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Those Magnificent Airships

A Brief History of Zeppelins

Zeppelins occupied a brief but colorful period in aviation history. Originally developed by (and named after) their creator, Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, these remarkable behemoths of the sky awed millions of spectators across the globe. Zeppelins inspired an entire generation of pioneering inventors during what became a golden age of aeronautical innovation.

Owing to their heavy load-carrying capacity, early 20th century militarists naturally regarded zeppelins as better suited to warfare than transportation. They were employed with some success as bombers in the First World War and played a well-publicized role in the 1916 London blitz. However, a number of wartime zeppelins were shot down and the end results did not justify the expense of building and maintaining them.

Although touted by peacetime proponents as "the safest way to travel," early zeppelins remained inherently dangerous because of the flammable hydrogen gas bags contained within. Once the gas had ignited, there was no way to stop it and destruction was assured. Later zeppelins used non-flammable helium gas (which the U.S. monopolized in the era between world wars), which improved the odds of a safe voyage. However, the zeppelin's inability to withstand wind shear made it susceptible to structural failure. The helium-filled U.S. Navy airship Akron suffered this fate when it crashed in 1933.

Although the vision of lighter-than-air travel had existed for centuries, the seemingly-simple problem of creating a feasible, reliable airship was not solved during their heyday, even after many attempts.

Hot-air balloon designed by the Montgolfier brothers

The 57-foot-hight hot-air balloon designed by the Montgolfier brothers, and flown by Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier (1754-1785), French chemistry and physics teacher and aviation pioneer; and Marquis Francois Laurent d'Arlandes (1742-1809), French soldier and aviation pioneer; in the first manned flight, both men rose in the balloon over Paris, France on November 21, 1783, to a height of 280 feet before the balloon started to catch fire and rapidly descend (the balloonists were heaping dampened straw onto the fire of a small iron furnace installed in the balloon to maintain the balloon's inflation of hot air); the balloon nevertheless landed safely and both balloonists were unharmed; aircraft.

A dirigible balloon

A "dirigible balloon" invented by Russell Thayer, is shown dropping a dynamite bomb in a 1885 demonstration for the U.S. Army Ordnance Board, which approved of the apparatus but did not provide a delivery order; balloons.

Search lights over London, 1915

Search lights scouring the dark skies over London, England, in search of German Zeppelins, 1915; the Zeppelins made their first bombing raid on London on May 31, 1915, killing seven persons and injuring thirty-five others; Wilhelm II, the German Kaiser, permitted this and other Zeppelin raids only because French fliers had bombed German towns; the most successful raid against London occurred on September 8, 1915, causing a half million pounds of damage, most of this achieved by one Zeppelin, L13, which flew high and directly over central London before dropping its bombs, causing more than half the material damage created by all the German Zeppelin raids against Britain in 1915.

Policeman on a bicycle city in 1915

A policeman on a bicycle rides through a street in London, England, wearing a placard alerting citizens to take cover as German Zeppelins approach to bomb the city in 1915; the Zeppelins made their first bombing raid on London on May 31, 1915, killing seven persons and injuring thirty-five others; Wilhelm II, the German Kaiser, permitted this and other Zeppelin raids only because French fliers had bombed German towns; the most successful raid against London occurred on September 8, 1915, causing a half million pounds of damage, most of this achieved by one Zeppelin, L13, which flew high and directly over central London before dropping its bombs, causing more than half the material damage created by all the German Zeppelin raids against Britain in 1915.

Damage to Sphinx at Cleopatra's Needle 1915

Damage done to the Sphinx at Cleopatra's Needle, London, England, 1915, as a result of bombings by German Zeppelins; the Zeppelins made their first bombing raid on London on May 31, 1915, killing seven persons and injuring thirty-five others; Wilhelm II, the German Kaiser, permitted this and other Zeppelin raids only because French fliers had bombed German towns; the most successful raid against London occurred on September 8, 1915, causing a half million pounds of damage, most of this achieved by one Zeppelin, L13, which flew high and directly over central London before dropping its bombs, causing more than half the material damage created by all the German Zeppelin raids against Britain in 1915.

Remains of the German Zeppelin L-15

Remains of the German Zeppelin L-15, shot down off the coast of Kent on April 5, 1916; the Zeppelins made their first bombing raid on London on May 31, 1915, killing seven persons and injuring thirty-five others; Wilhelm II, the German Kaiser, permitted this and other Zeppelin raids only because French fliers had bombed German towns; the most successful raid against London occurred on September 8, 1915, causing a half million pounds of damage, most of this achieved by one Zeppelin, L13, which flew high and directly over central London before dropping its bombs, causing more than half the material damage created by all the German Zeppelin raids against Britain in 1915.

Apprehensive Parisians in 1918

Apprehensive Parisians in 1918 look to the skies for the appearance of either German long-range bomber planes or Zeppelins, which occasionally bombarded the Paris, France during World War I.

Wrecked zeppelin 1916

The wrecked gondola and skeletal remains of a zeppelin shot down by French gunners, 1916.

The Norge

A 1926 image of the derigible The Norge as it touches down with the help of many technicians:

The Graf Zeppelin

Advertisement by N.W. Ayer & Son for its advertising agency. The ad features The Graf Zeppelin which was used commercially from 1928-1937, and named after the German manufacturer Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin (1838-1917). The ad associates the high soaring dirigible with the bright horizons offered by their agency; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; services.

Graf Zeppelin

A worker on the Graf Zeppelin repairs a damaged oil-tank off the coast of the Madeira Islands. Named after the German manufacturer Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin (1838-1917), the Graf Zeppelin was used commercially from 1928-1937:

Veedol Motor Oil

An advertisement by Tide Water Oil Sales Corporation for its new Veedol Motor Oil. The ad features the famous Graf Zeppelin and claims that the dirigible used their specific brand of motor oil. Named after the German manufacturer Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin (1838-1917) the Graf Zeppelin was used commercially from 1928-1937.

Dirigible (blimp) R.101

Photograph in 1929 of the dirigible (blimp) R.101 at mooring in England which crashed the following year.

R-101 Crash, Beauvais, France, 1930

French police and soldiers sort their way through the twisted girders and broken framework of the British dirigible R-101, built by the British Airship Guarantee Company, the craft was 777 feet long and was powered by six Rolls Royce Condor engines; it was caught in a violent storm, its hulk splitting in two, exploding in a fireball and crashing to earth, killing forty-eight persons on board; six survived.

USS Akron

USS Akron (ZRS-4), a rigid helium-filled dirigible (airship) of the U.S. Navy, shown in its hangar with crew members before it in 1931; the 780-foot-long airship, along with its sister ship Macon (ZRS-5), were twenty feet shorter than the German dirigible Hindenburg, but were still among the largest flying objects in the world; the Akron saw seventeen months service before crashing off the New Jersey coast on April 4, 1933, seventy-three men out of seventy-six on board at that time being killed; airships; aviation; aviators; dirigibles.

Akron Crash, New Jersey Coast, 1933

The skeletal remains of the U.S. Navy dirigible Akron is lifted from the sea by a huge crane on a salvage ship after the craft crashed during a storm, killing seventy-three crew members, while three survived; the helium-filled dirigible had been built at a cost of $5 million and its poor construction, equipment and management plagued the ship with many mishaps before its destruction; 785 feet in length, 132 feet in diameter, it was propelled by eight 12-cylinder Maybach engines totaling 4,480 horsepower and was the largest airship in the world to date, permitting five airplanes to take off and land while the ship was in flight.

Hindenburg

The German-made hydrogen-filled commercial passenger rigid airship Hindenburg (LZ 129) explodes while attempting to dock at its mooring mast, totally engulfed in flames within thirty-seven seconds; of the 36 passengers and sixty-one crew members, thirteen passengers and twenty-two crew members died; the cause of the explosion was never fully determined, authorities believing that the highly flammable hydrogen was ignited by accident or on purpose through an intentional act of sabotage; airships; aviation; disasters.

Hindenburg, Lakehurst, New Jersey, 1937

The flaming skeletal remains of the huge dirigible Hindenburg, which was destroyed by a gigantic explosion of hydrogen gas beginning at the tail section of the craft at 7:23 p.m., while the passenger ship was attempting to moor at its dock following its sixty-third flight from Germany; Captain Max Pruss wisely decided to allow the flaming tail of his ship sink to the ground, which undoubtedly saved the lives of sixty-two persons on board, including his own; thirty-five others died in this spectacular air disaster; unsubstantiated claims held that the cause of the explosion was from sabotage, a bomb hidden in the ship and ignited by a disaffected crew member or an opponent of Hitler's Nazi Germany, which had widely promoted the flights of the dirigible.

Later Successes and the End of an Era

Despite the perils and failures, zeppelins performed some of the earliest trans-oceanic and trans-continental crossings. The most successful zeppelin ever built, the Graf Zeppelin, traveled completely around the world in a single voyage in 1929. Publisher William Randolph Hearst placed a reporter (Grace Marguerite Hay Drummond-Hay) on board, thus permitting her to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by air. Although unable to turn a profit, the Graf Zeppelin nevertheless logged more than a million miles on nearly 600 flights, without injury to any passenger.

In spite of the success of the Graf Zeppelin, the engineering problems persisted and many zeppelins met with tragic ends. The tide of public perception shifted dramatically in 1937 with the well-publicized crash of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey. More cost-effective and less dramatic travel by commercial airlines was gaining wider acceptance and soon became commonplace. By 1939, all commercial zeppelins had been withdrawn from service.

Although none of the original gigantic airships have survived to the present day, new-technology dirigibles are still being constructed -- and flown by enthusiasts worldwide.


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