In this edition of DESIGN ICONS, Andrew Ayers looks at the ill-fated sleek, silver Hindenburg zeppelin, and why its last voyage shattered the dream of passenger airship travel
Hindernburg was not only the first airliner to establish a regular service between Europe and the US, but quite simply the largest object ever to fly. At 245m long, 41.2m diameter and with a hydrogen capacity of 200,000 cubic metres, this was an aircraft the size of the Titanic that floated at low altitude beneath the clouds.
No one who ever saw it forgot it: a sleek silver dream, propelled at 135km/h by four Daimler-Benz 16-cylinder diesel engines, the Luftschi Zeppelin-129 Hindenburg linked Frankfurt and New Jersey in an average of 60 hours. Indeed her fastest Atlantic crossing — on 10 August 1936, five months after her maiden flight — was just 43 hours and 2 minutes, less than half the time recorded by the Queen Mary on her Blue Riband- winning 96-hour-and-27-minute voyage ten days later.
But after barely 14 months’ service, on 6 May 1937, disaster struck the mighty Hindenburg: landing at Lakehurst, she caught fire, combusted and crashed in the space of just 34 seconds, killing 36 people and with them the entire dream of dirigible passenger flight.
Perhaps the most successful passenger dirigible ever
Unlike today’s Goodyear blimps, which rely on gas pressure to maintain their form, German zeppelins were rigid craft comprising a fabric-covered frame containing gas bags. One invention that considerably boosted their development was duralumin, an aluminium alloy patented in Germany in 1909 that turned a soft, lightweight metal into an equally light but strong one.
A pioneer of rigid dirigibles, Count (Graf) Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838–1917), founder of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH, principally intended them for military use — and indeed the Kaiser’s airships carried out many bombing raids over Britain in the First World War. But, in a demilitarised post-war Germany, the Zeppelin company turned to passenger traffic and, in 1928, launched perhaps the most successful passenger dirigible ever: LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin. The first ever aircraft to make a round-the-world tour, in 1929, Graf Zeppelin would fly more than a million miles, and transport over 34,000 people in nine years’ service.
The successor to LZ-127, Hindenburg was intended to surpass it in every way. Firstly in size — a decision taken after the 1930 British R101 airship disaster. Instead of R101’s highly inflammable hydrogen, LZ-129 would be filled with helium, non-flammable but less buoyant, and therefore requiring greater gas volume to maintain lift. But in the event the necessary helium was unavailable — a rare terrestrial element, it was mostly found in the US, which embargoed export from 1927 onwards — and the fateful decision was made to oat LZ-129 with hydrogen (in a horrible irony, duralumin from the wreck of R101 was purchased for Hindenburg’s construction).
Aluminium-tube chairs so light they could be lifted with two fingers
To improve aerodynamic performance, LZ-129’s passenger decks were built inside her rigid frame — unlike LZ-127’s which hung below in a gondola — and in place of the orals and ounces of Graf Zeppelin’s unheated accommodation, Hindenburg’s interiors, designed by Fritz August Breuhaus, were uncompromisingly modernist: stripped and streamlined they included forced-air heating recycled from the engines, aluminium-tube chairs so light they could be lifted with two fingers, and even a Blüthner baby-grand piano entirely in duralumin.
Another, rather surprising, innovation was the smoking room: pressurised to prevent hydrogen ingress, it had one single cigarette lighter chained to the wall. Inevitably, the construction of a prestige giant such as Hindenburg became a matter of national and political importance. Hitler reputedly hated airships, but Goebbels immediately saw their propaganda value.
Struggling financially, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin had no choice but to accept Nazi cash to get Hindenburg o the ground; both Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin sported swastikas on their tail ns, and Hindenburg made propaganda appearances at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and Nuremberg Rally. Following the 1937 disaster, however, Germany’s Zeppelins became an overnight embarrassment: LZ-127 was immediately retired, and both it and the Hindenburg’s new sister ship — LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin II (1938), which never saw passenger service — were scrapped on Goering’s orders in 1940.
The short-lived age of transatlantic aerostat travel was definitely over.
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