Since the 1850s, engineers have been experimenting with powered lighter-than-air flight, essentially balloons with steering and propulsion. Like other early aeronautical experiments, the trial-and-error period was lengthy and hazardous. Dirigibles (with internal support structures) and blimps (powered balloons) were filled with lifting gases like hydrogen or helium, intended for many uses, from military and research to long-distance passenger service. The growth of the airship suffered numerous setbacks, including the famous Hindenburg disaster in 1937, and never developed into a major mode of travel. Despite the challenges, more than 150 years later, a number of airships are still in use and development around the world as cargo carriers, military platforms, promotional vehicles, and more.
The scene was caught on camera and by radio announcer Herbert Morrison of Radio WLS of Chicago, who famously broke down during his broadcast. The Hindenburg was the culmination of decades of German engineering and innovation. Man’s first conquest of the air, we often forget, was by hot air balloon and not the Wright Brothers or gliders.
It did not take long for innovative men to come up with ideas for increasing the lifting power of balloons and for coming up with ways of directing these lighter-than-air craft. German Count Zeppelin actually became these powered flights in 1900, before the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. His Zeppelin craft did not use motorized power to lift the airships, however, but to direct the airship in flight.
Zeppelin captured the imagination of the new German Empire and also people around the world. Although the count always struggled for money to continue his work, giving rides and received donations from German people helped finance his work (Count Zeppelin relied upon private, not taxpayer, funds to research and develop his incredible airships.) The Hansa carried 24 passengers and mail from Germany to Denmark and Sweden and it flew 399 flights over a period of years until it was requisitioned by the military during the First World War. The Hansa had an outstanding safety record as a commercial airship. Indeed, the German Aviation Association, before the First World War, had flown over 1,600 flights, carrying almost forty thousand passengers without a single death or serious injury.
As Zeppelins develop, the German military became involved and during the First World War, Zeppelins became a long range bombing weapon used primarily for night attacks on London. These attacks achieved much notice but did almost no damage at all to London. The Germans were the first to discover that indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations accomplishes almost nothing militarily and that it is extremely expensive (the RAF discovered the same fact in 1941, when there were more RAF aircrews killed in bombing raids over Germany than Germans killed from British bombs.) The military ineffectiveness of Zeppelin raids had little to do with the highly flammable hydrogen gas. In fact, the combat history of these sorties suggests that it was much harder to burst a Zeppelin into fire than had been generally assumed.
After the war ended, the United States and Britain both tried to develop rigid airships to military purposes. The four American airships —Shenandoah, Los Angeles, Akron, and Macon — carried several small “Sparrow” biplane fighters. The airships could “launch” and recover the fighters by trapeze. Although the lift was provided by the inert gas Helium, so that these vessels could never burst into flames as the Hindenburg eventually did, all four American airships were disasters. The engineering, much less than the lift gas, was more important.
Although the count had died in 1917, Otto Eckener, a brilliant engineer took over the development of Zeppelins for civilian use. Under his guidance, the Graf Zeppelin, a true passenger airship was developed and entered service. This class of airship flew had a regular and luxurious round trip flight to Brazil and the Graf Zeppelin also flew across the North Atlantic to America, as well as actually circumnavigating the globe. Zeppelins also had regular flights in the Mediterranean and even had an Artic flight over the North Pole. Money for these flights came from passengers, from the sale of air stamps (which were, of course, unique) and from the contributions of large numbers of private citizens.
When the Nazis came to power, they elbowed out the management. Otto Eckener despised National Socialism and although he was kept on the staff, practical control was removed from him. The Nazis sought to use the Zeppelins for propaganda purposes, for peacetime spying (especially upon the Lowlands of Holland and Belgium), and as a potential weapon of war. Much of the history of the Hindenburgrevolves around its use of hydrogen and the inability of the Germans, after the Nazis came to power, to acquire the more expensive, less buoyant but safer Helium, which was almost unavailable outside the Texas Panhandle.
While it is undeniable that the Hindenburg could not have burst into flames 75 years ago in New Jersey if it had been lifted by helium, this does not mean that the Hindenburg would have been safe — the record of virtually all American and British rigid aircraft, which used Helium instead of volatile Hydrogen, was disaster while the Graf Zeppelin class of passenger liners had a safety record much better than most passenger airplanes of the period.
Yet the Hindenburg Disaster, which had a relatively slight death toll, was seen by the world. Airliners would crash with no survivors, but the Hindenburg left most of its passengers and crew alive. What might have happened if the Hindenburg had not burst into flames that fateful day 75 years ago? The creation of a safe and long distance means of travel on hydrogen lifted rigid airships had already been established and the Hindenburg, the biggest of the line, set a standard for comfort and luxury surpassing anything yet achieved on sea or by rail, according to sophisticated world travelers who knew ocean liners and the Orient Express.
Rigid airships, however, traveled much faster, about 80 miles per hour on a dead line, and so could cross the Atlantic Ocean in a couple of days. These vessels were not turbulent at all, and passengers did not record anything like air sickness or sea sickness. Perhaps the most interesting historical consequence of the development of a vast fleet of profitable Hindenburg-class airships might have been the ameliorating influence on German politics. Rigid airships were useless in war but very valuable in peacetime. As common commercial carriers, bigoted discrimination cut deeply into profitability and so, like the Summer Olympics in 1936 caused Nazis to dramatically curtail their anti-Semitism, a successful rigid airship line that brought in desperately needed foreign currency might well have done so too.
The legacy for mankind generally of a commercially safe, fast and comfortable rigid airship line would have given travelers the world over a way to view our world in a way that nothing created since has provided: a calm, clear and beautiful view of oceans, cities and mountains. Could that happen today? Sadly, it is not even conceivable. The army of trial lawyers, bureaucrats in government regulating every aspect of commerce, and the sensationalist media that must have a crisis to survive, are all militantly against this most graceful and majestic way for people to travel. The Hindenburg disaster deprived mankind forever of something truly wonderful.
In 1905, pioneering balloonist Thomas Scott Baldwin's latest airship returns from a flight over the City of Portland, Oregon, during the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. (Library of Congress) #
An airship flies above the White House in Washington, D.C., in 1906. (George Buck, Library of Congress) #
The Baldwin airship at Hammondsport, New York, in 1907. Thomas Scott Baldwin, second from left, was a U.S. Army major during World War I. He became the first American to descend from a balloon by parachute. (Library of Congress) #
French military dirigible "Republique" leaving Moisson for Chalais-Mendon, in 1907. (Library of Congress) #
Zeppelin airship seen from water, August 4, 1908. (Library of Congress) #
A Clement-Bayard dirigible in shed, France, ca 1908. The lobes on the tail, meant for stability, were removed form later models, as they were found to slow the craft in the air. (Library of Congress) #
Wellman airship "America" viewed from the RMS TRENT, shown dragging her anchor, ca 1910. (Library of Congress) #
Luftskipet (airship) "Norge" over Ekeberg, Norway, on April 14, 1926. (National Library of Norway) #
The giant German dirigible Graf Zeppelin, at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on August 29, 1929. (AP Photo) #
The Graf Zeppelin flies low over Tokyo before proceeding to Kasumigaura Airport on its around-the-world flight, on August 19, 1929.(AP Photo) #
A pair of Gloster Grebe fighter planes, tethered to the underside of the British Royal Navy airship R33, in October of 1926.(Deutsches Bundesarchiv) #
British M.P.s walk onto an airship gangplank, in Cardington, England, in the 1920s. (Library of Congress) #
The U.S. Navy's dirigible Los Angeles, upended after a turbulent wind from the Atlantic flipped the 700-foot airship on its nose at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1926. The ship slowly righted itself and there were no serious injuries to the crew of 25. (AP Photo) #
Aerial view of the USS Akron over Washington, D.C., in 1931, with the long north diagonal of New Jersey Avenue bisected by the balloon and Massachusetts Avenue seen just beneath the ship. (Library of Congress) #
Passengers in the dining room of the Hindenburg, in April of 1936. (OFF/AFP/Getty Images) #
Interior hull of a U.S. Navy dirigible before gas cells were installed, ca. 1933. (National Archives) #
The Graf Zeppelin over the old city of Jerusalem, April 26, 1931. (Library of Congress) #
The mechanic of the rear engine gondola changes shift climbing inside the mantle of the airship, as the Graf Zeppelin sails over the Atlantic Ocean in a seven-day journey from Europe to South America, in August of 1933. (AP Photo/Alfred Eisenstaedt) #
The German-built zeppelin Hindenburg trundles into the U.S. Navy hangar, its nose hooked to the mobile mooring tower, at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 9, 1936. The rigid airship had just set a record for its first north Atlantic crossing, the first leg of ten scheduled round trips between Germany and America. (AP Photo) #
The Hindenburg flies over Manhattan, on May 6, 1937. A few hours later, the ship burst into flames in an attempt to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey. (AP Photo) #
The German dirigible Hindenburg crashes to earth, tail first, in flaming ruins after exploding at the U.S. Naval Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937. The disaster, which killed 36 people after a 60-hour transatlantic flight from Germany, ended regular passenger service by the lighter-than-air airships. (AP Photo/Murray Becker) #
The airship USS Macon, moored at Hangar One at Moffett Federal Airfield near Mountain View, California. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy) #
The USS Akron launches a Consolidated N2Y-1 training plane during flight tests near Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 4, 1932. (U.S. Navy) #
The USS Los Angeles, moored to the USS Patoka. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive) #
The wreckage of the naval dirigible USS Akron is brought to the surface of the ocean off the coast of New Jersey, on April 23, 1933. The Akron went down in a violent storm off the New Jersey coast. The disaster claimed 73 lives, more than twice as many as the crash of the Hindenburg. The USS Akron, a 785-foot dirigible, was in its third year of flight when a violent storm sent it crashing tail-first into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after midnight on April 4, 1933. (AP Photo) #
Sunset over the Atlantic finds a United Nations convoy moving peacefully towards it destination during World War II. A U.S. Navy blimp, hovering overhead, is on the lookout for any sign of enemy submarines, in June of 1943. (Library of Congress) #
The USS Macon sails over lower Manhattan, on October 9, 1933. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy) #
At a Nevada nuclear test site test Site, on August 7, 1957, the tail of a U.S. Navy Blimp is photographed with the cloud of a nuclear blast in the background. The Blimp was in temporary free flight in excess of five miles from ground zero when it collapsed from the shock wave of the blast. The airship was unmanned and was used in military effects experiments. Navy personnel on the ground in the vicinity of the experimental area were unhurt. (National Nuclear Security Administration) #
A small zeppelin airship flies through the air above the men's downhill race of the Alpine skiing World Cup, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, on February 24, 2007. (Timm Schamberger/AFP/Getty Images) #
Stephane Rousson pedals his airship over the English Channel on September 28, 2008 off Hythe, England. Rousson failed in an earlier attempt to make the 34-mile (55km) journey across the English Chanel in a pedal powered airship. On his second attempt, he made it only halfway before deciding to give up. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images) #
The MetLife blimp soars above the course during the third round of THE PLAYERS Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, on May 8, 2010. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images) #
Lower Manhattan, viewed at night from the DIRECTV blimp, on September 13, 2009. (Mario Tama/Getty Images) #
A dog sniffs the airship of French explorer Jean-Louis Etienne, that was to have flown a mission to measure the thickness of north Polar ice, but which was seriously damaged on January 22, 2008, when fierce winds ripped it from its moorings and slammed it into a house in Tourettes, southern France. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau) #
An airship advertising a resort in Dubai passes the London Eye Ferris wheel in London, on November 9, 2006.(Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images) #
The Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle approaches the landing area above Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, during its first flight, on August 7, 2012. The LEMV is intended to provide sensors capable of persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in a forward combat environment. (U.S. Army/Jim Kendall) #
Bradley Hasemeyer uses his smartphone to photograph the Aeroscraft airship, a high-tech prototype airship, outside a World War II-era hangar in Tustin, California, on January 24, 2013. Work is almost done on the 230-foot rigid airship prototype inside the blimp hangar in Orange County. The huge cargo-carrying airship has shiny aluminum skin and a rigid, 230-foot aluminum and carbon fiber skeleton. The prototype is half the size of the planned full-scale version, which will be designed to carry up to 250 tons of cargo.(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)