- Jonathan Glancey
- BBC Culture
There was a time when zeppelins seemed destined to become the preferred mode of transportation for intercontinental travel.
And among the devices of this type that took to the skies in the first half of the 20th century, the most iconic was the LZ 129 Hindenburg.
This Friday 80 years have passed since the first flight of what was the most impressive of the zeppelins prior to World War II.
The colossal German apparatus was barely a year old, as it caught fire on May 6, 1937, while attempting to land at Lakehurst, NJ, after having successfully crossed the Atlantic.
Of the 97 people on board, 35 died.
The sudden and dramatic end of the Hindenburg was, perhaps, the aerial equivalent of the sinking of the Titanic and it did away with the expectations of those who hoped that zeppelins would be an alternative to airplanes.
Surprisingly, passengers continued to book tickets for transatlantic flights aboard the Hindenburg’s older brother, the Graf Zeppelin, named after its inventor.
However, the German government scrapped the Graf Zeppelin and had the ambitious Hindenburg II scrapped in 1940.
The Lakehust tragedy had to do with the US government’s refusal to supply non-flammable helium to foreign countries, including Germany.
Instead of this gas, the Hindenburg used highly incendiary hydrogen, which sentenced several of its unfortunate passengers and crew to death in 1937.
The images were broadcast on newscasts around the world And seeing them today is just as scary as it was then.
Helium was and still is the ideal gas for airships, both for rigid ones with an internal skeleton such as the Graf Zeppelin, as well as for the deflators that were used for antiaircraft defense during World War II or those that are used today for advertising.
But the Germans had no choice but to fill the gelatin-coated cotton cells of the airships with hydrogen.
If the Hindenburg had flown with helium, perhaps today we would travel around the world in serene and elegant aircraft similar to those zeppelins.
Like an air ship
Despite the ill-fated Hindenburg, it is not difficult to understand the attraction generated by the legendary airships.
These elongated, silver, shiny machines were a masterpiece of design.
They seemed to cross the air effortlessly.
They could go around the world, as the Graf Zeppelin did that summer of 1929, in 21 days.
It also offered the passenger a space that left the most modern of aircraft small.
At its launch in 1930, the creators of the device boasted of its luxurious common rooms, the comfort of private cabins and the interior rides of its aerodynamic hull.
The Hindenburg had, in addition to 25 double-berth cabins, a restaurant, a lounge, a cocktail bar, and, perhaps most surprisingly, a smoking room.
The latter was sealed and pressurized for safety reasons.
Furniture and fixtures were the lightest possible: tubular aluminum dining chairs, white plastic sinks, fabric-covered foam walls.
The overall aesthetic was a fun take on Bauhaus design, according to which “form follows function.”
It was conceived by the flamboyant architect Fritz August Breuhaus de Groot, known for having designed the interiors of several ocean liners and the homes of German movie stars.
The walls were covered in painted silk, depicting the great journeys of history, the adventures of the Graf Zeppelin, or the whimsical accommodation of an exotic vacation.
It was not for nothing that the Hindenburg was called “the hotel in heaven.”
Cutting edge design
From a technical point of view, the Hindenburg also had an advanced design.
Its lightweight duralumin ring and strut structure was coated in a protective bright blue paint.
Its cotton surface was impregnated with aluminum powder, to repel ultraviolet rays. It was what made the device shine.
In addition, it was equipped with an early version of the autopilot.
And it could carry heavy cargo, from mail and luggage, to passenger vehicles.
Its four 16-cylinder diesel engines were an adaptation of the latest generation torpedo boats.
And four employees were in charge of taking care of them, one per engine.
Their work included walking outside the hull, on small aluminum walkways in the open, with a deafening noise, far from the sight of those who were drinking cocktails in the well-stocked bar.
The Hindenburg, like all airships except the first of all, was designed by Ludwing Durr.
He joined Count Ferdinand Zeppelin in 1900 to assist him in the development and construction of the LZ-1, the Luftschiff Zeppelin 1.
The aircraft made its maiden flight in Friedrichshafen, on the shores of Lake Constance, in southern Germany, in July of that year.
Despite the initial accidents, the revolutionary zeppelins soon became attractive and reliable machines.
In 1909, Zeppelin even founded the world’s first airline.
Later, during World War I, the zeppelin was placed in the service of the Imperial German Navy and Navy.
It would soon become the most feared apparatus, as it rained bombs on cities from St. Petersburg to London.
The development of explosive bullets, however, led to the destruction of most of the devices that Winston Churchill called “huge bladders of explosive fuel and gas.”
Of the 84 zeppelins built during the war, 60 were lost in accidents or by enemy attacks.
I try on the islands
In the interwar period, Britain tried to develop its own “zeppelins”.
With the patronage of the Ministry of Aviation, two huge rigid airships were built: the R100 and the R101.
The second crashed in France in October 1930, on its maiden flight.
48 of the 50 people on board were killed in the accident, including the team that designed it and Lord Thompson, the Minister of Air responsible for the project.
And the R100 broke down shortly after.
So Germany reigned in the sky again, although now with the support of the Nazi government and with swastika on the tails of their zeppelins.
But then the Hindenburg burned and with the end of World War II, in 1945, the Zeppelin company closed its doors.
And yet the legend and the spell of the zeppelin are still alive.
When guitarist Jimmy Page announced the formation of a new band in 1968, The Who drummer Keith Moon said it would sink like a “lead zeppelin.”
Without the letter “a”, so that no one would mispronounce the name, Led Zeppelin burst onto the rock scene with a successful first album.
Its cover featured the Hindenburg on fire.
Led Zeppelin flew high in the sky.
However, despite a few unfulfilled promises, including those of the Aeroscraft and that of the reformed Zeppelin company, the rigid airship has not reappeared on the scene.
And oddly enough, many of us hope that it does.