However, to avoid inducing panic, they chose to withhold this information from the passengers until after their landing on May 8. The calamity, claiming the lives of Lehmann among 35 others, severely undermined public confidence in the safety of hydrogen-filled airships.
This erosion of trust rendered the continuance of passenger services unfeasible unless a transition to the non-combustible helium could be accomplished.
Although helium was initially intended to be used in the Hindenburg, the United States, which held dominion over the majority of the global helium supply, had imposed stringent restrictions on its export through the Helium Act of 1925.
In the aftermath of the disaster, Graf Zeppelin was irrevocably decommissioned from service.
Its final journey, marked as the 590th flight, led it to Frankfurt am Main on June 18, where, after being deflated, it was displayed to the public in its hangar. There is stayed until it was broken up under the orders of Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe in March 1940.
Throughout its operational life, Graf Zeppelin traversed nearly 1.7 million km (1,053,391 miles), establishing itself as the inaugural aircraft to surpass one million miles.
It completed 144 oceanic voyages (143 across the Atlantic and one across the Pacific), transporting 13,110 passengers and 235,300 lb (106,700 kg) of mail and freight.
The airship logged a total of 17,177 flight hours, equivalent to 717 days or nearly two years, maintaining a flawless safety record with no injuries to passengers or crew members reported.
It has earned the distinction of being labeled “the world’s most successful airship.” However, despite its groundbreaking accomplishments, it didn’t achieve commercial triumph.
There were aspirations that the subsequent Hindenburg-class airships would possess the capability and velocity to be financially profitable, particularly on the sought-after North Atlantic route.
The advancements and feats achieved by the Graf Zeppelin demonstrated the technical feasibility of such airships in commercial aviation, paving the way for future innovations in air travel.