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Zeppelins - The Airships of Yesterday

Updated on November 1, 2016

Neuremburg Stadium, Opening Olympic Games 1936

Just some of those 80,000 blue-eyed, blonde haired Aryans.
Just some of those 80,000 blue-eyed, blonde haired Aryans.

The Greatest Flying Machine of All Time

Welcome to Zeppelins - The Airships of Yesterday.

The year is 1936, the place: the great stadium at Nuremberg, Germany, and eighty-thousand blue-eyed, blonde-haired Aryans are there to hear the Fuhrer.

It is the final day of a great military rally in honour of the Nazi Party. All day long the gun carriages have trundled by, the heavy tanks have rolled by, the jack-booted storm troopers have marched by, legs jerking to the ‘goose step.’ Overhead, the Luftwaffe send their war machines, vibrating the ground below.

Adolf Hitlter, in foreground, takes the salute.

More of the crowd
More of the crowd

The Fuhrer working up the crowd

Now, at the far end of the stadium, flanked on either side by huge, fifty-feet high crimson banners bearing the swastika of the Nazi Party, the ‘Little Corporal’ rises to speak, a bank of microphones before him. After an hour or more of regailing the massed audience he raises his hand in familiar gesture. He has worked on the crowd, raising them to a flurry of excitement. Up goes the hand:


And from eight thousand voices- “Heil.”





The huge crowd fell silent.

Then the crowd fall silent. There is something more. What is it? What could top off what has already gone before? What could provide the final moment?

And then they hear it. Coming toward them a sound. What? Where?

The crowd swing around, their faces towards one rim of the great stadium. They can hear it. Now they see it. Coming over...coming over...coming over. It seems to stretch right across the sky. It darkens out the faces below. It’s massive bulk is almost beyond comprehension. Longer than the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne it fills the sky; the greatest flying machine the world has ever known, before or since this day, the ‘flying cathedral,’ the German Airship, Hindenburg.

Zepplelins: This is the Graf Zeppelin. Hindenburg was evern bigger

People pondering this flying wonder.
People pondering this flying wonder.

An airship over down town New York in the 1930s

New Yorkers would have seen a few airships in those days.
New Yorkers would have seen a few airships in those days.

World War One was over and the race began.

By the end of World War One great technological advances had been made. The aeroplane had been invented. But at this stage it was primitive compared with the airship.

The German airships was now huge. They could fly up to 25,000 feet and carry a huge bomb loads. But the war was finished. As bomb platforms, they were no longer needed.

By now, two other nations had joined in the race for supremacy in the air. France had been bled white. She was out of it. Russia was in the midst of a civil war. But Great Britain was still intact, and America virtually unscratched by the great ‘War to end all Wars.

U.S. Navy's Akron overflying battleship New Hamptonshire

The military realized just how useful these big airships were
The military realized just how useful these big airships were

The rivalry was intense but the Germans had the lead.

.And so the rivalry began. The Germans had a head start. Now their ships grew bigger and better. By 1929 the German Flagship, the LZ 130, also known as the Graf Zeppelin, had flown right around the world in 21 days. The same airship flew regularly from Germany to Rio de Janiero over a hundred times, staying in the air over 16,000 hours.

By 1937 the Germans had flown Zeppelins commercially for years. In all of that time they had not had a single accident in which a passenger had been injured. They record for safety was impeccable. There had been nearly 600 flights, over 90,000 hours flown, and 37,000 passengers transported. It was the golden age of those great Cathedrals of the Sky.

The United States refused to sell Helium to Germany or Great Britain.

In America, the Americans build the Shenandoah. Massive, its lift provided by Helium: not Hydrogen as the German and British ships were, it crashed and, miraculously did not burn. That did not go unnoticed. The Germans and the British wanted Helium. The Americans could provide it. In fact, they were the only ones who could. But they would not. So the other two countries had to press on using that most unstable and flammable of gases known by the chemical name of H- hydrogen!


America's Airship, Macon, could transport aircraft.

Here we see an aircraft about to hitch on to the bottom of Macon.  Photo taken from the airship.
Here we see an aircraft about to hitch on to the bottom of Macon. Photo taken from the airship.

The Akron and the Macon could each lift 200 tons

The Americans went on to build other very successful airships. The Akron, then the Macon, for example. The Macon was so advanced it could be used as a sort of air-borne ‘mother ship’ for to up to five fighter aircraft. These fighters would hook onto it and take off from it whilst it was in flight. As a potential weapon of war it was, at that time, unequalled.


For a while Britain couldn't even get off the ground.

In great Britain the attitude was one of ‘We can do it bigger and better than anyone- after all, we are British.’ And so they set to. At the Vickers Works at Barrow a huge airship was constructed. Unfortunately, its designers were also experts in submarine design. So when they made this airship they made in very sturdy, very strong. It had a heavy keel along the bottom. So heavy, in fact, that when they pulled it out of the hangar and filled it up with hydrogen it wouldn't fly. Simply too heavy to lift of the ground.

Interior of a big German Airship. No worries about leg room here.

Passengers paid big money, but they travelled in luxury.
Passengers paid big money, but they travelled in luxury.

The R100 was a success. Let's build the R101!

They then put it back into the hangar for modifications. Off came the heavy keel. As they pulled it out the second time it snapped- broke clean in half. Oh, well. Back to the drawing board. However, by the the late 1920s they were having some successes. In 1929 the R100, built by ‘Private Enterprise,’ was making successful trans Atlantic crossings to Canada. Then the new Labour Government decided that ‘The Government’ could build a machine even bigger and better. They set to on a new ship. This was named the R101.


Passengers in the big German airship's dining room

Yes, they even had a 'Smoking Room.'   Hard to believe, with all that hydrogren just metres away.
Yes, they even had a 'Smoking Room.' Hard to believe, with all that hydrogren just metres away.

The R101 was going to link up the Empire.

The R101 was a colossus. 777 feet long. That’s longer than two rugby league football fields placed end to end. They had all manner of trouble building her. But when she was ready there was talk of her linking the British Empire. She could, and was intended, to by able to fly all the way from England to India in one hop. From India she would fly right across the Indian Ocean to Australia and New Zealand.

Great Britain's pride, the R101

She rides at her mooring mast, vunerable as they all were to the wind.
She rides at her mooring mast, vunerable as they all were to the wind.

Excitement abounded as the R101 set off on her maiden voyage.

Excitement abounded as she made off on her maiden voyage. She crossed the channel and entered French airspace. Then it happened. In low cloud, she careed into the top of a tall tree. The upset was such that a man fell out. Just one man. Unfortunately it was that most important of men: the steersman, the man at the helm. The airship yawed around slowly. Then it struck a hilltop. There was an enormous firy explosion. Within seconds the great airship along with the remaining forty-four people on board were destroyed. The ship was a charred mess. The only survivor, the man who had fallen out a few moments earlier. He got away with a broken arm.

The French gave those that died a very lavish funeral.

Because of the fanfare, the hullabaloo, the important dignitaries killed- and the mass funeral provided by the French, who shipped the bodies home to England, the British Airship Building program came to a halt. Britain had had enough. The hydrogen-filled dirigibles were just too dangerous.

In fact, tragedy had struck again and again. The United States, despite all its precautions and the use of Helium instead of Hydrogen, eventually lost the Akron, and the Macon in crashes. Many people were killed. They, too, stopped their building of these great Cathedrals of the Sky.


The Macon was probably America's greatest success as far as airships went

Macon over New York.   There was talk about using the Empire State Building as a mooring mast.  It never happened.
Macon over New York. There was talk about using the Empire State Building as a mooring mast. It never happened.

Germany's success was outstanding.

But the German success was outstanding. The Graf Zeppelin still took millionaires to Rio. It had made hundreds of trips. The Germans had experienced great losses of Zeppelins in wartime. But in peace. Nothing but success. And now they had their greatest of all machines

The Airship Hindenburg was truly majestic.

Yep, they'd needed a very big hangar.
Yep, they'd needed a very big hangar.

She was nearly as long as the Titanic.

The Airship Hindenburg was truly majestic. The greatest flying machine ever built, at 804 feet in length it was nearly as long as the ill-fated Titanic. So big was it, that one of our giant B747 Jumbo jets could easily fit under a tail fin and not be seen from above. And luxurious! No sit up-to-sleep seats on this machine. It had cabins, bunks, 4,000 square feet of carpeted floor space. It carried a baby-grand piano for the entertainment of the passengers. And those passengers could dine of the finest French cuisine, drink fine wines. There was even a ‘smoking room’ would you believe, a fire-proof, asbestos lined room in which people could enjoy and ‘after dinner cigar’ along with their coffee.


Departure on her 11th voyage to New York was routine.

On the 4th of May 1937 the Hindenburg departed Rein-Maine Germany on her 11th voyage across the Holland, England, Ireland and then the huge expanse of the North Atlantic, bound for New York. Her actual destination, the landing area at Lakehurst, New Jersey. She had made this trip ten times before but she was still newsworthy. The press would be waiting for her arrival, the news-reel cameras out and ready.

She dropped mail by lowering with ropes over Cologne.

She passed over Cologne, lowering down to 200 feet, where, by the use of long manila ropes, mail was lowered to the ground. Then she lifted again, heading for England. The passengers aboard missed out seeing the green fields of England for the country was shrouded in a thick mist. Then out across Ireland and into the North Atlantic on a track which took her along an almost similar course that the ill-fated Titanic had taken 25 years earlier.

Hindenburg flies on...

Those four big, 1100 horsepower Diesels could push her along a 80 miles per hour.
Those four big, 1100 horsepower Diesels could push her along a 80 miles per hour.

The shadown on the Hidenburg passing over an iceberg made one passenger rather uneasy.

Proceeding along the southern edge of Greenland, passengers sighted great ice bergs and were glad they were flying over them, not steaming through them. But one passenger was taking particular notice, and noted how the shadow cast by the Hindenburg appeared to collide with one of them. It made him feel a little uneasy.

But the Hidenburg’s four, big, 1100 horsepower diesel motors droned reassuringly on. With an airspeed of 80 miles an hour she was eating up the miles.

But twelve hours out she ran into a headwind. Captain Max Pruss, in the control cabin,did some calculations. Strong head winds. The arrival would be put back 12 hours. A morse signal went out, informing the agents in New York and the authorities at Lakehurst that the airship, instead of arriving at 6.00a.m. as scheduled, would now be getting in at 6.p.m..


Held back by head winds, she arrived some twelve hours later than expected.

As it was, it was closer to 7 o’clock in the evening as the massive bulk of the Hindenburg hove into view at Lakehurst. A huge crowd had turned out to witness its arrival. There were thousands watching. And there were over 400 handlers, standing by to take up the ropes that the airship would lower down, that she might be hauled up to the mooring mast.

The press had also turned out in strength. There were dozens of reporters, cameramen, and news-reel operators. A temporary broadcasting station had been fitted out, and a newsreader and commentator, a sort of earlier-day John Laws, was in the box commenting on the arrival of the airship as it approached.


A huge crowd had turned out to witness her arrival.

I’ve actually heard a tape of that broadcast. It goes something like this:

“Ladies and Gentlemen,

“What a magnificent sight. The Hidenburg is coming into view now. It’s moving towards us. Yes, we can almost see the passengers. We can certainly see the crowd waiting to greet them. We’ve had a bit of rain here, but it appears to have cleared now. Thunderstorm went through half-a-hour or so ago. Fine now.


Ferous Oxide and Powdered Aluminium - the fire enveloped her skin in seconds

It is said that there were over 400 camera's taking photos of her last moments.
It is said that there were over 400 camera's taking photos of her last moments.

"Good God! No! - She's burning - She's burning!

“Ah! here she comes. Magnificent! She’s moving up now...and...

Good God! No! She’s- she’s burning. She’s on fire. Oh, no! The flames.

Oh, no! It’s spreading so quickly. The ship’s falling backwards. She. Oh, I can’t look. Oh, oh. No, I can’t go on.”

The radio commentator broke into sobs and had to vacate the microphone.

The great Hidenburg, backing up through her own wake, had started a fire with the heat from her massive engines. One spark. That’s all it had taken. One spark amidst the slightest of leaks from her hydrogen. She carried 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen. 7 million!


Last moments of an era - the end of the airship, Hindenburg.

It was miraculous anyone got out, but many did.
It was miraculous anyone got out, but many did.

She seemed to sink like a ship going down.

Instantly the spark became a flame. The flames swept up, enveloping her stern section. As she lost gas from her tail area she tilted slowly, her back end lowering right down to the ground. But her nose pointed upwards, 40, 50, 60 degrees. The flames shot along her length. People were scrambling, jumping to safety. One elderly lady, right down on the ground near the after section, simply opened a door, picked up her case, and walked to safety

After these shots made the news right around the world, no one would travel in airships again.

Others were not as lucky. The flames spread at enormous speed. 70 passengers, 27 crew. In less than forty seconds she was gone. In less than a minute she’d gone from the world’s most magnificent and opulent flying machine to a charred ruin on the tarmac. 97 people in all on board. 62 miraculously got off somehow. But 35 died.

The cameras kept rolling.

And while they died, and the airship burned the cameras were still rolling.

Within minutes the Wire Services had the story. Within days every news theatre in the world had the story. Hindenburg burns! Passengers incinerated. Tragic loss to Germany’s pride.


They'd been around for forty years, but after the Hindenburg disaster, they just disappeared.

It was the end of an era. For nearly 40 years the airships flown. Nobody, would fly in them anymore. The Graf Zeppelin, still flying to Rio, was pulled out of service. All the airships were either destroyed or moth-balled. Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, when that great airship, which had darkened the skies over Nuremburg only a year earlier, lit up the night skies over Lakehurst New Jersey on 6th May 1937, it was the end of an era. - It was the end of those great ‘Cathedrals of the Sky.”


But are they coming back?


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