The Forgotten Graf Zeppelin, the Hindenberg’s Big Brother

The Graf Zeppelin moored in Lakehurst NJ
The Graf Zeppelin moored in Lakehurst NJ

While the Hindenburg is the most notorious airship that ever flew, primarily due to its Titanic-like end in the U.S., its predecessor, the Graf Zeppelin, was the most successful.  Over a period of 9 years, the Graf flew on 590 flights, over a million miles, carrying thousands of passengers with both speed and safety.  It circled the globe, explored the Arctic, and became world famous, inspiring the ‘Zeppelin Fever’ of the 1930s.

German Count (Graf) Ferdinand von Zeppelin patented the rigid dirigible in 1895.  His airship’s outer envelope was held in place not by internal pressure, like a blimp, but by a rigid metal skeleton. The lifting gas, flammable hydrogen, was housed in a series of gas bag ‘cells’ within the aluminum ribs. The first Luftschiffs (airships) became so successful that the word Zeppelin was used to describe them all.

During World War I, the German military notoriously used Zeppelins to bomb London.

While the air raids did cause damage, their main effect was psychological.  Brits dreaded hearing the rumble of Zeppelin engines in the night sky, to be followed by air raid sirens. When Germany surrendered in 1918, its airships surrendered as well.  Under the Treaty of Versailles, all Zeppelins were turned over to the Allies and production stopped.  Count Zeppelin died and was succeeded by Dr. Hugo Eckener who’d been working with Zeppelin for years.

Restrictions were lifted in 1926 and Eckener quickly began building airships again. After just two years, the LZ-127 was launched – the largest dirigible ever constructed. In 1928, Countess Helga von Brandenstein-Zeppelin, daughter of the famous Count, smashed champagne on her nose, christening it the Graf Zeppelin in honor of her father.

Everything about the Graf was bigger.  It measured 775 feet long, over two city blocks long, and 10 stories high.  The German public loved the silver giant. No one would fail to recognize the huge dirigible, with its large red letters “Graf Zeppelin” on the nose.  The Graf was not only an airship, but also a graceful masterpiece of construction.

The Graf Zeppelin’s support girders were made of a light aluminum alloy called duralumin, strong as steel, yet only one-third as heavy. The Graf had 33 tons of it.  There were 17 gas cells held in place by a spider’s web of rings and girders. The cotton gas cells were lined with oxen intestines to hold the air – 50,000 of them to line just one.

Hydrogen provided buoyancy, while propulsion was supplied by five Maybach propeller engines, mounted in their own gondolas, big enough for a man to crawl inside for in-flight maintenance.  A 98-foot-long gondola was mounted underneath.  It housed the control room, chart room, radio room, galley, dining room, and 10 sleeping cabins. The Graf’s keel, inside the envelope, housed the crew bunkhouse, mess, and cargo hold. Its cotton skin was protected by 6 layers of silver paint to reflect the sun’s rays.

The Graf Zeppelin made its first passenger flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928.

It departed from Friedrichshafen, Germany to land at a US naval base in Lakehurst, NJ.  The flight, carrying 40 crew and 20 passengers, almost ended in disaster when it encountered a strong squall over the Atlantic Ocean.  Black cumulus storm clouds caused the Graf’s nose to rise upward suddenly. Furniture was knocked over and people slid across the floors. Terrified passengers, eating breakfast at the time, fell on each other in an avalanche of food and crashing plates.

Eckener managed to regain control, but the Graf had sustained serious damage. Wind turbulence had shredded the port stabilizing fin.  Ripped pieces fluttered outward like streamers, threatening to jam the rudders.  Eckener reluctantly sent out a distress call, knowing he risked his ship’s and company’s reputation.

He slowed the Graf to half-speed, and called for volunteers to repair the damage.  It would be dangerous as they’d have to crawl outside the protective skin onto the naked girders of the stabilizer, exposed to high Atlantic winds.  Four crew members — including Eckener’s son Knut — went out and successfully repaired the damage.

Once in the US, Eckener showed-off the Graf Zeppelin by flying low over the skylines of Washington, Philadelphia, and New York City, before bring his damaged ship to a safe landing at Lakehurst, NJ.  Its return flight to Germany took just 3 days.  The best steam ships of the day took twice as long to cross the Atlantic.

To keep his airship in the public eye, Eckener undertook a series of demo flights around Europe and the Mediterranean. Word spread that a voyage on the Graf was a marvelous experience, with breathtaking scenery and first-class service. But to Eckener, the Graf Zeppelin was just a demo trial. The public loved the Graf, but the jury was still out on the future of airship travel.

So Eckener decided he would take Graf Zeppelin on an around-the-world flight.

This was something no aircraft had ever attempted.   Such a big dream would require big money.  American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst offered to bankroll the project with $100,000. Hearst insisted only on exclusive story rights, and that the journey begin and end in the US.  Additional revenue came from the sale of thousands of commemorative postage stamps in Germany.

The flight would carry 60 men and only one woman, Hearst newspaper reporter Lady Grace Drummond-Hay, whose reporting only increased the public’s interest.  Other passengers included military officers, politicians, millionaires and journalists from around the world. Passengers paid $9,000 (quite a hefty fee in 1929) for a ticket on such a historic flight, and competition was fierce

The flight began on August 8, 1929 with an Atlantic crossing first from the US to Germany.  Then in tiny villages around the world, an unfamiliar rumbling filled the air above. Villagers looked up and saw a great silver behemoth floating in the sky. The beast moved against the wind, big as a hillside, its shadow capable of eclipsing an entire village.  Panic gripped some, with peasants rushing into homes and barring doors.

Up in the silver colossus, reporters radioed stories and first class passengers played card games. A phonograph in the dining room allowed guests to dance the Charleston. Passengers would gather at the elegant lounge/dining room to feast on fine food and wines, all served on Bavarian china with the Zeppelin logo.  All smoking was strictly verboten of course on a ship filled with flammable hydrogen.

For the next few days, the Graf traveled across lower Siberia, floating over an eternity of barren taiga forests stretching for thousands of miles.  This far north, the sun barely disappeared at night, leaving a pink dawn-like horizon. It was cold as well. Passengers looked like skiers, bundled up in coats and sweaters.

The ship landed in Tokyo to a massive welcome and Japanese press coverage.  A crowd of 250,000 greeted the ship, even in the heat of an August summer.  Emperor Hirohito entertained Captain Eckener and guests at tea.  The Pacific crossing was largely uneventful. Light clouds wisped past as the Graf raced along at 70 mph.  With a view of either clouds or ocean, passengers lapsed into monotony and boredom.

The airship’s arrival in San Francisco was nothing short of spectacular. Emerging from a cloud bank, the late afternoon sunlight glinted off her silver sides.  Eckener made sure the airship made quite an impression for the press.  The Graf didn’t need to worry about the Golden Gate Bridge, because it had not been built yet.

When the dirigible finally arrived in Los Angeles, it had logged a trans-Pacific flight time of 79 hours. The route next took the Graf across the hot summer deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, then northeast to Chicago. When the Graf reached New York City, it floated over Manhattan to the delight of millions.  It ended its record breaking flight in Lakehurst, NJ on August 29 1929.  The round the world voyage had taken 3 weeks and just 12 days of actual flying time.

Captain Eckener was given a ticker-tape parade on Broadway that rivaled Charles Lindbergh’s two years earlier.

Graf Zeppelin Captain Hugo Eckener
Graf Zeppelin Captain Hugo Eckener

President Herbert Hoover praised the globe-trotting argonaut, comparing him to Christopher Columbus. The trip brought worldwide fame to both the Graf Zeppelin and Hugo Eckener.  So what next?  In the summer of 1931,  the Graf Zeppelin carried a team of international scientists on an Arctic exploration, measuring the weather and the earth’s magnetic field.  Its size and stability allowed heavy scientific instruments to be used with an accuracy not possible in the small airplanes of the day.

By 1933, Eckener was asked to fly the Graf over the Chicago World’s Fair.  He agreed only if the US Post Office issued a special stamp commemorating the event.  President Franklin Roosevelt was opposed to the idea, but reluctantly agreed. The Graf Zeppelin’s appearance was one of the highlights of the Fair, however, the now swastika-emblazoned ship lowered the enthusiasm of its earlier visit.

Like the Hindenberg later, the Graf Zeppelin was used as a floating Nazi propaganda tool.  The Graf flew to Rome with Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’ for a meeting with Benito Mussolini and Italy’s fascist government. It flew over the 1933 Nuremberg Rally to herald Adolf Hitler’s appearance before the fanatical crowd.

After capturing the world’s enthusiasm, the Graf Zeppelin began regularly service between Germany and South America.  The country had strong business ties with Brazil and Argentina.  By 1934, the Zeppelin Company advertised a regular service to South America, departing Germany every two weeks. The Graf would safely cross the South Atlantic an amazing 136 times.

Graf Zeppelin was on the last day of a South American flight from Brazil to Germany in 1937 when it received news of the Hindenburg disaster.  On its first trip that year to the US, just as the Hindenburg was mooring in Lakehurst, NJ, it shockingly burst into flames and collapsed on fire to the ground, killing 36.  The Graf’s captain did not tell his passengers in flight, waiting until his ship landed safely in Germany.

The Graf Zeppelin never carried passengers again.

The ship made one last domestic flight in June 1937 to Frankfurt.  There she was prematurely retired, her hydrogen removed, and she sat there on sad display.  The Hitler and Nazis were now in power and Luftwaffe chief, Herman Goring, hated airships, even before the Hindenburg disaster.  Two years later, World War II began.  In 1940, on Goring’s orders, the record setting Graf Zeppelin and the Graf Zeppelin II (the Hindenburg’s never flown sister ship) was dismantled and its metal skeleton used to build radar towers.

The Graf was the first aircraft to fly more than 1 million miles; the official total being 1,060,000. A frequent visitor to both North and South America, the Graf Zeppelin safely crossed the Atlantic 144 times and carried some 13,000 passengers in its long career. Hugo Eckener was not a Nazi, and was replaced in the Zeppelin company with Hitler flunkies. After the war, he started and wrote for a newspaper.

Today when we think of airships, only the quaint, much smaller Blimps come to mind.  They float harmlessly over the countryside and sports stadiums, emblazoned  with corporate ads, like Goodyear and MetLife. Or perhaps they appear wistfully in some steampunk reimaging of the future.  The Graf Zeppelin is just a fleeting memory, forever overshadowed by the terrible Hindenburg tragedy.  But in its day, during the Roaring Twenties, the Graf was the successful symbol of the world’s brief, bygone Airship Era.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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