A Life in a Year – 4th March, First Flight of Airship LZ 129 Hindenburg

On 4th March 1936 the Airship LZ 129 Hindenburg made its first successful flight from Freidrichshafen in south west Germany.  The Hindenburg was a large German commercial passenger-carrying rigid airship, the lead ship of the Hindenburg class, at 245 metres the longest class of flying machines of any kind and the largest airship by envelope volume (200,000 m³, 7,062,000 cubic feet).  It was designed and built by the Zeppelin Company (Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH) on the shores of the Bodensee (Lake Constance) and flew from March 1936 until destroyed by fire fourteen months later on May 6th 1937, at the end of the first North American transatlantic journey of its second season of service. Thirty-six people died in the accident, which occurred while landing at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Manchester Township, New Jersey.

I went to Friedrichshafen in May 2008 and visited the Zeppelin museum, which is just about the most famous thing about Friedrichshafen, because this is where the airship was pioneered and developed.  Airships are a type of rigid hot air balloon pioneered by the German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the early 20th century, and so successful was the Count’s design that all airships subsequently became referred to as zeppelins, even if they weren’t (a bit like vacuum cleaners all being called Hoover!)

Zeppelin was born in Konstanz, on the other side of the lake and in 1898 he founded the ‘Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Luftschiffahrt’ or the company for the promotion of airship flight, and construction of the first Zeppelin began in Friedrichshafen in 1899 which enjoyed a perfect location for launching the airships.  The first Zeppelin flight took place in July, 1900 over Lake Constance and lasted for eighteen minutes.

The most important feature of Zeppelin’s design was a rigid metal alloy skeleton, made of rings and longitudinal girders. The advantage of this concept was that they could be built much larger than a conventional balloon which meant they were more useful for transporting people or commecial goods and they became great ships of the sky even making transatlantic crossings in the 1930’s.  But they were inherently dangerous as they relied upon the highly combustible gas helium to keep them afloat and on May 6, 1937, in front of thousands of spectators in New Jersey, USA, the biggest aircraft ever made, the airship Hindenburg caught fire, and within seconds burst into flames killing thirty-five of the ninety-seven people on board.   The actual cause of the spark that caused the explosion was never identified but it is a bizarre fact that the airship actually had a smoking room in the passenger compartment.  OK, it was lined with asbestos and the lighter was chained to the floor and there was a guard permanently on duty but it still sounds a bit reckless to me.  This disaster was the end for great airships and the Zeppelin Company in Friedrichshafen.

There are still Zeppelins flying from Friedrichshafen and we could see tourist flights taking off from the airport for a flight over the city and the lake and across to Switzerland.  If there had been time I think I might have been persuaded to take the trip but bearing in mind the Hindenburg story and the fact that the museum had a whole room devoted to photographs of airship disasters we weren’t terribly keen.

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