The dirigibles: great giants of the airs

“MY FATHER was a radiotelegrapher in an airship, and he was passionate about his work,” he said to Awake! Mrs. Ingeborg Waldorf. Indeed, during the first decades of the last century, much of the world was fascinated by these huge aerostats, which made them feel wherever they went.

The era of these colossal ships occupied the first half of century XX, during which they shone like dazzling stars in the international firmament. However, their spectacular achievements would be eclipsed by equally spectacular catastrophes. In 1937, when the Hindenburg crashed in the American county of Lakehurst (New Jersey), that era that nevertheless offers an interesting history.

From hot air balloons to dirigibles

For centuries, the inventors tried to get the man to fly. In the eighteenth century, the French Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier observed that the smoke rose through the air and deduced that it must have some special property that would allow human beings to travel through the air. So they made a large bag of paper and cloth, and placed it on a steaming fire. The villagers who came to witness the experiment were astonished to see it ascend through the skies. It was June 1783: the Montgolfier brothers had just invented the hot air balloon. Five months later, the first manned flight took place on one of its balloons.

The drawback of these devices was that they had to follow the direction of the wind. To control the course, a propulsion device was needed. The first person who combined the ascent with the propulsion was the Frenchman Henri Giffard, who in 1852 manned an aerostat with steam engine. Instead of hot air, Giffard used to raise a lighter gas: hydrogen. Since that vehicle could be directed, it received the name of dirigible.

About ten years later, a German military man traveled to North America to follow closely the Civil War, in which both factions used balloons to make reconnaissance of enemy positions. The deep impression he received on his first aerostatic flight over the Mississippi River would help his surname remain indelibly linked to airships. It was Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

Count Zeppelin’s gigantic aircraft

According to certain testimonies, the count acquired the plans of an airship with aluminum structure of its inventor, Croat David Schwarz. Zeppelin was fascinated by the idea of ​​building aerostats whose dimensions allowed the transport of many passengers or heavy loads. That is why he made dirigibles with a metallic skeleton and cloth cover that were distinguished by their formidable size and pure form. * Inside the frame, or under it, they carried a cabin, or gondola, that accommodated the crew, as well as the passengers, who sometimes lodged in the belly of the ship. The upward force was provided by hydrogen, distributed in several compartments – reservoirs or gas bags – located inside the frame, and the propulsion was obtained by motors installed on it. The aerostatic experiments earned Zeppelin fame as a reckless eccentric, but ended up triumphing.

Zeppelin left the army and focused on the design and manufacture of airships. His first creation made the maiden voyage near the German city of Friedrichshafen in July 1900. The crowds crowded on the shores of Lake Constance to see how it hovered for eighteen minutes that cylinder 127 meters long. After this was founded the aircraft manufacturer Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH, which manufactured more airships. The count went from eccentric to a world figure, praised by the Kaiser as the most illustrious German of the twentieth century.

The first passenger airline in the world

Zeppelin believed that his gigantic aerostats would allow Germany to achieve aerial supremacy. Thus, during World War I, the army of his country used them to spy on enemy territory and even to throw bombs. In fact, the most destructive air raid during that conflict was made by an airship that flew over London.

However, civil aviation enthusiasts recognized their potential for passenger transportation. Hence the founding of the Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktien-Gesellschaft (German Air Transport Company), the first civil airline in the world, which over the years extended its services outside Europe. For example, the dirigibles Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg made trips back and forth between Germany and places like Rio de Janeiro and Lakehurst.

The airship fever spread to the United States. In 1928, when Graf Zeppelin carried out his inaugural flight, a transatlantic voyage between Friedrichshafen and the American east coast , when the Graf Zeppelin made a dash to the gardens of the White House to see the passage of the colossus. In New York, the enthusiasm was overflowing, to such a degree that the city received the crew with a triumphal parade.

Aboard the Hindenburg

The airship flight did not resemble today’s plane travel. Imagine what it was like to climb the Hindenburg, three times as long as a jumbo jet and with a height of thirteen stories. The traveler did not have a single seat, but an entire cabin with a bed and bathroom with top rated toilets. He did not have to fasten a seat belt during the take-off, but it was possible to stay in the cabin or walk in the gallery, looking through the windows, which could be opened. All these facilities for the passengers were in the huge belly of the ship.

According to the book Hindenburg-An Illustrated History, 50 diners were served in the dining room with silver cutlery, chinaware and white tablecloths. A typical transatlantic voyage used 800 eggs, 200 kilos of beef and poultry, and 100 of butter. There was a kitchen equipped with all the necessary appliances to make and refrigerate the food, as well as to make ice. A grand piano adorned the living room, where a stewardess attended the passengers.

In Hindenburg the comfort over speed prevailed. Moving at almost 130 kilometers per hour and at an altitude of 200 meters, in 1936 he made his fastest transatlantic trip: about forty-three hours. The crossing was usually gentle. So much so that, on a flight from Lakehurst, a passenger so tiredly climbed the airship that she slept in the cabin. Later he called the flight attendant and demanded that he tell him when they were finally leaving. Disconcerted, this one indicated that they had been in the air for two hours. “Do not deceive me!” Replied the lady, who did not believe him until she went into the living room and saw the coast of New England from above.

The most famous aircraft of all time

The era of the dirigible reached its peak in 1929, with the return to the world of Graf Zeppelin. Beginning officially in Lakehurst, he circumnavigated the globe from west to east in twenty-one days, with stopovers in Friedrichshafen, Tokyo-where 250,000 people were welcomed-in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Two years later he made history again by meeting in the Arctic with a Russian icebreaker. He says the work Hindenburg-An Illustrated History: “By now the Graf Zeppelin had an almost mystical reputation and caused a stir wherever he went. It is not risky to say that it was the most famous aircraft of all time, even more so than the modern Concorde. “

Other nations also augured a great future for rigid airships. Britain planned to build a fleet of silver giants that, with regular flights to India and Australia, join the remotest corners of the empire. In the United States, Shenandoah was the first to use helium instead of flammable hydrogen. In addition, the Akron and the Macon could launch and recover in flight small ships that kept inside. Thanks to the radiocompás, the Macon was the first air carrier of high efficiency.

Spectacular catastrophes

“In fact, my father loved to fly,” Mrs. Waldorf continued, mentioned at first, “but she was worried about the risks.” Of course, he made those trips during World War I. However, despite their famous achievements, they were dangerous ships even in times of peace. For what reason?

One of his great enemies was bad weather. For example, 8 of the first 24 aircraft built by Count Zeppelin were lost because of this. In 1925, the fury of the winds tore American Shenandoah in mid-flight. Finally, two other weather-related air disasters – the loss of the Akron in 1933 and the Macon less than two years later – marked the end of the era of gigantic rigid airships in the United States.

British hopes were on R-101. But in 1930, in his first trip from Great Britain to India, he did not surpass France, where the rigor of the climate made him crash. One writer points out that “since the loss of the Titanic in 1912, no disaster had so moved national opinion.” The heyday of the rigid airships of the United Kingdom came to an end.

Nevertheless, the German airship industry kept its confidence alive, until a catastrophe struck the world. In May 1937, on a trip from Frankfurt to New Jersey, the Hindenburg maneuvered to land at Lakehurst’s Naval Air Station when a small fire fungus suddenly emerged on the outer deck, near the tail. The hydrogen combustion of the bags quickly wrapped the ship in flames, which claimed 36 lives.

For the first time, the television cameras recorded the disaster live. The film roll of the thirty-four catastrophic seconds -from the first flame until the colossus crashes to the ground-was displayed all over the world, with remarks, drowned out by the pain, of the reporter: “It’s on fire, everything It becomes flames. […] Poor humanity and poor passengers! ” In a sense, the more than thirty years of gigantic dirigibles ended in only thirty-four seconds.

A new generation of blimps

The city of Friedrichshafen never lost the fascination with airships. The Zeppelin Museum takes visitors on a journey through time, giving them the opportunity to climb a reconstructed section of the Hindenburg. A museum guide, who saw the original ship at the Berlin Olympics (1936), said to Awake !: “There are no words to describe how we felt before those airships. It was overwhelming. “

It is announced that a new generation of dirigibles are on the way, benefiting from the latest advances in technology. Smaller than their enormous predecessors, they are prepared for “exclusive, quiet and ecological tourism”. Will they reach as high a heights as their ancestors, the great flying giants? Time will tell.

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