The rock band or the doomed blimp? Hydrogen explosions and catchy melodic hooks have hijacked our thinking about the term “Zeppelin.” Visceral television coverage of the Hindenburg disaster — and its scale — have largely overwritten the more storied tales of these luxurious sky kings. Consider the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin: 90 years ago, this lighter-than-air craft made history with the first passenger-carrying flight around the globe and pumped up worldwide interest.
Building a Better Zeppelin Airship
Built by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin and completed in 1928, the LZ 127 was named after airship pioneer Count (Graf) Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Designed using the basic plan of the LZ 126 — which was supplied to the United States and commissioned the USS Los Angeles as war reparations — the LZ 127 was also built using triangular duralumin girders and rings spaced 15 meters apart. When completed, the craft was 776 feet long and 110 feet high, making it the largest airship in the world.
As noted by Airships.net, size was the priority: The long, thin hull of the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin was not aerodynamically ideal and was subject to bending stress. Designers wanted to maximize the ship’s fuel-carrying capacity and would have likely made the Zeppelin even larger if they weren’t constrained by the construction shed at Friedrichschafen — which had interior dimensions of 787 feet long and 115 feet high.
This Zeppelin airship also used a new type of fuel for its combustion engines, called “Blau gas” after its inventor. With a similar weight to air, burning Blau gas meant airship personnel didn’t have to account for the loss in weight as heavier-than-air fuel burned, which ordinarily necessitated the regular venting (and therefore loss) of lifting gas. When completed, the LZ 127 was capable of reaching altitudes of up to 6,000 feet and speeds of 72 miles-per-hour.
Grafs Gone (World)Wide
Once cleared for active service the Graf Zeppelin began making history; on Oct. 11, 1928, it completed the first commercial passenger flight across the Atlantic in 111 hours and 44 minutes. And in 1929, the LZ 127 conquered another first: A worldwide journey with passengers on board. Starting and ending in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the worldwide trip took just 12 days and 11 minutes of flying time. Refueling was accomplished at pre-planned landings along the way, such as Friedrichschafen and Tokyo.
But things didn’t always go as planned. In Los Angeles, captain Hugo Eckener was forced to land during a temperature inversion, which required the ship to vent large quantities of hydrogen that couldn’t be immediately replaced. As a result, the craft was much heavier than usual on takeoff and nearly crashed into a string of power lines.
The LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin didn’t stop there — in July 1931 the ship made a trip to the North Pole, allowing scientists to photograph unmapped Arctic regions, conduct meteorological observations and measure magnetic field variations. And until 1937 — the Hindenburg disaster — the LZ 127 flew regular flights from Germany to South America. During its lifetime, the Zeppelin airship made nearly 600 trips and flew more than a million miles.
Catching the Fever
What Zeppelins lacked in sleek aerodynamics and simplicity of use, they made up for in stability of flight, comfort and the ability to carry large volumes of cargo, crew and passengers around the world. So it’s no surprise that the massive LZ 127 — effectively a proof-of-concept for its size and the use of Blau gas — captured public interest. Extensive documentation of its globe-trotting flight only increased this Zeppelin affection, especially since Captain Eckener had a flair for the dramatic, timing his flight through San Francisco’s Golden Gate with the sun setting behind the ship. As Eckener put it: “When for the first time in world history an airship flies across the Pacific, should it not arrive at sunset over the Golden Gate?”
Despite the LZ 127’s innovative design and historic accomplishments, however, the use of hydrogen as lifting gas meant it was only a matter of time before leaky balloons and errant sparks caused a serious problem. On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg exploded over Manchester Township, and on June 18 of that same year, the LZ 127 had her farewell flight — from Friedrichshafen to Frankfurt — until being stripped for parts by the Luftwaffe in 1940.
Airships had a simple problem: Hydrogen is highly flammable and dangerously explosive under pressure.
But there’s a (relatively) easy fix — helium. With 92% of hydrogen’s lifting power and none of the flammability, this noble gas is the perfect alternative. In the 1930s, however, helium supply was largely controlled by the U.S. and sharing it with the Germans wasn’t seen as strategically sound. Today, however, helium isn’t so heavily regulated, making it the go-to lifting gas for next-gen Zeppelins.
The result? Commercial and consumer interest in airships is on the rise. As noted by CNN, Goodyear recently updated its fleet with their “NT” models, which come complete with fly-by-wire steering, more comfortable seats and — finally — a lavatory. And Luftschiffbau Zeppelin itself is back in the airship business, running 12 routes across Germany and Switzerland for 21,000 tourists every year. Still, CEO Michael Schieschke gets asked the same question every day: Do the airships still use hydrogen, and will helium burn? Despite the ongoing concern, he believes that “most of the public understands that these aircraft are safe now.”
In fact, helium-powered craft align extremely well with current economic conditions: Zeppelins can make long flights for low cost, are virtually noiseless, produce limited emissions and can lift massive amounts of cargo. From both environmental stewardship and expenditure management perspectives, the rigid airship renaissance makes sense.
We Have Liftoff
Zeppelin airships represented a breakthrough in aeronautic technologies, introducing comfort and control never before seen in airborne vehicles. The LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin marked the pinnacle of hydrogen-powered travel, breaking transatlantic, global and even polar records during its nine-year service. Ninety years later, new corporate investment is driving the development of Zeppelin features and designs — much like the burgeoning commercialization of space flight, renewed private-sector commitments offer the potential for both travel at scale and scientific discovery.