Traveling in Style.
Diners hurried to finish their meals, though most were probably too excited to care about food. They were about to embark on the journey of a lifetime, sailing in unparalleled comfort on the largest ship ever built. Their vessel would inaugurate a new era in trans-Atlantic travel, shortening the trip to New York by days while gliding so smoothly over the waves that travel sickness would become a thing of the past.
Thousands gathered to see the mighty ship depart. Spacious accommodations greeted passengers as they boarded. Their only regret was that it was night, so they couldn’t watch the ground recede as the ship left its moorings and ascended to the heavens. Theirs was the greatest airship ever built, the Hindenburg, and this was its maiden voyage.2
Floating Airships. Usually we think of air travel as beginning with the Wright brothers in 1903. But flight has been a human ambition since people first jealously watched birds soar above. People first went aloft in balloons in 1783.3 In the nineteenth century, balloons were used for research, aerial photography and military observation. By the early 1900s, they were being employed for civilian and military transport.
The leading developer of these machines was Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. His name has become so closely associated with his creations as to sometimes cause confusion. Technically only machines built by the Count’s company are zeppelins. Other airships are called blimps and dirigibles, the difference being that a dirigible has a rigid frame inside its airbag.
Military airships were used by both sides in World War I. Count Zeppelin died in 1917, but his company continued under the leadership of Dr. Hugo Eckener and successfully flew scheduled passenger airship service between Germany and Brazil.
The Hindenburg. By the 1930s the Zeppelin company was ready to challenge the luxury liners sailing to New York. They decided to build bigger and better airships for this competitive market — the Hindenburg was the first of its class. It remains the largest flying machine ever built, over 800 feet in length with a cruising range of 8750 miles. Passengers were accommodated in cabins on two decks and enjoyed a dining room, smoking lounge, observation deck and writing room. It was more like a flying ocean liner than an airplane.
Unfortunately the Hindenburg could not escape the tumultuous politics of 1930s Germany. Hitler commandeered it for propaganda missions, including flights over the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a symbol of German technical prowess and electioneering in support of a Nazi-backed referendum in 1936. Even the name Hindenburg had political overtones. The German government had wanted the ship to be named for Hitler, but Dr. Eckener, who disliked the Nazis, chose to name it for Germany’s greatest World War I hero and recently deceased president, gambling that even the Nazis wouldn’t dare object.
Life Aboard Ship. The Hindenburg was first class all the way. Cabins were small and had bunk beds, but people spent most of the day in public areas. Meals were prepared in a fully equipped electric kitchen, with multi-course dinners and a selection of fine wines and cocktails offered daily. The lounge even had a piano, which was made of aluminum to keep weight to a minimum.
Smoking was chic in the 1930s, so luxury travelers would never book on a ship where they couldn’t light up. The problem was that even the smallest flame is extremely dangerous on a ship held aloft by 200,000 cubic meters of highly inflammable hydrogen. The solution was to pressurize the smoking parlor and provide entrance only through a double door airlock. A full-time attendant stood guard to make sure no lighted smoking materials got out.
As passengers boarded in Germany, stewards confiscated matches, cigarette lighters and cameras. The cameras were returned as soon as the ship was over water. Presumably this was to prevent people from photographing German military activities that violated its treaty obligations, since no similar restrictions were imposed during flight over Iceland, Greenland, Canada or the United States.
The Millionaires Flight. The Hindenburg’s first season was a great success. To promote airship service in the U.S. and enlist the support of leading Americans, the Zeppelin company invited select business and political leaders for a fall foliage tour of the Northeast. The flight left Lakehurst, New Jersey at 7:00 a.m., flew to Philadelphia and then went north over New York City to Springfield, Worcester, Boston, Providence and Hartford. Children along the way left their classrooms to watch in awe while factories blew their whistles in salute.
The passengers included Nelson Rockefeller, Juan Trippe (founder of Pan Am) and Eddie Rickenbacker (World War I ace pilot). The New York Times reported that the guests’ comments showed that “the trip [had done] much to further speedy expansion of commercial airship development in the United States.”8 The Hindenburg flew back to Germany the next day for refurbishment and upgrades in preparation for the 1937 flying season.
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Sadly what most remember about the Hindenburg is its fiery demise, not the more than 1,000,000 miles previously flown without incident by it and other German passenger airships. Perhaps more than anything, this shows the power of spectacle. Prior airship accidents had resulted in greater loss of life, but it is the Hindenburg’s chilling final moments that were captured on film for posterity and have created the lasting memory of the great airships.
- Image from Smithsonian Institution, National Postal Museum on-line exhibit.
- Information for this article is drawn from the following sources: Aboard the Airship Hindenburg: Louis P. Lochner’s Diary of Its Maiden Flight to the United States, The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Winter 1965-66); A Flight on the Hindenburg: One Passenger’s Account on Airships.net; Airships.net.
- Tim Sharp, The First Hot-Air Balloon, Space.com web site (July 16, 2012).
- Inflation of balloon Intrepid by Union troops on June 1, 1862 prior to the Battle of Fair Oaks. Photo by Matthew Brady. Image in the collection of the Library of Congress, available on-line.
- Graphic adapted from image posted by Timmy Miller on Wikimedia Commons.
- Image from Hindenburg’s Smoking Room on airships.net.
- Map from the New York Times, October 9, 1936, p. 13.
- Hindenburg Soars Over Six States, New York Times, p. 4 (October 10, 1936)
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