October 17, 2012

The Rise And Fall Of The Golden Age Of The Airship (Part 3)

The interim war period saw the renewal of civilian interests in commercial air travel. Although both Great Britain and the United States had airship development programs, Germany alone maintained an intensive interest in LTA transportation for the entire inter-war era. Germany emerged in the twenties with a domestic passenger transport system by dirigible that had operated successfully without accidents since 1909, and with the technology to expand that system both at home and abroad. In the fall of 1928, the 775-foot- long Graf Zeppelin successfully completed the first trans-Atlantic flight with twenty passengers. This event served as the birth of the intercontinental air travel industry. The next year witnessed the first round- the-world flight, and in 1931 a spectacular Arctic rendezvous with an icebreaker. Meanwhile, the Graf continued its regular schedule of Mediterranean and transatlantic flights without a single incident. The irreproachable safety record of the German airships coupled with the intense interest of the public encouraged the Germans to expand their services. England attempted to break into the air-travel market utilizing both public and private funds to create a fleet of airships. The grand scheme envisioned worldwide airship routes covering the entire British Empire. However, they encountered numerous setbacks with construction and only completed two craft before scrapping the program following the disastrous crash of one of the zeppelins. America, rather than create its own airships, utilized German reparation monies to finance the contract construction of the state of the art LZ-126 built by German Zeppelin Works in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Upon receipt of the ship it was renamed the USS Los Angeles (ZR-3) and the US used it as a model for the construction of their own fleet of airships. Unlike the British who attempted to create their own passenger airlines based on LTA airships, the US focused primarily on military airships. Despite the immaculate safety record of German zeppelins, both the US and Great Britain had great difficulties with their home built versions. The Anglo/American craft nearly all crashed with great loss of life. Both the USS Akron (ZRS-4) and USS Macon (ZRS-5) were built by the American construction companies and were plagued by problems ultimately resulting in deadly disasters. Among the issues at hand seems to be the inexperience of their crews and an inability of the domestically built craft to handle inclement weather conditions. The American crew of the USS Los Angeles crashed the German built ship within hours of taking possession from the German crew who had flow it across the Atlantic without any problems. The American’s were able to make a key improvement on the German design by utilizing inert helium gas rather than the highly combustible hydrogen. The major flaw of this innovation hinged on the scarcity of helium. The US bought up the entire world’s supply of the gas in order to fill a single zeppelin.

The stage seemed set for a future of airship travel. The world was enthusiastic about the prospect and in the US the Empire State building was completed with a docking station in expectation of the future of inter-continental travel. The 803-foot Hindenberg could carry fifty-two passengers at eighty-five miles per hour, three times as fast as the swiftest passenger steamship. So successful was she that her passenger capacity was raised to seventy for the 1937 season, a sister ship was constructed, and a third, even larger dirigible planned. But on her first voyage in 1937 the Hindenberg exploded at the mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Of the ninety-seven people aboard, thirty-six died: including thirteen passengers, twenty two air-crewmen, and one American ground-crewman. The Graf Zeppelin was over the Atlantic at the time and on her arrival in Germany, she was stored in her hangar and never flew again. The Hindenberg’s sister ship was completed and named Graf Zeppelin II in 1938, but she was never allowed to make a commercial flight, Both Grafs were dismantled in 1940. The age of the commercial passenger airships abruptly ended. Only Russia continued some form of commercial flights domestically for a few years following the Hindenberg disaster. Germany had already abandoned military LTA airships choosing instead to focus on airplanes. The US continued to utilize military LTAs as scout craft, for anti-submarine warfare, and mine sweeping throughout the Second World War. The War Department developed a clear military doctrine for the use of LTAs as naval convoy escorts. By the end of the war the airship’s age had ended.

Given the flawless track record of the German Zeppelin line of passenger airships and their impeccable safety record it is difficult to understand how and why they died such an instantaneous death at the height of their success and popularity. The rest of the world may have had problems with these issues, but the German’s were the undisputed kings of air travel. Their product was faster, safer, and more luxurious than any competitor, rivaling the great ocean liners of their day. Yet somehow they disappeared overnight as a means of travel. Many scholars have attempted to address the demise of the airship. Little consensus has been reached on the matter. Theories range from technology based arguments to conspiracy theories involving oil and gas corporations. The latter can be ignored due to lack of hard evidence. We will now examine some of these theories in an attempt to better understand the sudden collapse of the aerostat airship.

Image Credit: George Bailey / Shutterstock

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