Zeppelin Mania: Day 5-R 34 Arrives Home

R34 over RNAS Pulham 1919 copy

The R 34 over the Royal Naval Air Service station at Pulham, Norfolk in 1919.

Throughout the morning of July 13, messages of congratulations poured into the airship’s wireless room. King George, the chief of the Air Service, the Board of Admiralty, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, among many others.

From General Maitland’s log:

6.20 am—Over Pulham. Quite a number of people on the landing ground despite the early hour. Scott makes two circles of the ground, and puts the ship gently down into the hands of the landing party. Time of landing, 6.57 am. Total time of return journey from Long Island, New York, to Pulham, Norfolk, is therefore 75 hours and 3 minutes; or 3 days, 3 hours, and 3 minutes.

Seventeen years later, the faster Hindenburg’s average time from Frankfurt to Lakehurst, New Jersey was 66 hours and 37 minutes; and from Lakehurst to Frankfurt, 51 hours and 23 minutes. Certainly slower than a jet, but far and away much more luxurious. On par with a cruise ship of today.

The R 34 was a military ship. A copy of a 1916 German war zeppelin that had been captured, largely intact. A mere two years later the Germans were building even larger zeppelins, with greater range. A range they felt would enable them to bomb New York City. One of these “X” Class zeppelins, the LZ-114, was given to the French as war reparations. Renamed Dixmude, in 1923 she made a 4400 mile flight and was in the air for well over 118 hours without any problems. Her maximum range was calculated to be over 7400 miles. The specially rebuilt L 59, the Africa Ship, had a range of 10,000 miles and a payload over 104,000 pounds. She could have flown to America, bombed New York, and flown back to Germany without refueling.

At the time and for decades to come no airplane was capable of doing what the L 59, the R 34, or the Dixmude did. The airship in 1919 and in the following two decades was clearly seen as the wave of the future. Land-based passenger aircraft would not be able to cross the Atlantic non-stop until after World War II. The most famous of the 1930s flying boats, the Boeing 314 Clipper, introduced in 1939, could carry 74 passengers during the day or 36 at night, had a mere 10,000 pound payload capacity, and had a range of  3,685 miles. Certainly a plane to rival the Hindenburg, but only in speed. The airship still laid claim to greater range, payload capacity, comfort, and quiet.

So what happened? In part, the airship herself was to blame. Expensive to build, operate, and maintain, no private company was willing to expend the capital. The rigid airships that were in existence were mostly military vessels and as a weapon of war, the zepp’s days had come and gone.

The R 34 is a prime example of government neglect. The British press hailed the event and the Air Ministry ignored it and its potential for future military application. In fact, the Air Ministry went to great lengths to scrap their rigid airship program—completely ignoring the role the rigid airship could have played as a transport ship in supplying far-flung and isolated military installations with speed and efficiency. Much as the L 59 had tried to do in 1917, in her attempt to resupply the army in German East Africa.

Then, as now, the rigid airship, while not the fastest aircraft, had the ability to carry tons of cargo vast distances to anywhere in the world. The airship needs no airfield or expensive airports. The problem of huge landing crews was solved by the US Navy. A dozen men and a motorized mooring mast handled the 785 foot long (239 m) USS Akron and USS Macon.

More than anything, our desire for speed killed the airship—in spite of its practicality.

Yet, in the early days of aviation, it was Count Zeppelin’s dream that conquered the skies. The crew of the R 34 deserve high praise for their brave accomplishment. Doing what no one had done before.

Today let’s take a moment to celebrate their great achievement.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this touch of Zeppelin Mania. As always, comments are welcome. Until next time, happy reading!

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Zeppelin Mania: LZ-1 and R-34

LZ-1 Aloft

The LZ-1 in Flight Over the Bodensee

One hundred sixteen years ago today, at 8:03 in the evening, the LZ-1 slowly floated upward from the surface of the Bodensee and made history. The first successful rigid airship had taken flight, realizing the dream of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. For 17 minutes, the Count and four others flew over the lake; until engine trouble and the jamming of the pitch control device forced the airship to land.

The flight was an inauspicious beginning to the dream that has fueled the imagination of men and women ever since. For who hasn’t wished he or she could float in the air just like a cloud and at the same time have the ability to go not only where the wind wishes but to also go where the wind does not wish. For 116 years lighter than air travel has captured our imagination as the airplane never did. The luxury of the Hindenburg has never been equaled by any aircraft before or since.

But today is not only the anniversary of the first flight of the first zeppelin, it is also the anniversary of the realization of the dream of intercontinental flight. In 1919 airplanes first flew across the Atlantic from west to east. However they could not do so in one hop, they had to stop and refuel in the Azores. Or are they made the short flight from Newfoundland to Ireland. Also airplanes did not have enough power to make the east to west flight across the Atlantic against the prevailing winds.

That all changed at 1:42 AM on the morning of 2 July 1919 when the British airship R-34 lifted off from Scotland; her destination being Roosevelt Field, Long Island, New York. On board were 30 persons. The captain was Major George Herbert Scott, the most skillful British airship pilot. The ship was a near copy of a captured German World War I zeppelin and was a magnificent vessel. Her sleek streamlined hull was 645 feet long and was filled with nearly 2,000,000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas.


She was a military vessel and had no creature comforts. In order to serve the crew hot meals on the flight, a metal plate was welded to one of the engine manifolds and the food cooked on it. Off duty crewmen slept in hammocks suspended between the girders. A somewhat perilous endeavor, for if one had the misfortune to roll out of bed he would find himself plunging through the thin fabric covering and on to the ocean far below.

The senior officer onboard was General Maitland, who was the driving force behind Britain’s airship program. He was a popular officer and had devoted his career to innovative flight of all kinds and he was a great believer in the rigid airship. Just before the R-34 lifted off, Maitland wrote in his logbook, “What more wonderful or more delightful adventure could anyone be called upon to undertake?”

Groping its way over the Scottish hillside in the dark and heavy cloud cover, the R-34 headed west and at 5:25 AM, two hours after the sun had risen behind the ship, the R-34 passed the last island off the north Irish coast. The great adventure had begun.

Twelve hours into the flight, when the airship was well out to sea, Aircraftsman Second Class William W Ballantyne revealed himself. He had been cut at the last minute to save weight, but was so eager to make the trip he stowed away. In the afternoon another stowaway was discovered onboard, Wopsie the cat. Ballantyne’s action very nearly jeopardized the voyage. Weight is critical on an airship. His 200 extra pounds deprived the ship from carrying that weight in fuel, which as it turned out nearly caused the voyage to end in failure.

When the airship had just gotten underway, General Maitland described the experience as follows:

When flying at night, possibly on account of the darkness, there is always the feeling of utter loneliness directly one loses sight of the ground. We feel this loneliness very much tonight; possibly owing to the fact that we are bound for a totally unknown destination across the wide Atlantic.

But the necessity of work soon dispelled any feelings of loneliness. The airship required careful flying because of the darkness and the heavy cloud cover, which, when the sun rose, became a heavy fog.

Lunch on board the airship was beef stew, potatoes, chocolate, and water. Not five star, but a hot meal is always welcomed.

In the evening, as the temperatures fell, Major Scott increased the height of the airship to 2000 feet. For a time, the R-34 flew through a heavy cloud bank and the crew found themselves in a dream-like enchanted setting over the ocean. One person recorded it this way, “We feel in a world of our own up here amidst this dazzling array of snow-white clouds. No words can express the wonder, the grandeur, or the loneliness of it all…”

And thus the R-34 flew on into the night, heading for America.

Tomorrow, we continue the adventure. Stay tuned!

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The Wonderful Machine Age: The Daring Young Men in Their Flying Machines #2

Airships. Those behemoths of the sky. Gentle giants that fill us with awe. That still inspire us to dream of their return some 78 years after the end of commercial airship flight. Oh, how we love them!

Yet, given today’s scale of economics, they are on par with the dinosaurs. The giants are gone and all that remains are those semi-lighter-than-air Zeppelin NTs. Something akin to watching birds and seeing in them the gigantic might of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the monstrous bulk of the Brachiosaurus.

Many books have been written about airships and many more will undoubtedly be written. They capture our imagination. They were the first flying machines to prove the feasibility of flying through the air with the greatest of ease. I’ve written previously on airships. Check out my guest blog post at The Old Shelter for additional information and pictures. This week and next, I’ll tell a little more of the history of those marvelous lighter than air machines.

On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers inaugurated heavier-than-air powered flight. Their initial flight lasted 12 seconds and the plane flew 120 feet. Their best effort of the day was a 59 second flight, for a distance of 852 feet. Certainly not an auspicious start when compared with the first powered airship flight in 1852 which traveled 27 km (17 miles). Nor when compared with the first zeppelin flight in 1900, which lasted 17 minutes and covered a distance of 6 km (3.7 miles). Clearly, the airship and not the airplane was the wave of the future.

However, World War I changed the picture and changed it dramatically, as wars often do. Airplane performance increased substantially. So much so, the plane proved itself superior to the airship in short distance operation. Mostly due to cheaper operating costs and speed. But for long distance flights, the airship was still king.

From the moment the Montgolfier balloon ascended into the sky in 1783, people started figuring out ways to make the balloon steerable and capable of free flight, independent of the wind.

The first powered flight of an airship occurred in 1852 when Henri Giffard flew 27 km (17 miles) in a steam-powered airship. He flew from Paris to Élancourt. However, the wind was too strong for him to make the return flight. He was, however, able to make turns and circles to show his airship was fully controllable.

Here is a picture of the model in the London Museum:


Thirty-two years later, Charles Renard and Arthur Constantin Krebs, in the French army airship La France, made the first fully controllable free flight. The airship was powered by an electric motor. The La France flew 8 km (5 miles) in 23 minutes and was able to fly against the wind to return to its starting point.

Here is a photo of La France:


The first fully controllable air dirigible 'La France', designed by Captain Charles Renard and Lieutenant Arthur Krebs, at Chalais-Meudon. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the early years of the 20th century, while Count Zeppelin was experimenting with rigid airships (vessels with gas cells contained inside a framework that gave the envelope or hull a fixed shape), Alberto Santos-Dumont was building and flying non-rigid airships (vessels with no framework, relying on gas pressure to maintain the shape of the envelope) in France. He was so successful, he started an airship craze. Soon everyone was getting into the act. Everyone wanted an airship. One of the most ambitious of these early airship men, was journalist Walter Wellman. In his airship, America, he made two attempts to fly to the North Pole and in 1910 attempted to fly across the Atlantic. You can read about his exploits on airships.net.

Here is a picture of the airship America:


Non-rigid airships are limited in size due to the inherent instability of the envelope or hull. If too long, they may develop a kink should gas pressure become insufficient to maintain the shape.

The solution lay in giving the envelope some manner of framework to keep its shape. A semi-rigid airship has a keel to prevent buckling, gas pressure maintains the envelope’s width. A rigid airship supports the envelope with a framework. The lift gas is contained in cells within the framework. The largest airships we’re rigid in design, due to their inherent structural strength.

Enter Count Zeppelin. For the airship to be a successful passenger liner, cargo hauler, or military vessel, it needs to be able to carry a lot of weight and fly a great distance. The Count understood this and focused on the development of the rigid airship. From 1900 to 1911, numerous improvements were made and lessons learned on how to build and fly rigid airships.

The world’s first airline, the DELAG, went into operation in 1910 and in 1911 the LZ 10, Schwaben, joined the next year by the LZ 11, Viktoria Luise, was making regular flights between German cities, as well as pleasure cruises. By July 1914, the DELAG airships had flown 172,535 km on 1588 commercial flights, carrying 34,028 passengers. With no fatalities.

Here is a picture of the LZ 10:


During World War I the Germans built 90 airships, 73 of which were by the Zeppelin company. All of them were destroyed or turned over to the Allies. What the war revealed was that the rigid airship did not make for an effective strategic bomber. Its strength lay in reconnaissance, cargo hauling, and long distance flight.

A Schütte-Lanz airship, Zeppelin’s main competitor:


Perhaps the most spectacular achievement was by the LZ 104 (Navy ship L 59), known as the Africa Ship. On November 21, 1917, the LZ 104 took off from Bulgaria carrying 15 tons of supplies for the beleaguered German East Africa Army. On November 23, Lieutenant Commander Bockholt received an abort order and the ship returned to Bulgaria, arriving the morning of November 25.

The LZ 104:


The LZ 104 had flown over 6800 km (4200 miles) in 95 hours and had enough fuel for another 64 hours flight time. It wouldn’t be until 1938, when a modified Focke-Wulf FW200 “Condor” made the 3728 mile flight from Berlin to New York City, that trans-Atlantic commercial plane flights began to be conceived of as possible by land-based airplanes. I think it significant that LZ 104 could have flown from Berlin to New York with ease. In fact she could have flown for another 500 miles to Detroit, Michigan or Charlotte, North Carolina.

After the end of World War I, the airship was the only aircraft capable of trans-oceanic intercontinental flight. Next week we’ll conclude our look at the airship, one of the most marvelous machines of The Wonderful Machine Age.

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The Wonderful Machine Age

The Machine Age is that glorious sixty-five years of scientific and especially technological development occurring between 1880 and 1945. Virtually everything we take for granted today, for good or for ill, has its origin in The Machine Age. In the coming weeks I’ll share with you some of the inventions, social movements, and artistic expressions originating in that glorious era when science and technology were going to solve all of our problems.

I became interested in The Machine Age when I started writing speculative fiction (or science fiction, if you prefer). And I soon discovered The Machine Age also touched upon the crime and horror fiction I also write, although much more indirectly. The Machine Age directly or indirectly touches on all writing.

Speculative fiction, whether heavily based in science or not, takes the known and extrapolates it into an alternative world from the one in which we live. That world might be in the future, another dimension, or an alternative past.

The speculative fiction I write falls into the subgenres of post-apocalyptic cozy catastrophes and dieselpunk. In both, I make heavy use of the wonders of The Machine Age.

In The Rocheport Saga, the hero, Bill Arthur, has set for himself the task of not letting the human race descend into the Stone Age after a mysterious illness wipes out nearly all of humanity. He is determined to overcome our modern lack of knowledge of how things work in order to rebuild society. The knowledge is all there, in books and old people, we just need to learn how to do what our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did as a matter of course.

Bill Arthur takes comfort in the fact that The Machine Age inventions were largely produced by amateurs. The Wright brothers made bicycles and Santos-Dumont was a wealthy kid who liked to tinker — they weren’t aeronautical engineers. The Stanley twins, one a photographer and the other a school teacher, were not automotive engineers. Count Zeppelin was a retired military officer who knew nothing about flying. His chief engineer and designer, Ludwig Dürr, knew nothing about airships. And the greatest airship captain of all time, Hugo Eckener, was a journalist.

In a very real sense, amateurs built the foundations of our modern world. Therefore in the post-apocalyptic world of Rocheport and Bill Arthur, amateurs can do it again. People simply need to understand how things work.

In the Lady Dru series and the forthcoming Rand Hart series, I build dieselpunk alternative histories based on The Machine Age. From the late 1800s through World War II, the dreamers of what the future would be like came up with some pretty fantastic ideas. Robots to be our servants and fight our wars. Airships to provide safe and quiet transportation for people and cargo. Cities free from pollution and traffic congestion. And, yes, flying cars.

Those same dreamers also came up with things like particle beam weapons and orbiting parabolic mirrors to send the sun’s light in death rays to destroy cities. They even speculated on thought beam weapons. The flying wing, jet engines, the ballistic and cruise missiles also came from those same dreamers.

The Machine Age was a wonderful time of fantastic technological advancement. I look forward to sharing with you some of the things I’ve discovered while doing research for my novels and I hope you enjoy the discoveries as much as I did.

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