Off the Beaten Track
in Vol. 19 - September Issue - Year 2018
The Graf Zeppelin
Flying over Buckingham Fountain in Chicago in August 1929
Passengers enjoying the view from their cabin
“Would the madam care for more caviar?” The waiter’s presence was discreet, his impeccably-pressed suit giving off the slightest hint of expensive cologne. An imperceptible nod by the young, elegant woman indicated that, yes, the madam would care for more caviar. A few feet away, a middle-aged businessman in a dinner jacket and tie gazed out of the panoramic window, fascinated by the changing landscape below as the airship majestically proceeded on its flight.
In the 1920s and 1930s, there was a surge of interest in air travel, especially in the commercial potential of air service across continents and across the Atlantic. In 1928 a German company launched the Graf Zeppelin, a two hundred and thirty-seven meter long, hydrogen-filled rigid airship, the largest in the world at that time. This aircraft would go on to set a record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe.
The Zeppelin was truly monumental: ten stories high and over two city blocks long, its skeleton was composed of a series of metal rings, girders and braces weighing a total of 33 tons. The gas cells were made with cotton fabric, each lined with an airtight membrane made with oxen intestines. The 17 upper gas cells contained a total of 75,000 m3 of hydrogen for lift, whereas the twelve lower cells contained about 30,000 m3 of “blau gas” for propulsion.
The propellers were mounted pusher style on five Maybach VL-II twelve cylinder engines, each providing 550 HP. The ship’s cruising speed was 63 knots, about 117 km/h, and its total lift capacity was 87,000 kg. Thanks to an additional load of gasoline fuel, the airship could cruise for well over 100 hours without stopping.
Its designers wanted to make travel on the Graf Zeppelin a pleasant and memorable experience and spared no expense. The outer cotton skin had six layers of dope and silver paint sandpapered to a smooth and shiny finish. The height of aesthetics and luxury was achieved in the passenger gondola. Measuring thirty meters long by six meters wide, the gondola housed the flight deck, navigation room, chart room, radio room, galley, dining room and a double row of ten well-appointed sleeping cabins. Toilets and washrooms were behind the sleeping cabins. Hidden from the passengers’ view, the crew’s sleeping quarters, generator room, cargo hold and other technical spaces were located in the hull and reached by a catwalk. The Zeppelin was equipped with state-of-the-art navigation and communications equipment. Strangely enough, the one important commodity missing was heating.
The airship carried thirty-six officers and crew, plus twenty-four passengers.
Although the Graf Zeppelin had been built for regular postal, freight and passenger service between Germany and Brazil, its owners had much more ambitious plans. They wanted to highlight the attraction of air travel and to sell many airships around the world. In order to achieve this goal, they needed to generate a lot of publicity. Consequently, from 1928 to 1932 the Graf Zeppelin was used mostly for demonstration flights, to which journalists were continually invited. Its first trans-Atlantic flight was to the United States in 1928, followed by a Germany/Brazil/U.S. flight in 1930, a polar expedition in 1931 and two trips to the Middle East, all interspersed with numerous flights around Europe.
The Zeppelin’s most daring and also most successful trip was the complete circumnavigation of the world, which started in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on August 7th, 1929. Although the American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst sponsored the endeavor, the trip actually generated most of its income from souvenir mail and commemorative postmarks. Hearst asked that the trip begin and end in the U.S. and that he be granted exclusive story rights. The airship took off with twenty passengers, including four of Hearst’s reporters, and headed eastwards towards Germany, where it reached the Zeppelin’s home base in Friedrichshafen 55 hours later. Next came the longest leg of the entire journey, an 11,200 km, 102-hour hop to Tokyo, Japan. The next leg to Los Angeles was also the first non-stop crossing of the Pacific Ocean by any aircraft. The Zeppelin returned to New Jersey after 21 days, with an actual total flying time of 12 ½ days for the four legs.
In 1932 the Graf Zeppelin commenced regular service between Germany and Brazil and was decommissioned in 1937. In its lifespan, this splendid airship made 590 flights covering over 1.7 million km, crossed the Atlantic 143 times, carried 13,000 passengers and over 48 tons of mail without ever sustaining injury to passengers or crew.
By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN