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Racing with the Moon


In his time, the name of Dr. Hugo Eckener was as well known in the history of aviation as that of Charles Lindbergh. If this is no longer true, it is because the instrument of his fame, the Zeppelin, has disappeared from the skies and from the commercial and military airfleets of the world, and its accomplishments have faded from memory. Douglas Botting’s fascinating and meticulously researched book explains why this happened, while at the same time giving his readers a detailed account of Eckener’s greatest feat, the first circumnavigation of the globe by an airship carrying passengers.*

The Zeppelin was the invention of Ferdinand Count von Zeppelin, an officer in the Prussian army who had become fascinated with the possibility of creating a balloon that was truly “dirigible”—i.e., capable of controlled flight. His ruminations led him to the invention of Germany’s first rigid airship—so called because it had a balloonlike, cigar-shaped hull of metal, composed of vertical rings held together by longitudinal girders, which held its shape regardless of the changing pressure of the gas held in small cells between the rings, and was fitted in addition with a propulsion system, a steering mechanism, and accommodation for cargo, crew, and passengers.

The construction of Zeppelin’s first airship began in 1898. When finished, it was 420 feet long and 38 feet in diameter, colossal in comparison with any flying machine that had preceded it. (“It should have a very large lifting capacity,” Zeppelin had written to his friend the King of Württemberg, “in order to carry personnel, cargo or explosive shells. All three requirements demand a very large gas volume, hence a very large airship.”) Its performance on its first flight, over the Bodensee on July 2, 1900, was not as impressive as its size, for in a flight that lasted only eighteen minutes it covered no more than three and a half miles.

Undiscouraged, Zeppelin ordered a second flight on October 7, 1900. This lasted eighty minutes but is perhaps more memorable because it marked the beginning of the long association between Zeppelin and Hugo Eckener. A thirty-two-year-old economist and sometime correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, Eckener had been commissioned by that paper to write a report on the second flight, and he did so, finding more to criticize than to praise. Zeppelin replied by inviting him to dinner and spent the evening describing his hopes of building a national air service in Germany and complaining about the lack of public interest and the active opposition he was encountering in official circles. Eckener was moved by his passion and dedication and before the evening was over had promised to help publicize his cause. Although he could not have imagined it at the time, the rest of his life would be determined by that undertaking, first as a publicist, later as a pilot, trained by his new associate and soon recognized as a master in handling airships. Later still, after the founding by Zeppelin and an associate named Alfred Colsman of the German Airship Transportation Company (DELAG) in 1909, he became the company’s flight director, charged with “demonstrating the usefulness and safety of zeppelin airships, flying them himself, training others to fly them, organizing flight operations, and supervising construction.”

The company had a disastrous start, virtually every one of its new ships coming to grief in one way or another; but after 1911, when Eckener put increasing emphasis on crew training and organized the company’s own weather-forecasting service, these difficulties were overcome. Botting points out that from 1911 to 1914, DELAG’s airships between German cities made over 2,000 flights and flew over 100,000 miles, carrying 34,028 passengers—10,197 of them fare-paying—in complete safety.

It is not surprising, therefore, that when Germany went to war in 1914, much was expected from the Zeppelin. On the whole, these hopes were disappointed. The first German raids on London had pronounced psychological effects, but bombing techniques were clumsy and ineffective, and the most that can be said of this first Battle of Britain, launched in January 1915, is that it managed to keep about 17,000 British officers and men who would have been more usefully employed in France tied up in antiaircraft defense. By 1916, moreover, the effectiveness of the Zeppelin had been seriously reduced by the British development of two new weapons, the high-altitude airplane and the incendiary bullet.

Attempts were made to counter the effects of the first of these by increasing the flying altitude of the Zeppelins, but it soon became clear that this could be done only by making them drastically lighter and forcing other changes that offset any advantage that was gained. This was shown on August 5, 1918, when five Zeppelins attacked London and were repulsed by British fighter planes in a battle in which Peter Strasser, the commander of the German naval air service, was killed. By the end of the war, the German navy had lost fifty-three of its seventy-three airships and 40 percent of their crews, while inflicting losses on Great Britain of only 557 dead, 1,358 wounded, and £1.5 million in property damage.

This confirmed Eckener’s feeling that the Zeppelin was not suitable for combat and that he should exploit its other possibilities, such as its use for long-range scouting. This view was supported by the performance records set during the war, which included Ernst Lehmann’s endurance record of 101 hours over the Baltic in July 1917, Hans Hemming’s height record of 24,000 feet over the Western front in October 1917, and Ludwig Bockholt’s marathon flight from Jamboli, Hungary, to Khartoum and back in November 1917.


In an interview in February 1915, Count Zeppelin said:

I still have one great ambition. I would wish that a Zeppelin be the first vehicle to link Europe and America by air. I would like to live long enough to pilot one of my cruisers over the ocean to America, where many years ago I made my first balloon ascent.

The count was unable to fulfill this dream, for he died in 1917, but it became part of his legacy to his friend and collaborator. Eckener, who during the war had served as director of airship training for the Imperial German Navy, revived the old DELAG intercity service as soon as he was demobilized and built two new airships, which were, however, confiscated by the Allies as reparation for ships destroyed by the Germans in 1918 to prevent their surrender. Determined to keep the Zeppelin idea alive in Germany at any cost, Eckener then contracted with the Americans for the construction and delivery, again as part of the reparations settlement, of a training ship for the US Navy. This was the LZ-126, later baptized Los Angeles, and it proved to be the largest and fastest Zeppelin yet built. Although Eckener worried about delivering the airship safely, his flight in October 1924 from Friedrichshafen to Lakehurst, New Jersey, with a crew of twenty-seven and four American observers was a triumphant demonstration of his gifts as a navigator and a reader of weather. More important, it convinced him, as Botting writes, that only the big rigid airship

was capable of transporting an economically viable load of passengers, air mail, and cargo between continents in comfort and at a speed vastly greater than that of the ocean liner, the only other form of intercontinental travel.

He believed that the potential demand for an intercontinental airship service was tremendous and was resolved to meet it.

Eckener spent the next four years therefore criss-crossing the country, giving illustrated lectures, appealing for funds, and designing and building the ship that would fulfill his dream. On July 8, 1928, on the anniversary of Count Zeppelin’s birth, it was christened Graf Zeppelin by his daughter, and by mid-October, when the trial flights had been completed, it was ready to prove itself. It did so with the Atlantic crossing of October 1928, when it carried forty crew members, 66,000 pieces of airmail, and twenty passengers from Friedrichshafen to Lakehurst in 111 hours and forty-four minutes, covering 6,168 miles. A longer flight circled the globe in August 1929, carrying

sixty men and one woman, and, for part of the way, a cat, across two oceans and and three continents,…in the record flying time of twelve days, twelve hours, eight minutes, in a total elapsed time (also a record) of twenty-one days, five hours, and thirty-five minutes.

Botting’s lively account of these flights shows how often the skill and training of Eckener and his associates might have been unavailing had they not been blessed with good fortune and the gift of improvisation. Eckener wrote later, of a violent encounter with a cold front early in the Atlantic crossing, “Amidst the noise, which was increased by the crash of thunder, it was impossible to tell if the hull structure was breaking up. Mutely we looked enquiringly at each other, wondering what was coming next.” Whatever it was they managed to cope with it, although at times it was a very near thing. Eckener was also fortunate in his passengers, for they all seemed to be imbued with a sense of adventure that made them immune to danger and occasional discomfort. This was particularly true of Lady Grace Hay-Drummond-Hay, the correspondent for the Hearst Press and the only woman on board. Her employers described her to their readers as a “remarkable British noblewoman and famous journalist, world-renowned for her beauty, wit and piquant viewpoint.” From the examples of her prose provided by Mr. Botting, one might conclude that Lady Hay was also a bit of a bore and, once she had acquired star quality, rather jealous of Eckener; but there is no doubt that she did something to advance the cause of the Zeppelin.

That cause was, however, beginning to become more doubtful. Airplanes were increasing their range and becoming bigger and faster, and in the summer of 1928, two new luxury ocean liners, the Bremen and the Europa, entered the Atlantic service, crossing in as little as four and a half days, roughly as fast as the Graf Zeppelin‘s flight to America. Doubts about the future of Zeppelins began to be expressed by competent critics. After he had gone on board the Graf Zeppelin, Charles Lindbergh said:

The ship seemed wonderfully designed and built, with comfortable cabins and a sumptuous saloon. But only forty passengers for such an enormous aircraft? I can see no future for the airship. It is too slow, it has only half the speed of an airplane. Between the steamer and the airplane there is no niche for the rigid airship.

In 1930 there were only four rigid airships in the world: the Graf Zeppelin and the Los Angeles, both built in Germany, and R-100 and R-101, British rigids, built for service between Great Britain and the Empire. The last of these, on its maiden flight to India on October 5, 1930, crashed into a hill in northern France, and the resultant hydrogen fire killed forty-eight of the fifty-four passengers, including Lord Thomson, the air minister, and most of the leading lights in the British airship service. This tragedy put an end to any enthusiasm for building new ships in Britain, and the same was soon true of the United States, where, in the next five years, its two new navy airships, the Akron and the Macon, were destroyed in crashes that seemed to add weight to the growing impression that airships were unsafe.

Only Hugo Eckener remained true to the dream, and in 1930, as the Graf Zeppelin was completing its first series of successful flights to South America, he became involved in the construction of the biggest and most magnificent Zeppelin ever built. This was the Hindenburg, which made the first ever commercial passenger airline flight to the United States in May 1936, with Lady Hay on board. It was a misleading triumph. A year later, in a tragedy that shocked the world, this splendid ship was completely destroyed while docking at Lakehurst after an untroubled ocean crossing. The cause of this is even now by no means clear, although the extent of the destruction was increased by the fact that the Hindenburg‘s gas cells were filled with hydrogen instead of helium. The degree to which the American refusal to give helium to Germany was influenced by the belligerent foreign policy of Germany’s Nazi government is also a moot question. But there were no further Zeppelin passenger flights, and when Germany went to war in 1939 the old Graf Zeppelin and a new one that Eckener hoped would be the Hindenburg‘s successor were broken up on the orders of Hermann Goering, who claimed that their aluminum was needed for the manufacture of military aircraft.

Douglas Botting concludes his fascinating story with much optimism:

It is unlikely that rigids will ever be major passenger carriers—they would be no cheaper than a jumbo jet, and five times slower. But as long-distance cargo carriers, especially of bulky, prefabricated loads, they would seem to have very good prospects. How else could you deliver, say, a bridge, or a boiler, or an oil derrick, or a generator, straight from a factory to a work site thousands of miles away, nonstop, in the shortest possible time? Planes and helicopters couldn’t do it, because the bigger you build them, the heavier they become and the less load they can carry. The opposite is true of airships. The bigger they are, the more efficient they become.

Airships have other advantages. They don’t pollute the atmosphere as much as do airplanes. They are not such a noise nuisance. They use only a fraction of the fuel of a plane, because they don’t need power to keep themselves up. They are less liable to have midair collisions. They are not bound to crash if an engine fails, but can hold off, stop in midair, or fly backward out of danger. And when the day comes that there is no more petrol left in the world, they can go nuclear and keep flying.

He writes with some excitement that a German company is building a new dream machine, the CargoLifter, that will be able to transport heavy machinery and other heavy loads from “Chicago to Patagonia.” There seems something about Zeppelins that produces such fantasies, and—who knows?—they may one day become true.

  1. *

    In contrast, Guillaume de Syon’s Zeppelin! Germany and the Airship, 1900–1939 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), a fascinating case study of the intersection of technology and culture, concentrates on the question of why the Zeppelin exercised such a powerful influence on the popular imagination. Syon uses interesting contemporary photographs and cartoons to support his arguments.

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