April 1, 2013
Ah, the romance of the airship. With its advent, passengers could finally be transported over great distances in comfort—even luxury. “On a plane you fly, but on the Graf Zeppelin you voyage,” remarked one pampered passenger. (For the Graf Zeppelin‘s first transatlantic flight, besotted crowds of 50,000 or more awaited its arrival at the landing field at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1928, even though it was delayed a day due to bad weather. Millions more watched as the airship slowly made its way up the East Coast, floating over Washington, D.C., past Baltimore and above New York City.) The airship experience, however, didn’t come cheap. In 1928, a round trip transatlantic ticket went for $3,000, worth about $40,000 in today’s dollars.
But what about the photograph shown here? The New York Times reports that in 1929, “Alfred E. Smith, the leader of a group of investors erecting the Empire State Building,” announced that the height of the building would be increased by 200 feet so that a mooring mast for dirigibles could be installed. Smith noted that passengers would exit the airship down a gangplank, and a mere seven minutes later could be on the street, ready to experience everything Manhattan had to offer.
Dr. Hugo Eckener, the commander of the Graf Zeppelin, reports the New York Times, dismissed the project as impractical, noting that dirigible landings required dozens of ground crew, not to mention plenty of rope. “[T]he notion that passengers would be able to descend an airport-style ramp from a moving airship to the tip of the tallest building in the world, even in excellent conditions, beggars belief,” notes the Times.
In 1930, International News Photos distributed this manipulated photograph. At the time, no airship had docked at the Empire State Building. That didn’t happen until September 1931, when a privately-owned dirigible docked for a mere three minutes, in a 40-mile-per-hour wind. “Traffic was tied up in the streets below for more than a half hour as the pilot, Lieutenant William McCraken jockeyed for position in the half gale about the tower 1,200 feet above the ground,” the Times reported in 1931.
This image—and 200 others—are on display at the National Gallery of Art in the exhibition “Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop.” The exhibition runs through May 5, 2013.
June 17, 2011
“One of the interesting things about airships,” says Tom Crouch, a senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum, who gave a lecture on the subject this week as part of the Museum’s Ask an Expert series, is that they were “transitional technology. They were capable of doing a great many things before airplanes were. They didn’t carry passengers as well as airplanes do, they couldn’t go to war as well as airplanes do, but they could carry significant loads over significant distances, long before airplanes did.”
Take the story of the Akron and Macon. Both were rigid American airships, built by the Goodyear Zeppelin Company in Akron, Ohio. “The problem the Navy faced between the wars, was, what are you going to do with these things?” says Crouch. “Are you going to use them as scouts? This thing is almost 900 feet long, painted silver, it can’t fly very high, and it can’t go very fast. So the enemy is going to see it coming. So what they did is really kind of a Hail Mary pass…. They decided that the Akron and Macon would become flying aircraft carriers.”
The two airships were supposed to fly ahead of the fleet, looking for the enemy. When they found them, the airships would launch fighters—the Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk—from inside the airship. (The Museum has the only Sparrowhawk left above water.) There was a hangar deck inside the ship’s belly, and the Akron and Macon could carry five fighters each. A trapeze bar would descend from the belly to release the airplanes.
When the Macon went down off the coast of California on February 12, 1935, she took four of the aircraft with her. “She’s 17,000 feet down,” says Crouch, “at the bottom of the Pacific, and when you look at the submersible pictures of the Macon, you can still see the top wing of four of these airplanes sticking up out of the silt.” )
Airships, Crouch says, “were the work of a little band of true believers.” The greatest of them all, Admiral William Moffett, was on board the Akron when it was lost off the New Jersey coast on April 4, 1933. Seventy-three of the 76 passengers and crew on board were killed.
Moffett, although not a pilot, was chosen in 1921 to head the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics. In a somewhat harsh assessment, the Maxwell Air Force Base Web site describes the admiral as having “an unfortunate affection for airships, a technological dead end that squandered millions of dollars.”
On September 1, 1933, Naval Air Station Sunnyvale was renamed Moffett Field in the admiral’s honor.
April 15, 2011
When the Hindenburg flew toward the the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937, it was the airship’s eleventh voyage to the United States. The nearly 804-foot-long ship, the pride of Nazi Germany, had been carrying passengers on excursion flights since 1910 without a single injury.
A recent Smithsonian Channel film, Hindenburg: The Untold Story, recounts the investigation that followed in the days after the tragedy.
Although the airship burned in seconds, 62 passengers and crew survived (35 died). The two remaining survivors were interviewed for this film. Werner Doehner, traveling as a passenger with his family, was 8 years old at the time of the disaster. “I don’t remember having flown out,” he recalls in the film, “I don’t remember being in the air, but I remember lying in the sand.” (How did Doehner survive? During the 34 seconds it took for everything to be destroyed, his mother dragged him and his brother to a broken window and threw them out—a fall of 50 feet.)
The other survivor, Werner Franz, was a 14-year-old cabin boy in 1937. He recalls: “The worst was the sea of flames. It carried on burning for a long time. Some parts of the wreckage burned til the morning after.” He remembers his awe upon seeing the zeppelin for the first time: “When I first walked into the hangar, I couldn’t see the airship. It had filled the hangar entirely. I stood in front of what I thought was a gray wall. It took a while before I realized that I was standing in front of the ship.”
Hindenburg: The Untold Story will be shown on April 18 and 19, and is also available from the Smithsonian Channel upon demand. Check your local cable listings. Watch a sneak peek, below.
December 17, 2010
What looks like Ronaldo’s nightmare is in fact the world’s largest soccer ball airship, built by E-Green Technologies of Kellyton, Alabama. Why, you ask? It seems everyone’s crazy about airships these days, for everything from military surveillance to tourism. E-Green just signed a deal with NASA’s Ames Research Center to hangar their giant Bullet Class 580 airship at the center’s research park in Moffett Field, California.
Look for a feature story on next-generation zeppelins in the February/March 2011 issue of Air & Space.