Zeppelin Mania: In Those Days, Giants

The Graf Zeppelin Over Rio

On the Graf Zeppelin 

Hugo Eckener (translated from the German by Douglas Robinson)

I have always felt that such effects as were produced by the Zeppelin airship were traceable to a large degree to aesthetic feelings. The mass of the mighty airship hull, which seemed matched by its lightness and grace, and whose beauty of form was modulated in delicate shades of color, never failed to make a strong impression on people’s minds. It was not, as generally described, ‘a silver bird soaring in majestic flight,’ but rather a fabulous silvery fish, floating quietly in the ocean of air and captivating the eye just like a fantastic, exotic fish seen in an aquarium. And this fairy-like apparition, which seemed to melt into the silvery blue background of the sky, when it appeared far away, lighted by the sun, seemed to be coming from another world and to be returned there like a dream…

The mighty hull indeed! The Hindenburg weighed 236 tons, was 13 stories tall, and was nearly as long as 3 football fields. The 7 million plus cubic feet of hydrogen was sufficient to run an ordinary kitchen stove for several hundred years.

The 17 huge gas cells of the R 101 used the intestines of a million cows to provide the leak-proof lining.

However, not only were the ships of behemoth dimensions, so were their hangers. The Goodyear-Zeppelin hanger in Akron, Ohio was so huge clouds sometimes formed and a soft rain would fall.

And as Dr Eckener wrote, those giants of the sky were like something from another world, a dream world. They were exotic silvery fish of immense size and fairy origin.

John R McCormick’s account of seeing the Graf Zeppelin when a young boy fills me with envy. Here it is in part:

Out of the Blue

…I was a little uneasy. Something wasn’t quite right. Suddenly I realized why. We were alone, absolutely alone, and surrounded by a profound silence. That whole land, usually so full of sound and action, was empty and still. Even the animals were quiet. There was no wind, not the slightest breeze.

Into that remarkable silence there came from far away the smallest possible purring, strange and repetitive, gradually approaching, becoming louder — the unmistakable beating of powerful engines. I looked to the west and at first saw nothing. Then it was there, nosing down out of the clouds a half-mile away, a gigantic, wondrous apparition moving slowly through the sky.

“Grandma!” I screamed.

She was out of the kitchen door in an instant. I pointed to the sky. The great dirigible was very low, perhaps because the captain was trying to find some landmark.

There is a wonderful opening scene in the movie Star Wars. A great starship is passing very low and directly overhead so that one sees only the underside. That underside moves deliberately and interminably on and on until at last it is gone. The Graf Zeppelin, moving ever so slowly above us, was like that. We saw every crease and contour from nose to fins. It was so low that we could see, or imagined we could see, people waving at us from the slanted windows of its passenger gondola.

We stood entranced. Slowly, slowly the ship moved over us, beyond us, and at last was gone.

The above accounts and information are taken from one of the books in my library: The Zeppelin Reader: Stories, Poems, and Songs from the Age of Airships, edited by Robert Hedin. A fascinating book. Highly recommended!

Comments are always welcome! And until next time, happy reading!

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Zeppelin Mania: R34’s Flight Home Day 4

routemap-R34

The Route Map of the R-34’s Historic Double Trans-Atlantic Crossing in 1919.
The Orange Line is the Crossing from Scotland to New York and the Blue Line is the crossing from New York to Pulham.

Saturday, July 12, 1919 began beautifully. The weather began clearing and the sea was visible at 2500 feet.

At 5 am, General Maitland recorded: “Magnificent sunrise; the sun slowly appears above the cloud bank ahead of us in a blaze of golden light, and we head straight into it.”

An hour later, the ship is running on three engines only as the after engine is being repaired. The airspeed is 32 knots. Major Scott takes the ship down to 900 feet to sight the water. Ground speed is only 15 knots at that altitude, so he returns to 2800 feet where the ship’s ground speed is 36 knots, or 41 mph (67 kph). The R-34 is approximately 760 miles from her base — and home.

General Maitland wrote, “Breakfast this morning is a festive meal, as we reckon it should be our last breakfast on board, and we are rather lavish in our issues.”

Wives, families, and sweethearts are gathering at East Fortune in Scotland awaiting the ship’s homecoming. But at 10 am, the Air Ministry instructs the R-34 to land at Pulham in Norfolk, England instead. The message is not understood as the weather is better for landing at East Fortune then it is at Pulham.

By noon, the weather has turned very cold and once again the R-34 is fighting a headwind. Everyone realizes they will be breakfasting on board ship tomorrow morning and feel disappointed.

In the evening, the ship runs into two sudden squalls. Maitland notes the ship is very steady. Then at 7:25 pm land is in sight off the starboard bow and at 8 pm the R-34 crosses the coastline a little to the north of Clifden, County Mayo, Ireland. From the coast of Long Island to the coast of Ireland, flight time was 61 hours and 43 minutes.

Above the Hills and Lakes of Ireland-R34

Above the Hills and Lakes of Ireland

The euphoria is dampened however, when at 11:30 pm the Air Ministry repeats the message to land at Pulham. Major Scott increases altitude to 5000 feet and sets course for Pulham.

No explanation has ever come to light as to why the R-34 was redirected to land at Pulham instead of East Fortune. Especially when the weather, critical for airship safety in landing, was better at the Scottish base.

Patrick Abbott, in his book Airship: The Story Of R-34, gives the following possible explanation:

Those who supported only an aeroplane programme may have contrived the altered destination in order to avoid the publicity of the great welcome that was being planned at East Fortune. Pulham, by contrast, was comparatively isolated… so ensuring the minimum fuss and excitement. If this theory is true—and it accords with later policy development and the shabby treatment soon meted out to everyone on board—then the manoeuvre was an unworthy affront to servicemen who could neither disobey nor complain.

I think Mr Abbot makes a valid point. Given the subsequent history of the British government’s bureaucratic antipathy towards building and maintaining an airship fleet, it seems only logical the R-34 and her crew ended up as victims of bureaucratic politics and cost-cutting excuses.

Britain was in an admirable position to seize the day and exploit the commercial possibilities of the airship. However, as with their American cousins, the British largely saw the airship as a military craft. However World War I had clearly shown the future of the giants was not as a weapon of war, but as a tool of peace. Only Doctor Hugo Eckener of the Zeppelin company realized this and was intent on pursuing the true future of the rigid airship. If he’d had the capital and didn’t have the animosity of the Allies and their wreaking of vengeance on the German people, he would have succeeded.

Stay tuned! Tomorrow the epic voyage comes to an end. Prepare to give the memory of those brave men the recognition they truly deserve. A recognition denied them in their day due to petty politics.

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