CHAPTER 4

Zeppelin

Hugo Eckener was born nearly thirty years before his Italian counterpart, in Flensburg on Germany’s Baltic Sea coast, in 1868. This part of Germany, known as Schleswig-Holstein, had been claimed by the Kingdom of Denmark, and it took a series of wars between Prussia, Austria, and Denmark between 1864 and 1866 to determine its sovereignty. Prussia unified Germany five years later; thus, Eckener grew up a subject of the kaiser, not the Danish king. But his hometown was much closer to Copenhagen than Berlin. The Viking seafaring spirit seemed to have been hardwired into young Hugo. He would always consider himself a “sea dog” at heart, even long after he had left the waves for the clouds. As an adolescent, he neglected his studies and spent as much time as he could on the water. Flensburg itself was set on a picturesque fjord hemmed in with forests of beech. Beyond lay the Baltic: a slate-gray and pale-blue sea whose waters have more in common with the stormy North Atlantic than the inland lake it appears to be on a geographer’s map. To sail these waters alone took nerve and skill. Eckener’s biographer, Douglas Botting, made a telling observation about the effect this period in Eckener’s life would have on later events: “Sailing was his paramount interest, and it was through sailing that he acquired his extraordinary ability to read the weather in all its guises.”1

When assessing Eckener’s career as a zeppelin commander par excellence, one is inevitably drawn to his own personal accounts of his many air voyages over land and sea—and, in the process, just as inevitably realizes how much this almost preternatural grasp of wind, clouds, rain, the light of the sky, heat, and cold shaped his success. The young lad on the Baltic absorbed lessons from the natural world that could never be learned in a classroom.

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The first forty years of Eckener’s life corresponded approximately with the Belle Époque, a “beautiful time” for many. This more gracious, more graceful age was a time of tremendous scientific and technological progress—which, coupled with the effects of the Industrial Revolution, also led to increased material progress. Living standards were consistently rising—though not for all, or at least not at the same rate—and optimism in the potential for improvement in the human condition was widespread. Eckener eventually pursued his studies in physics and math seriously enough to earn admission to a university far to the south in Bavaria. There he indulged a wide-ranging intelligence that included courses in art, history, Medieval literature, and logic. Hugo Eckener was becoming a true Renaissance man, without any apparent conscious effort. His continued pursuit of knowledge took him to universities in Berlin and Leipzig. He dabbled in philosophy before earning his doctorate in experimental psychology. His work in this field gained him significant enough notice to be offered, at age twenty-four, a position in Canada at the University of Toronto.2 But he stayed in Germany. Ultimately, Eckener’s interest in psychology spurred him to write a book on the social effects of capitalism (a phenomenon strikingly evident and relevant in Germany at the time—his own father was a tobacco entrepreneur; his mother, the daughter of a shoemaker). But this didn’t pay. Ultimately, now married, the philosopher-turned-psychologist-turned-economist took on work as a freelance journalist to meet his financial obligations. At first glance this might appear incongruous, but Eckener was a keen observer who possessed an innate ability to string sentences together—in a word, he could write.* It was in this capacity—not as a mariner, a philosopher, a psychologist, or as an economist—that he first encountered the man that would change his life forever: Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

Eckener had been sent from his newspaper to cover the launch of the “mad” count’s “air ship” on Lake Constance near Friedrichshafen, Germany, in the autumn of 1900. Friedrichshafen is located on the German shore of Lake Constance, the border between Switzerland to the south and Germany to the north, but also the source of the Rhine River flowing from the foothills of the Alps to the North Sea. By his own admission, Eckener was initially dubious of the man and his machine, though he would come to admire his determination, if nothing else. In 1905, he again reported on one of the count’s efforts to achieve sustained powered flight, which again ended in failure. But the count was sufficiently impressed with Eckener’s evenhanded account of a mediocre showing to call on him in person with a note of gratitude. The journalist became a publicist; the publicist became a propagandist; and the propagandist became a pilot. Zeppelin may have been old and cranky, but he also was a visionary, and one with an eye for talent. Hugo Eckener would come to embody the concept of lighter-than-air ship travel the world over in the decades ahead—essentially becoming Zeppelin’s heir in the public’s mind. But the two men were quite different.

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Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin at the helm of one of his “air ships.” Alamy Images.

Ferdinand von Zeppelin was an aristocrat of the old school, and a career army officer. After falling out with a young Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890 he was cashiered from the military at the age of fifty-two. Devastated, he looked to find a way to prove his worth to the Fatherland. As a younger man he had traveled to the United States to observe the Civil War, and in a side-escapade had found himself aloft in an observation balloon in St. Paul, Minnesota. The experience was a great thrill, and it seemed to have planted the first seed that would germinate later in his mind. From that point on, Zeppelin was a casual devotee of news of aerial innovation. Now, retired before his time, the count decided to act on his aeronautical interests in a more practical sense. Fancy had become a hobby, hobby then became passion, passion would become obsession, obsession became necessity. His great purpose and belief was that by devising a flying machine (which he envisioned as a balloon-like craft traveling between fixed points under its own power), he could contribute in a decisive manner to his country’s military capacity. In Zeppelin’s mind, his invention would enable Germany’s military to dominate its enemies (such as France) in any future war. His airship, or what would popularly come to be called a “zeppelin,” would be the new cavalry for a new century. Scouting far ahead of the main body of the army, a zeppelin could provide crucial battle-winning intelligence. Frankly, it’s remarkable that the count was able to put his fanciful ideas into actual practice. In 1898, he began construction on the first of his airships in a village on the lake. He felt that landing on water would be gentler on his airship than bringing it back to earth ashore. The design of the LZ-1 was based on the concept of gas-filled cells creating lift (as in a balloon) but with a rigid, more durable, structure. The distinctive elongated tube appearance of the zeppelin, rather than the typical round-shaped balloon, was due to this internal rigid structure. Engines and steering mechanisms would then allow for powered flight. It was a flop. In its maiden voyage on July 2, 1900, the LZ-1 stayed aloft for all of eighteen minutes and less than four miles. Smaller, less ambitious, non-rigid “dirigibles” had already exceeded the LZ-1’s performance. Unsurprisingly, the German military was cool to the concept. And yet, as Douglas Botting explained, “The crowd lining the shore and watching from boats on the water was not disappointed. . . . It had been an extraordinary spectacle.”3

Dangerous, costly, and notoriously temperamental in anything but a calm wind, the zeppelin was also a wonder to behold. No one who saw one could fail to be moved. A zeppelin looked like a visitor from another world. For a half a dozen years the “mad” count continued in his quest, dismissed by the experts, but increasingly drawing sympathy from ordinary people. By this time, he was approaching seventy years of age, but he refused to abandon his quest. Years later, looking back on this exciting, uncertain period in the development of zeppelins, Eckener explained the secret of the count’s ultimate success: “everyone underestimated the old gentleman’s determination.”4

The first one-on-one meeting between the two men was initiated by the count after his most recent disappointing effort. With a sailor’s eye, Eckener had pointed out the giant airship’s shortcomings in his article, but he had avoided using the dismissive tone of other critics. He was fair, and the count recognized and appreciated this in the younger man, and wanted to express it in person. A few nights later, Zeppelin invited Eckener to dinner and broached the idea of him coming to work for the zeppelin project as a public relations man pitching the airship to the general public. Eckener was game—and the rest, as they say, is history. Over time, Hugo Eckener became more than a mouthpiece; he felt compelled to take an active role in the airship program itself. What better way to convince the public than by actively participating in flights and learning how, eventually, to pilot the craft on his own? This said a lot about Eckener as a person. He wasn’t just an observer; he was a doer.

In 1908, Count von Zeppelin experienced his greatest success to date with the air voyage of the “LZ-4” down the Rhine Valley to Strasbourg in Alsace. But a series of equipment malfunctions forced the craft to land, and an unexpected squall resulted in an accident that ignited the airship’s hydrogen gas cells, leading to a terrific explosion. Fortunately, no one was injured, but it certainly appeared that the count was now finally, irrevocably defeated. But he wasn’t. The tens of thousands of ordinary people who had lined the bridges over the Rhine to cheer the zeppelin on its journey now rallied behind his vision, donating their own funds to keep the project alive. Zeppelin clearly had touched something in the German soul. What was it: Nationalism? The spirit of adventure? Anxiety over military preparedness? Sympathy for the underdog? Likely it was some combination of all of these. For the count himself, military uses remained the priority. Regardless, people were moved. Hugo Eckener was moved as well. But for Eckener, the great sense of possibility for the count’s invention lay not in war but rather in connecting the world, exploring it, sharing it. He had evolved a higher purpose in what was increasingly clear would be his life’s work. Looking back, he explained that he had wanted to “combine his moral and political ideals with the purely technical.”5 By 1913, infused with cash and buoyed by popular support, the zeppelin project was a resounding success. Airship passenger service inside Germany was becoming a reality. The Belle Époque continued on. Peace and technological advancement seemed to go hand in hand. In apparent affirmation of this, Eckener himself would declaim, “Peace nourishes; war devours.”6 But war was coming, and aviation would inevitably be co-opted by it.

Man’s obsession with flight had taken on an entirely new dimension with the Wright brothers’ experimental flights on a windy, remote sandbar in North Carolina in 1903. Lighter-than-air flight in balloons and dirigibles of various shapes and sizes had pushed the limits of the possible in the nineteenth century, but the brothers’ bird-like design with its small gasoline-powered engine took aviation in a radically different direction. Over the next decade, pioneers such as Alberto Santos-Dumont, Louis Blériot, Glen Curtiss, and Gianni Caproni accelerated the pace of aeronautical design. Speed and distance competitions pushed the technology even further. Both land- and sea-based aircraft held their own prestigious races, with the winners claiming the Gordon Bennett Trophy and Schneider Trophy, respectively. The public followed the exploits of successful pilots as they would matinee idols, and clamored for more. But the various military staffs throughout Europe were also paying careful attention. “Aero planes” possessed great potential, but zeppelins had two important advantages: distance (range) and duration (the length of time one could stay airborne).

For the Wright brothers, there was another, darker, element at work in the air as well. Soon after repeating their successful experimental flights, the brothers sought an audience with U.S. military officials in Washington. Finding only lukewarm support at home, they then brought their aircraft to Europe and in short order found a far more enthusiastic reception awaiting them among foreign governments. By 1911, heavier-than-air aircraft were being used to bomb targets on the ground in Italy’s war to wrest control of Libya from the Ottoman Turks. By 1918 they were being used to bomb civilians indiscriminately in London, Venice, and Paris. But so were zeppelins. It took time, but once Germany’s government and people embraced the old count and his invention, they were convinced it could play a critical role in wartime. Hugo Eckener wasn’t convinced. But by this time—recognized as the most skillful airship pilot in the fleet—he felt it was his patriotic duty to train others.

When World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, Eckener (now forty-six years old) supported his country and offered his services to the newly formed Naval Airship Division. The war provided some satisfaction for those, like Count von Zeppelin, who had put their faith in the airship as a useful and potent element in future German military operations. Eckener, in his role as instructor, took his student-pilots out over the North Sea into active combat zones. It was here, above the waves, that he felt Zeppelins could perform to their best advantage, scouting the vast spaces for enemy craft. In the titanic sea battle off Jutland in 1916, a zeppelin had provided crucial intelligence that saved the German Navy from what Eckener characterized would have been “severe losses.”7 On the other hand, Eckener lamented the loss of zeppelin crews sent to bomb England who never returned. To him, it was clear that reconnaissance (particularly at sea), not strategic bombing, was the most useful function of an airship in wartime. However, the German High Command’s desire to bring the war home to civilians in Allied cities took precedence. Compared to the later mass bombings of cities from the air, by airplane, in World War II, these zeppelin raids were more psychological in their effect on civilian morale than purely destructive. But there was no doubt that there was something unsettling, even sinister, about these giant silvery behemoths crossing the North Sea at night to rain down death on the unsuspecting below.

Howard Hughes later produced a film called Hell’s Angels (1930) that included a haunting sequence involving an airship raid on London, capturing the zeppelin’s aura of spectral dread. The film’s plot is nearly incoherent, but Hughes’s air combat sequences are not. They transcend the film’s mediocrity. To add dramatic tension to the nighttime zeppelin raid, the airship must lose weight in order to outclimb the range of enemy fire, and the result is the patriotic suicide of a number of the crew, who drop to their deaths in an attempt to save the zeppelin. It’s a horrifying waste of human life. To a large degree, the same could be said of the campaign to bomb Allied cities with zeppelins, as a whole. The technological edge in the sky would shift irrevocably in favor of the airplane. Even the cover of darkness provided little protection from retaliation. After the initial shock of nighttime zeppelin raids had passed, the British military prepared countermeasures (powerful intersecting searchlights, airplanes specifically for use as night fighters, and shrapnel to be fired great distances into the sky). The effect could be devastating. The site of great, flaming airships falling to Earth became part of the English experience during the war. In response, a new generation of zeppelin designers created airships that could climb to heights far beyond the reach of searchlights and enemy aircraft. Four miles up, in the thin, cold air, zeppelin crews were experiencing conditions unknown up to that time. This remarkable leap in zeppelin technology greatly increased the giant airships’ range (in one twenty-hour raid, a fleet of airships traveled over Copenhagen to London and then Paris before eventually finishing their cruise over the Mediterranean Sea). However, being so high, their effectiveness in seeing and hitting their targets was greatly diminished. By 1917, it had become apparent that large bomb-laden, multi-engine airplanes were better suited for raids on urban centers (even the count, who died that year, agreed), and zeppelins were phased out of the war. But the targeting of civilians from the air continued until 1918.

The exponentially more lethal use of aircraft in the war, and Germany’s humiliation at the end of it, left Eckener shaken but resolved to continue Count von Zeppelin’s work, now free of any military expedient. Those years after the war were painful for Germany. The unloved Weimar Republic had replaced the Empire. The kaiser and his generals were either in exile or discredited relics of a bygone age. Two men, more than any others, would rise in this period to offer Germans a way forward, free of the past. Adolf Hitler would use his experiences as a soldier in the trenches of the Western Front to gain credibility with his fellow veterans—many of them angry and bitter; all of them capable of shocking violence—to build a political movement aimed at national regeneration through rearmament and racial purity. Hugo Eckener rejected this. Instead, the zeppelin would be the vehicle for a renewed sense of German identity and national pride based on peace, technological achievement, and international cooperation. It was a powerful symbol. It was a cosmopolitan symbol. And the wartime innovations had made it a vastly enhanced wonder of aviation.

Eckener was the ideal man to take over the count’s legacy. His understanding of the nature of zeppelin design, and its capabilities and weaknesses, was unmatched. Part of this, as has previously been mentioned, can be attributed to the many hours he spent as a boy and as a young man, sailing on the Baltic Sea. His prime directive to those he trained to become airship pilots was that a zeppelin was a “ship” and not an airplane, and as such needed to be handled in a similar manner to an ocean-going vessel. For Eckener, to travel by airship was not to “fly,” but rather to “voyage.” Words perhaps, but words are important. This distinction between flying and voyaging was emphasized by Eckener to all with whom he came in contact as a result of his connection with the zeppelin enterprise. And by the late 1920s, the company founded by Ferdinand von Zeppelin was producing airships of a size compatible to the more modestly sized ocean liners of the day. This size was largely due to the rigid aluminum interior over which the silver-painted fabric exterior was stretched. Enclosed inside this structure were large bags (or “cells”) filled with hydrogen gas. This was the secret to the airship’s buoyancy. Gondolas hung below the aluminum interior, providing rooms for a bridge, navigation, communications, a steward, and, ultimately, passenger accommodations. The view was unparalleled. In the twenty-first century, the Zeppelin Company has renewed passenger service in the Zeppelin NT—a hybrid of sorts between the earlier zeppelins that featured a rigid, ring-like interior filled with gas cells, to a rigid triangular interior structure inside a gas bag filled with helium. But the effect of flying as a passenger is the same. One seems to be floating above the landscape below, but not aimlessly. There is direction. It’s uncanny.

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The first zeppelin built after the war was for use by the U.S. Navy. Christened the USS Los Angeles, it was an unqualified success. And its personal delivery by Eckener and his crew in the first-ever trans-Atlantic crossing by a zeppelin made the “Doctor”* an overnight sensation in America, and a national hero in his homeland.

At the war’s end, it appeared the dream of Ferdinand von Zeppelin was to be brought to an end—at least in Germany. The victorious Allies had imposed very harsh restrictions on German aviation, and this included airships. While aspiring aviators carried on the German tradition in airplanes, flying gliders from the Wasserkuppe in the early 1920s,8 Eckener was busy trying to revive the airship project by finding a way around the Allied restrictions as well. If German expertise in zeppelin design and manufacture could be put to constructive use for one of the victor nations, then perhaps a general loosening of restrictions would follow. The opportunity presented itself as a result of German airship crews scuttling their own craft to deny them as spoils of war to the victorious Allies. One of the Allied powers, the United States, was (it was determined) owed $800,000 for the loss of its share of the lost airship. Eckener intervened and made a bold proposal to the American military commission to construct (and deliver) a new airship to the U.S. Navy in Lakehurst, New Jersey. A craft capable of crossing the Atlantic would require a scale at least equal to the largest zeppelins built during the war. By reaching this agreement with the U.S. Navy, Hugo Eckener had resurrected the zeppelin project in a phoenix-like manner. The construction of the giant new airship commanded all the energy of those involved at Friedrichshafen. Where once Ferdinand von Zeppelin had hoped to cross a lake, now they were readying a vessel to cross an ocean. The sense of purpose must have been remarkably strong. Eckener and his team were not only on the cutting edge of lighter-than-air aviation technology; they were also blazing a potentially glorious, peaceful path toward national rejuvenation. The contrast with the odd-looking, hate-filled Nazi “Brownshirts,” beginning to make their presence felt in German cities, could not have been more stark.

The voyage of the ZR-3 (later rechristened the Los Angeles by the U.S. Navy) from Friedrichshafen to Lakehurst in 1924 would prove to be one of the most important events in Hugo Eckener’s life. Greater fame, and heartbreak, certainly lay ahead for him, but this first transoceanic crossing was a step into the unknown. It required skill, faith in science, confidence in the quality of the zeppelin team’s workmanship, nerve, and leadership. It also required vision. Hugo Eckener possessed all of these qualities. On October 13, 1924, the ZR-3 ascended into the skies above Friedrichshafen and headed west across southern France. Germany’s archenemy in the war was now at peace, looking from high above like a “garden”:

We looked down with a sort of sensual pleasure on the stony hills where the vineyards of Burgundy grow, and later came to the region where the Bordeaux grapes stretch across level fields in the soft sea air. How different did we find both the country and the flavour!9

As the sun set in the west, the airship crossed northern Spain and headed out to sea. In an era still without radio direction-finders and signals, precise navigation was absolutely crucial in this endeavor. This was the human factor. The plan called for a route directly west, skirting the Azores in the mid-Atlantic. By noon the following day, Eckener and his men could see the peak of one of the Azores’ dormant volcanos above the clouds:

The beautiful scene spread out before us. A low-lying cloud ceiling covered the greater part of the ocean, but rising above it in magnificent splendour was the tremendous 7,500-foot peak of Mount Pico, on the island of the same name, along whose flanks we were gliding. A strange spectacle, this fantastic mountain isle apparently floating in the air in the midst of the ocean! Finally it vanished in the distance, and the sea beneath us was again visible.10

The remainder of the voyage was not as pleasant. Wind and weather (a low-pressure system over the Atlantic) forced Eckener to alter his route and head for the southern tip of Newfoundland before coming about and cruising down the coast of New England to reach his destination—the great New World metropolis of New York. That same year—1924—George Gershwin was completing his masterpiece, “Rhapsody in Blue.” One can almost hear the strains of Gershwin’s music in Eckener’s description of the sensation of arriving at dawn and seeing New York City for the first time:

At daybreak we were off Sandy Hook, seventy-seven hours after our take-off from Friedrichshafen. The bay and the low shore were shrouded in a light morning mist, but the fantastic shapes of the skyscrapers towered above it and gleamed in the rising sun. The imposing picture, celebrated in all languages, which this overpowering giant metropolis of daring and enterprising spirit offers to the arriving stranger, appeared to us with a double beauty, a fairy-tale city to which we had abruptly come out of the dark, empty sea.11

After circling above the city, Eckener descended to the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst to be greeted by a multitude of reporters, spectators, and assorted well-wishers. In America, the zeppelin craze had begun! It would continue unabated for the next thirteen years, until it ended as dramatically as it began, in the same place it began.

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The success of the first crossing of the Atlantic by the ZR-3 provided Hugo Eckener with powerful evidence to support his vision for the future of airship travel. Back in Germany, he had expected enthusiastic support from a German government basking in his reflected glory. In this, he was disappointed. Like the “mad” Count von Zeppelin before him, Eckener had to rely on his own devices and support from the public to continue to the next step in the zeppelin project: to build the greatest airship ever constructed up to that time. And then to establish permanent, regular service between Europe and the Americas with zeppelins carrying paying passengers and mail, not bombs. He succeeded.

The Graf Zeppelin was a triumph of engineering, utility, and style, unmatched in the sky. Its purpose was not only to earn profits for the company founded by the count for whom it was named, but also to demonstrate the sustainability of commercial air travel. To achieve this, Eckener had appealed directly to the German people to raise funds for the airship’s construction by giving lectures the length and breadth of Germany to stimulate interest in this great national undertaking. His background as a journalist and publicist stood him in good stead as the German economy slowly began to revive, and people opened their wallets to further a dream.

The Graf (German for “count”) was not only the largest zeppelin built up to that time, it was also the most technologically advanced and elegantly appointed airship in history until the construction of its sister ship, the Hindenburg, in 1936. Everything that had been learned since the zeppelin project had begun thirty years before was now brought to bear in the construction of what Douglas Botting would call “Doctor Eckener’s Dream Machine.”* The new Zeppelin had a capacity of 3,707,550 cubic feet (exceeding that of the Los Angeles, with its capacity of 2,471,700 cubic feet, by a total of 1,235,850 cubic feet). From end to end it was 775 feet long (over two and a half football fields), and 100 feet in diameter at its thickest.12 Five specially built Maybach engines producing 2,650 horsepower in total, generated a cruising speed of over 70 miles per hour. Borne aloft by its hydrogen gas cells, the Graf was powered by a special mixture of lightweight fuel that allowed it to cruise for 118 hours (approximately 8,400 miles) without landing to take on more fuel.13 In addition, a gyrocompass replaced the outdated magnetic compass, making the all-important navigation in transoceanic travel far more precise. But the new airship also needed to accommodate, feed, distract, and make comfortable the passengers who would be paying richly for the pleasure of zeppelin flight. This required not only additional space in gondolas attached to the ship’s underbelly for the passengers, but also for additional crew (stewards, chefs, and such) that would be serving them in flight.

In an article written a number of years later by Wolfgang Lambrecht, the chief aeronautical officer of the Hamburg-American Line, and in an official brochure produced by the same concern advertising trans-Atlantic zeppelin passenger service at about the same time, one can get a sense of the experience the Graf provided its paying customers. Lambrecht’s description of “voyaging” aboard the airship is incomparable:

The comforts of traveling by airship are hard to describe to persons who have not experienced this new mode of travel. The most striking sensation is one of smoothness. There is no throbbing of engines, no sudden pitching or rolling of the craft, no dust and dirt; everything is peaceful and quiet. The motors are located aft of the passenger quarters and might as well be absent as far as harsh noises are concerned. Odors from fuel and cooking are completely absent. Large smoking and lounging rooms, together with spacious promenades, give plenty of room for all. Comfortable cabins are provided with hot and cold water, with real beds in which to sleep in a restful atmosphere. The accommodations have most of the luxuries of steamships, with the redeeming feature that one need not put up with seasickness to enjoy them.14

The Hamburg-American Line’s brochure emphasized the social and culinary aspects of voyaging aboard the Graf:

All meals are taken in the large public room . . . which is also used as a social room generally. Passengers while away the time by friendly chats with their fellow passengers, by writing, reading, taking snapshots or playing games. . . . The meals served on board the Zeppelin and the choice of wines are in every respect up to the standard of a first-class restaurant. The few specimen menus here re-printed give some idea of the variety of the food.* The wine is sold at moderate charges; and as no other possibilities of spending money are open to passengers, there is no need for them to be unduly economical in gratifying their desires in this respect.15

No need to be unduly economical, indeed! The service that the Zeppelin Company and its partner, the Hamburg-American Line, was offering was unprecedented in air travel certainly, and the equal in many respects of first-class travel on the great trans-Atlantic steamers of the day. But in the end, it was an aeronautical proposition. Could it be done consistently and safely? The only way to know for sure was to put the Graf Zeppelin to the test in the very sort of conditions it might experience over the Atlantic.

Eckener’s first journey to America in the Graf Zeppelin proved to be one of the most challenging airship voyages he would ever undertake. Following a successful thirty-six-hour trial flight in Europe, the date was set for the first trans-Atlantic crossing of the new craft. In the event, the departure from Friedrichshafen was delayed due to reports of heavy winds blowing directly into the intended flight path of the Graf. Eckener later admitted that he felt pressure to prove the viability of a transoceanic zeppelin service by flying the most direct route to its destination. Setting a course to the south of the broad swath of foul weather would add miles and additional time to the journey, which would be food for the critics claiming the scheme was unviable. Traveling north in what was called the “circle route” was shorter, but notoriously foggy and prone to autumn gales. On October 11, 1928, the Graf Zeppelin began its first great test. Eckener had chosen the southern route. Risking people’s lives unnecessarily was not part of his modus operandi, critics be damned. The beginning of the journey was more idyll than trial. As Eckener described it:

At top speed we flew down the Rhine, over castles and medieval towns, along the south side of the Black Forest to Basle . . . shortly after noon, we arrived at the Mediterranean, and unforgettable attractions of a new kind again stimulated our senses. It was as if we were softly gliding through an infinity of surrounding misty blue. Air and sea merged imperceptibly with each other. We flew on, as if set free from hard, rough, material things, in a world of fragrance and soft light. As in a dream, the passengers sat at prettily decorated coffee-tables and, in a mood of wordless ecstasy, enjoyed good Fried-richshafen pastry together with the panorama of the sea.16

Alas, the idyll didn’t last. South of the Azores, the Graf received disturbing radio reports of a terrific thunderstorm to the north. Unexpectedly, an influx of cold air had extended further south than anticipated, creating conditions for severe weather. At 6:00 the next morning, Eckener looked out from the flight deck to see “a blue-black wall of cloud of very threatening aspect”17 advancing at great speed toward his airship, which itself was traveling at full speed. The combination of the storm and the Zeppelin meeting with such swiftness and, as luck would have it, a less experienced man at the controls of the airship’s elevators as they collided, nearly led to catastrophe. The nose of the Graf turned suddenly and drastically downward, only to rise too far upward a moment later: “breakfast tables slid off with a crash. . . . Amidst the noise, which was increased by the crash of thunder, it was impossible to tell if the hull structure was breaking up.”18 And then came the rain—torrents of it for one hour. The relief felt by Eckener and his crew over the Graf ’s ability to successfully weather an Atlantic squall of the first order was tempered by news that the fabric covering the left stabilizing fin had torn. If the tear spread, it would jeopardize the ability of the crew to control the airship. All could be lost.

Director Robert Wise, in his 1975 film, The Hindenburg, included a scene where the same damage happens to a stabilizing fin on the Graf ’s larger sister. In a film with a somewhat weak plot, this scene stands out for its heightened sense of drama. Not only would crewmen need to go out onto the fin in mid-air, replace the torn fabric, and sew it on—they also had to avoid being blown away by the slipstream created by the airship’s forward momentum. Engines needed to be cut back while they worked, but this had the effect of the airship dangerously losing altitude. The pressure on those on the flight deck, and the fortitude and skill of those out on the fin, is clear. In real life, it was even more agonizing for Eckener, as one of the volunteers out on the fin was his son, Knut. The rainwater that had fallen so heavily after the squall had hit was weighing down the Graf. This was why the engines needed to be engaged: to keep the Zeppelin from falling into the sea. But if he did so, his own son might be swept away. Ultimately, the volunteers succeeded in making the necessary repairs and the Graf continued on its journey. But would the repairs hold up under another severe stress on the fin?

For their part, the Graf’s first passengers—a mix of experts, potentates, and reporters—had received quite a shock. A number of them had come apart emotionally, fearing the day might be their last. Others had demonstrated a degree of poise that had impressed Eckener; none more so than the Hearst Papers’ reporter, Lady Grace Drummond-Hay:

She greeted me with a gay smile and remarked, looking at the broken china on the floor, “The Good Count has been in a surprising and expensive mood! Well, if we have to, we can get along without cups and saucers.” Later, I heard at the moment the crockery tumbled she calmly called out to her friend and colleague, Mr. von Wiegand, “Karl, run quickly to my cabin and see that my typewriter doesn’t fall on the floor”! Such coolness, particularly in a woman, could well have prevented the development of a spreading panic.19

Off Bermuda, another squall front blocked the Graf’s westward progress. Eckener later confided that his decision to enter the squall front with a patched stabilizing fin was the most difficult of a difficult journey. For an hour the Graf was battered by wind, rain, and hail, but then calmer skies greeted the giant airship as it approached the American coast. The patch had held. As darkness fell, Lakehurst Naval Station welcomed the weary travelers back to earth.

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The Graf had passed its test. It had withstood the worst the Atlantic could dish out, and had safely reached its destination. The return journey to Europe provided more hard-earned lessons regarding the weather patterns of the Atlantic Ocean. But in the end, Hugo Eckener was well satisfied. One could only truly know if one’s creation was up to the task if it had been truly pushed to its limits.* It had. And it was ready for something even more daring in conception, to capture the public’s attention and stimulate its imagination.

With Charles Lindbergh having piloted his plane solo across the Atlantic the year before, Eckener’s idea of establishing regular passenger service from Friedrichshafen to Lakehurst, New Jersey, no longer seemed fanciful. The following year (1929), with great public fanfare, Eckener piloted the Graf Zeppelin on an around-the-world trip to further promote airship travel. The well-heeled passengers in their luxuriously appointed lounge and handsome cabins bestowed a degree of glamour on the enterprise that suited the age. Alone amid the dozens of male passengers and crew on this voyage was a single returning female passenger: Lady Grace Drummond-Hay. This intrepid journalist-flapper-socialite-aristocrat would become Hugo Eckener’s most ardent supporter. Their relationship, though it remained platonic, was nonetheless romantic in spirit. He admired her moxie—which she exhibited on more than one occasion—and she admired his consummate skill sailing his airship, and the not inconsiderable reservoir of sangfroid he was able to draw on in dangerous circumstances. He was a man pushing the envelope of the possible while making it appear not only plausible, but perfectly natural.

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Lady Grace Drummond-Hay. Courtesy of Lilo Peter, Harwood Watch Company Ltd.

Hay’s notoriety as a bold aviatrix of sorts was capitalized on by the Har-wood Watch Company of Switzerland when they provided her with a new self-winding watch to wear aboard the Graf: “By its novel method of providing power the watch has aroused considerable interest, and the curiosity of the public is held by wonder of how it is done.”20

The Graf’s circumnavigation of the globe began on August 7, 1929, at Lakehurst. Press magnate William Randolph Hearst had put up $100,000 for the exclusive story rights in the American and British press. This figure went a long way toward paying the costs of such an ambitious enterprise. Eckener had also begun to tap into the surprisingly lucrative world of stamp collecting to offset costs as well. Philatelists were eager to send and receive mail bearing the Graf’s postmark, and the amount of mail carried in its hold increased exponentially with time. The route chosen for circumnavigation would take the zeppelin back across the Atlantic to its base at Friedrich-shafen; then across eastern Europe into Soviet Russia. As he had earlier during Italo Balbo’s seaplane squadron flight to Odessa, Joseph Stalin seemed to appreciate the attraction that aviation held in the popular mind. Permitting the Graf to cross the Soviet Union from west to east—flying above Russia’s ancient capital, Moscow; the Ural Mountains; and the seemingly limitless vastness of Siberia—was a generous concession on the part of the mysterious country’s suspicious ruler. In the event, unfavorable weather reports forced Eckener’s hand, and Muscovites (Stalin included) were left feeling snubbed when the airship failed to keep its rendezvous above the Kremlin.

Siberia proved to have an unsettling effect on many of the passengers and crew. Eckener himself was not entirely immune to these feelings either. The extent of the monotonous, trackless wastes going by beneath them were psychologically disturbing, leading to feelings of isolation. Even the elegant, modern surroundings of the Graf failed to dull the somber, reflective mood that many felt. But not all passengers succumbed to the general gloom. As the Zeppelin flew on above eastern Siberia near the Arctic Circle,* Eckener shared a memorable evening with an American:

During the brief night hours a full moon rose, or at least attempted to rise, for it remained low above the horizon to the south, where it rolled slowly along on its brief course like a huge yellow ball. In the north the brightly glowing sky showed that the sun was only a few degrees below the horizon. An American passenger was so fascinated by these theatrical effects that towards 11 p.m., when everyone else had gone to bed for a brief rest, he called for two bottles of wine and spent the night watching the moon and the twilit heavens. I kept him company for a while, for the wine we were carrying on board was not bad at all, and the celestial spectacle was quite extraordinary.21

Finally, the Graf reached the Pacific coast, but first the crew had to find their way through a narrow pass in the menacing Stanovoy Mountain range. As Douglas Botting later related, “They had never been charted, and their height was not precisely known.” It was a dangerous business:

On the bridge Eckener and his officers looked tensely ahead as the crest of the pass drew closer. An error now, any unforeseen trick of wind or weather, and a catastrophe could take place from which the chances of survival were almost certainly zero. . . . Transfixed, passengers and crew alike watched as the ground slid by barely 250 feet beneath them. . . . And then a great shout went up in the saloon as well as on the bridge. Stretching away almost directly beneath lay the vivid blue of the Pacific. They were through. “Now that,” Eckener cried out, raising his arms in triumph and glee, “is what you call airship flying!” “Thalassa, Thalassa!”* cried those who knew their classical history.22

From the Sea of Okhotsk the Graf flew south over the Sea of Japan to the lighthouse at the port of Hakodate on the island of Hokkaido; and then south to the burgeoning Asian metropolis of Tokyo. For the residents of Tokyo and nearby Yokohama, the visit of this otherworldly craft in the skies proved to be a defining moment in the interwar period before Japan descended into the dark valley of fascism. Just six years before, the entire Kanto Plain, on which Tokyo is located, was convulsed by a massive, and massively destructive, earthquake. As in the earlier 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, it wasn’t the quake itself but the fires that it triggered that made the great Kanto Earthquake as devastating as it was. Large swaths of Tokyo and surrounding areas were flattened, and the fires burned for days. Yet—against all the odds—Tokyo had been rebuilt and revitalized amid the ruins, and this visitor from the other side of the globe seemed to bestow international recognition of this great achievement. What could only be described as Zeppelin hysteria gripped the city.

During World War I, Germany and Japan had been on opposing sides in the struggle. In fact, Japan had attacked and seized the German concession in the Shandong Peninsula in China. However, by the late 1920s, the two countries had begun to recognize that they might share a common strategic interest. Both were convinced that the Versailles Treaty, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in particular, had double-crossed them. Germans continued to entertain the fantasy that they had not, in fact, lost World War I, yet had been treated as a defeated country after the armistice of November 11, 1918. Japan, a victor nation, felt like a defeated power. They would find common cause.

Meanwhile, Eckener and his fellow globetrotters enjoyed six full days of entertainment and receptions in the Japanese capital. A typhoon had crossed Japan while they were there, and Eckener, always with an eye on the weather, determined that a departure on August 23 might allow the Graf to make use of favorable winds in the tail of the storm to propel them across the vast Pacific. His intuition proved correct, and the giant airship rode the tail deep out over the largest ocean on earth. Their course then took them into a vast area covered in fog and clouds. They made very good time crossing the Pacific, but could see little, and this tended to have a depressing effect on those aboard. But then at approximately 4:00 p.m. on August 25, the west coast of the United States came into view. By 5:00 p.m. they were above the “Golden Gate” and entering San Francisco Bay. The famous red-painted bridge that now spans the Golden Gate did not yet exist in 1929 (construction would begin in 1933), but the loveliest city on the North American continent certainly did. Hugo Eckener, like so many before and after him, was smitten by the man-made beauty of the city within the natural setting in which it was situated. As many have noted, the light of San Francisco Bay has a certain quality that is unique. It brought out the poet in Hugo Eckener:

The beauties of San Francisco Bay have been sung in all languages. The “Golden Gate” has not been given the name without reason. As we steered inland at 1,600 feet and viewed the fabulous scene, we were deeply affected and even moved to tears. The setting sun flooded the sea and land and the surrounding mountains with warm, golden light and painted an extraordinary picture. And the reception which this beautiful city had prepared for us was no less magnificent. Squadrons of planes flew out to meet us and escorted us past the entrance. The vessels lying in the harbour and at the docks had dressed ship, their whistles sounded a greeting, accompanied by the tooting of thousands of motor car horns on the streets. We needed both eyes and ears to appreciate the enthusiasm of our welcome. Many times had we experienced such receptions, but this one, after our long and monotonous flight above clouds and fog, has remained unforgettable in my mind for its warmth and beauty.23

The Graf’s visit to the City by the Bay was relatively brief, if unforgettable. The trip’s sponsor, William Randolph Hearst, was expecting them the following day in Los Angeles. So, they journeyed through the night down the coast. Above Hearst’s legendary castle retreat, San Simeon, all of the lights of the magnate’s private Xanadu switched on all at once in a passing greeting. A full day was spent in Los Angeles before the final leg of the circumnavigation commenced. It almost ended in disaster when the Graf barely cleared undetected electrical wires on takeoff. The deserts of Arizona and Texas provided another scare for the Graf when bursts of superheated air rose above the desert floor and suddenly lifted the Zeppelin like a toy balloon 600–1,000 feet in the sky.24 But after reaching El Paso, and heading northeast into the vast Mississippi River Valley, the cruise evolved into a giant victory lap of sorts above some of the great cities of the interior of the United States—none more so than Chicago, whose flyover gave the Windy City a taste of what was to come four years later at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

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Zeppelin fever (Berlin, 1929). Alamy Images.

When the Graf landed safely at Lakehurst on August 29, the city, the country, and the world toasted Doctor Hugo Eckener and his intrepid voyagers as only the Roaring Twenties could. New York City’s mayor, the dapper Jimmy Walker, personally congratulated the German hero after a parade down Broadway. Newly elected U.S. President Herbert Hoover, who had inherited an economy flush with capital and prosperity, invited Eckener to the White House. Time magazine featured the indomitable zeppelin commander on the cover of its September 16, 1929, issue. He was the man of the hour—no question about it. Some have speculated that if Hugo Eckener had entered politics at this point, he might have been able to carry the momentum from his aerial circumnavigation to victory in the 1932 German presidential election. This, of course, is counterfactual history. But that this thesis is even given serious consideration speaks volumes about his standing in Germany and the world as the decade of the 1930s dawned.

But Hugo Eckener wasn’t interested in politics. He was interested in zeppelins. With the success of the Graf’s around-the-world journey behind him, he now set out to make the world’s first transoceanic passenger air service a reality.

In the early 1920s, Eckener had made a scouting trip to South America to gauge interest in the potential for an airship route to and from Europe. A Spanish entrepreneur, with a similar vision, had reached out to Eckener and proposed Seville as a base for trips across the South Atlantic to Buenos Aires. However, it was Brazil that first pioneered this service. Recife, in the country’s northeast, eagerly offered to construct a mooring mast and a refueling depot for the zeppelins arriving from across the sea. Over time, this service was extended southward to Rio and (as originally intended) Buenos Aires. It was by far the most successful, if not the most famous, zeppelin air service in history. Hundreds of intercontinental, transoceanic journeys were made between 1930 and 1937 in which thousands of paying passengers were safely transported over hundreds of thousands of miles. Hugo Eckener had realized his dream. In the inaugural voyage, he was moved much as his Italian counterpart, Italo Balbo, would be less than a year later, by the natural beauty of Rio and Guanabara Bay:

when the sun rose towards 6 a.m. it flooded with its golden-red rays a landscape of such unprecedented beauty that we were silent with wonder.

Rio Bay and its surroundings are famous, and have already charmed millions, but anyone who has not seen the picturesque view from an altitude of 1,000–1,300 feet has not become acquainted with its beauty. Certain landscapes . . . are fascinating and grand, but a bay with blue water, which is part of the scenery here, doubles its charm. And the mighty, beautifully laid-out city of Rio, stretching its arms out into the valleys and estuaries, produces a comforting impression of industriousness and successful human effort.25

He would return many times to Cidade Maravilhosa. Hugo Eckener had succeeded in bringing two worlds together. If nothing else, he should be remembered for this.

Alberto Santos-Dumont, once the toast of Paris, was now living the life of a recluse (a veritable Brazilian Howard Hughes). According to Hugo Eckener’s memoir, published after World War II, he and his crew on this first successful journey to South America had assumed the great aviation pioneer was already dead. After departing from Recife, they flew above Natal before leaving Brazil, and dropped a bouquet of flowers in the great aviation pioneer’s honor. To be dead (though not forgotten) while one is still very much alive . . . it says mountains about how fast, and dramatically, the world had moved on since Santos-Dumont’s aerial feats in Belle Époque Paris. But the two men were linked in spirit. They viewed aviation as a means to both liberate and unite mankind. And in these years before the dark shadows of fascism and war crowded out the light, it still looked like they might be right.

The next few years were busy ones for Hugo Eckener and the zeppelin project he had inherited from the “mad” count. His aim was to build a larger, more opulent version of the Graf, with an eye toward establishing a regular airship service between Europe and North America, as well as South America. But the worldwide Depression that struck in late 1929 forced a degree of unanticipated austerity-minded belt-tightening that set back these plans a number of years. In the interim, Eckener cultivated the world press, governments, and public opinion in a series of interviews, statements, and attention-grabbing scientific and geographical expeditions above the polar seas.

Along with Italo Balbo and Charles Lindbergh, Hugo Eckener had become the international face of aviation. Bearing this out, the New York Times devoted a full-page feature article on Eckener’s vision (with illustrations) in its March 8, 1930, edition to make his case for the zeppelin, then gave him equal billing with Lindbergh and Glenn Curtiss, a motorcycle racer turned aircraft designer, in another full-page feature later in the spring extolling the benefits of civilian air transport. In July, Eckener joined Lindbergh and Italo Balbo in issuing statements to be read before a special meeting on air transit at the headquarters of the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. It’s interesting comparing the remarks made by the three high priests of aviation’s golden age, in 1930, before the rise of Adolf Hitler:

Lindbergh: The air has no boundaries. International borders become imaginary lines and every city a port of entry. Civilization has always progressed hand in hand with its facilities for transportation. As distances have been reduced in time, commerce has made nations more and more dependent upon one another. . . . Closer international relations become unavoidable as the vague distances of an old era are measured on a new scale of relativity.26

Eckener: As a result of the success of the world flights recently undertaken, we think it can be regarded as proved that air navigation is destined to render valuable services in the sphere of passenger traffic and mail carrying, especially when great distances have to be covered. The enthusiasm with which airships have been greeted everywhere in foreign countries, both when flying and landing, emphatically demonstrates that air traffic is likely to bring peoples nearer together. . . . But this will only be possible if air traffic develops in an atmosphere of good-will and not one of mistrust.27

Balbo: Air traffic has made enormous strides during the past five years. A network of air lines connecting all the large centers has now been marked out in the skies of Europe and forms an ideal link between all the nations regardless of frontiers. . . . For the development of commercial aviation on internal lines, I consider that all nations should adopt the principle of effective cooperation in air navigation.28

Together these statements are convincing evidence that the 1930s offered an opportunity for cooperation over competition and peaceful collaboration over aggression, with aviation leading mankind to a better world. Given the platforms these men were given at the time, one can’t just easily dismiss them as naïve dreamers. People listened to what they had to say. It’s one of history’s great tragedies that other, louder, shrill voices drowned them out as the 1930s wore on.

Between 1930 and 1933, perhaps the most captivating exploits undertaken by Hugo Eckener and the officers and crew of the Graf Zeppelin were the air voyages above the Arctic Circle to the forbidding island of Spitzbergen in 1930; and then to the Barents Sea and Franz Josef Land in 1931. These were accentuated in the public’s mind by the doomed Italian polar airship expedition under Umberto Nobile in 1928, which led to gloomy prognostications from “experts.” Eckener was, frankly, dismissive of these concerns, arguing that the polar skies were generally more clear and stable (in terms of temperature) than those in lower latitudes, and that Nobile had been temperamentally unsuited to command such an expedition.29 In point of fact, Eckener’s remarks in his memoir on Nobile are perhaps the least generous things he had to say about anyone (other than Nazis). They seem out of character. But Eckener was not one to suffer fools lightly, particularly if it involved unnecessarily putting other people’s lives at risk.

In all of his travels, among all of the beautiful things he had seen in the sky, or cruising above the earth, the beauty of the polar seas in summer made the deepest impression on him. He later described what he saw as something akin to a Rockwell Kent painting infused with translucent Technicolor:

What now began to sparkle in light and colour was so overwhelmingly beautiful and extraordinary, so unforgettable in comparison to anything I had ever seen before, that later, recalling it I made bold to remark, “Whoever has not seen a Polar landscape like Franz Josef Land, with its gleaming and transparent glaciers, in the fairy-like delicate tones, and the endless symphony of colour of its ice masses—its colourful beaches and blue inlets between the fantastically shaped islands and foothills—has not known anything of the most beautiful thing which this earth has to offer to our eyes and our souls.”30

Considering the source, this is quite an extraordinary observation. Eckener’s “Viking passion for voyaging and adventure”31 continued to enlist more converts for the zeppelin project, which—as it went global—became more of an ideal than simply an enterprise. Most of the people reading about the Graf and its commander, their journeys to far-off lands of icebergs and palm trees, would never travel in a zeppelin. At most, if they were lucky, they might be able to catch a glimpse of one flying gracefully overhead. But these millions that Hugo Eckener was making his mission to enlist in the zeppelin cause were part of something larger than themselves. The “mad” count’s invention had come to symbolize something more, far more: a better world.

Footnotes

* The various memoirs Eckener wrote after he had retired from public life contain some of the most beautiful passages ever written about the wonder and beauty of flight. It was this combination of the man of science and the poet that mark Eckener as a man of genius.

* An honorific Eckener had earned for his earlier work in experimental psychology.

This was inspired by the German Navy’s scuttling of the High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow, Scotland, in 1919.

* The title of his excellent biography of Eckener.

* Items mentioned include “Poached Eggs with Bacon, Ragout of Veal, Fruit.”

* Hans-Paul Stroehle of the present-day Zeppelin Company was one of the first instructors and examiners of pilots flying modern zeppelins. He has flown airships on four different continents, twelve countries, and has crossed the United States and Europe several times in an airship. He also was the former deputy director for the Zeppelin Company’s flight operations. He expressed great admiration for Hugo Eckener as an airship pilot and as a visionary, but when asked why Eckener succeeded in coming through such harrowing confrontations with the weather, Stroehle said, “He was lucky . . . zeppelins should be not be put under that kind of strain.”

* Summer nights are quite short at these latitudes.

* Thalassa, in Greek mythology, is the spirit of the sea.

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