During its career, the D-LZ127
Graf Zeppelin flew more than one and half million kilometres over
590 flights, and made 144 ocean crossings, carrying 13,110 passengers.
With a perfect passenger safety record, making it the most successful
rigid airship ever built.
The Graf Zeppelin was the designated
registration of D-LZ127 (Deutsche Luftschiff Zeppelin number 127)
the 127th designed Zeppelin, was originally planned to exploit the
latest technology in airships, building on the advances of the earlier
commercial operational ships. After the First World War, Germany
was limited by the treaty of Versailles to the size and capacity
of ships which they could build. The Zeppelin Company had created
two ships within this limited size parameter, the Bodensee and Nordstern,
for small inter city passenger services. It was with a contract
with the United States Government that enabled the company to exceed
the regulation laid down on the size limitation, and thus designated
and constructed the D-LZ126, later re-christened on delivery as
the "Los Angeles". Much of the lessons learnt in the design
of this ship, was carried forward and improved in to the design
of the LZ-127 "Graf Zeppelin".
Dr. Hugo Eckener, whose experience
and work with Count Zeppelin had lead the company for the years
following the death of the Count, had to campaign to the German
Government for its construction and assisting funding, and only
after two years of lobbying did that proceed at the Zeppelin works,
Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, at Friedrichshafen in Germany.
Construction of the ship began
on the enhanced design of the LZ126, and when finally complete,
the ship flew for the first time on 18 September 1928. With a
total length of 236.6 metres (776 ft) and volume of 105,000 cubic
metres (3,700,000 cu ft), was the largest airship up to that time.
The D-LZ127 was powered by
five Maybach 550 horsepower (410 kW) engines that could burn either
Blau gas or gasoline. The ship achieved a maximum speed of 128
kilometres per hour (80 mph, 70 knots) operating at total maximum
thrust of 2,650 horsepower which reduced to the normal cruising
speed of 117 km/h (73 mph).
The D-LZ127 had a usable payload
capacity of 15,000 kilograms for a 10,000 kilometres cruise.
Initially it was to be used
for experimental and demonstration purposes to prepare the way
for regular airship travelling, but also carried passengers and
mail to cover the costs.
general passenger gondola layout
Behind the front command cabin
through a door lay the map room, with two large open access hatches
to allow the command crew to communicate with the navigators.
From the map room ascending a ladder allowed access to a keel
corridor inside the hull. The map room had two large windows,
one on each side. A rear door led from the map room to a central
corridor with the three-man radio room to the left and the electric
kitchen to the right, and a short passage to the main entrance-exit
door on the right.
The corridor ended at a door
that opened into the main dining and sitting room, with four large
windows. At the rear of this room a door opened into the long
corridor to access the passenger's cabins and washrooms and toilet
facilities. Each passenger cabin was designed in the "Pullman"
style as enjoyed on luxury train travel. By day was set with a
sofa which by night the crew would convert to two beds, one above
the other. The crew's quarters were inside the hull reached by
a catwalk. The kitchen was equipped with a single electric oven
with two compartments and hot plates on top.
From its first flight on 18 September 1928 and operated successfully
until its last flight on 18 June 1937, the Graf saw nearly nine
years of uninterrupted service, totalling nearly two years in
the air and travelling some 1.7 million kilometres. Its seventh
flight was its first Atlantic crossing, thereafter it made regular
flights across the South Atlantic to Brazil, one round the world
tour, a polar expedition, two roundtrips to the Middle East, and
a few within Europe including visits to Cardington and London.
While the Graf Zeppelin only visited the United States five times
(twice during the "Round the World Flight"), the airship
made a total of 64 flights to South America.
passenger airship flight
Dr. Eckener commanded the "Graf Zeppelin" on its first
intercontinental trip, a transatlantic crossing which left Friedrichshafen,
Germany, at 07:54 on 11 October 1928, and arrived in the United
States at NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey, on 15 October after having
travelled 9,926 km in 111 hours. Notwithstanding the heavy headwinds
and stormy weather that slowed the journey, Eckener had nevertheless
repeated the success of his first transatlantic crossing made
four years earlier in October 1924, to deliver the D-LZ126 (renamed
the USS Los Angeles) to the U.S. Navy. Eckener and the crew were
welcomed enthusiastically with a "ticker tape" parade
in New York the next day and a subsequent invitation to the White
This first transatlantic trip was not without its difficulties,
however, as the airship suffered potentially serious damage to
its port tail fin on the third day of the flight when a large
section of the linen covering was ripped loose while passing through
a mid-ocean weather front or squall line. With the engines stopped,
the ship's riggers attended to repairs the torn fabric to the
framework and sew blankets to the ship's envelope. Fortunately
the riggers finished just before Dr. Eckener had to restart the
engines when the ship had dropped to two hundred feet of the ocean's
surface. The Graf crossed the U.S. coast at Cape Charles, Virginia,
around 10 AM on 15 October, passed over Washington, D.C., at 12:20PM,
Baltimore, MD, at 1PM, Philadelphia, PA, at 2:40 PM, New York
City at 4 PM, and landed at NAS Lakehurst at 5:38 PM.
In addition to the passengers
and crew, there was also a stowaway on the fight, 19-year old
Clarence Tehune, who had secreted himself onboard the Graf Zeppelin
at Friedrichshafen and working for his passage in the airship's
kitchen. Terhune was returned to Europe on the French liner SS
Ile de France along with a number of airship crewmembers.
The "Interrupted Flight"
While the "Graf Zeppelin" would eventually have a safe
and highly successful nine-year career, the airship was almost
lost just a half a year after its maiden flight while attempting
to make its second trip to the United States in May 1929. Shortly
after dark on 16 May, the first night of the flight , the airship
lost two of its five engines while over the Mediterranean off
the southwest coast of Spain forcing Dr. Eckener to abandon the
trip and return to Friedrichshafen. While flying up the Rhône
Valley in France against a stiff headwind the next afternoon,
however, two of the remaining three engines also failed and the
airship began to be pushed backwards toward the sea.
As Dr. Eckener desperately
looked for a suitable place to put down the airship, the French
Air Ministry advised him that he would be permitted to land at
the Naval Airship Base at Cuers-Pierrefeu about ten miles from
Toulon to use the mooring mast and hangar of the lost airship
Dixmude (France's only dirigible which crashed the Mediterranean
in 1923) if the Graf could reach the facility before being forced
out to sea. Although barely able to control the Graf on its one
remaining engine, Eckener managed to make a difficult but successful
emergency night landing at Cuers. After making temporary repairs,
the Graf finally returned to Friedrichshafen on May 24. Mail carried
on the flight received a one-line cachet reading "Due to
mishap the flight was delayed for the first America trip"
and was held at Friedrichshafen until 1 August 1929, when the
airship made another attempt to cross the Atlantic for Lakehurst
arriving on 4 August 1929. Four days later, the "Graf Zeppelin"
departed Lakehurst for another daring enterprise - a complete
circumnavigation of the globe.
The growing popularity of the Graf made it easy for Zeppelin company
chief Dr. Hugo Eckener to find sponsors for a "Round-the-World"
flight. One of these was the American press tycoon William Randolph
Hearst, who requested the tour to officially start at Lakehurst
Naval Air Station, NJ. As with the October 1928 flight to New
York, Hearst had placed a reporter, Lady Grace Drummond-Hay, on
board, who thereby became the first woman to circumnavigate the
globe by air.
Starting there on 8 August,
Graf Zeppelin flew back across the Atlantic to Friedrichshafen
to refuel before continuing on August 15 across the vastness of
Siberia to Tokyo (Kasumigaura Naval Air Station), a non-stop leg
of 6,988 miles (11,246 km), arriving 3 days later on 18 August.
Dr. Eckener believed that some of the lands they crossed in Siberia
had never before been seen by modern explorers. From the ship,
the first ever sighting of the aftermath of the meteorite at Tunguska,
Siberia in 1908. After staying in Tokyo for five days, on 23 August,
the Graf Zeppelin continued across the Pacific to California flying
first over San Francisco before heading south to stop at Mines
Field in Los Angeles for the first ever non-stop flight of any
kind across the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific leg was 5,998 miles
(9,653 km) and took three days. The airship's final leg across
the United States took it over Chicago before landing back at
Lakehurst NAS on 29 August, taking two days and covering 2,996
miles (4,822 km).
The flying time for the Lakehurst
to Lakehurst legs was 12 days and 11 minutes. The entire voyage
took 21 days, 5 hours and 31 minutes including the initial and
final trips between Friedrichshafen and NAS Lakehurst during which
time the airship travelled 49,618 km (30,831 miles) whereas the
distance covered on the designated "Round the World"
portion from Lakehurst to Lakehurst was 31,400 km (19,500 miles).
The Polar Flight
The ship pursued another spectacular destination in July 1931
with a research trip to the Arctic; this had already been a dream
of Count Zeppelin 20 years earlier, which could not, however,
be realized at the time due to the outbreak of war.
In July 1930, Hugo Eckener
had already piloted the Graf on a three-day trip to Norway and
Spitsbergen, in order to determine its performance in this region.
Shortly after Eckener made a three day flight to Iceland, both
trips completed without technical problems.
initial idea was to rendezvous with the submarine Nautilus, the
ship of polar researcher George Hubert Wilkins, who was attempting
a trip under the ice. This plan was abandoned when the submarine
encountered recurring technical problems, leading to its eventual
scuttling in a Bergen fjord.
Eckener instead began to plan
a rendezvous with a surface vessel. He intended funding to be
secured by delivering mail post to the ship. After advertising,
around fifty thousand letters were collected from around the world
weighing a total of about 300 kilograms. The rendezvous vessel,
the Russian icebreaker Malygin, on which the Italian airshipman
and polar explorer Umberto Nobile was a guest, required another
120 kilograms of post. The major costs of the expedition were
met solely by sale of postage stamps. The rest of the funding
came from Aeroarctic and the Ullstein-Verlag in exchange for exclusive
The 1931 polar flight took
one week from 24 June 1931 until the 31st. The Graf travelled
about 10,600 kilometres, the longest leg without refuelling was
8,600 kilometres. The average speed was 88 km/h.
Middle East flights
The "Graf Zeppelin"
made two visits to the Middle East during its career. The first
took place over four days in April 1929, without landing but during
which mail was dropped to the large German colony at Jaffa in
Palestine. The second flight took place in 1931 beginning on 9
April with a flight to Cairo, Egypt, where the airship landed
less than two days later. After a brief stop the "Graf Zeppelin"
proceeded on to Palestine before returning to Friedrichshafen
on 23 April, just an hour over four days after departure. The
trip took 97 hours, covered 9,000 kilometres and crossed 14 countries
on three continents.
The Graf Zeppelin undertook a number of trips around Europe, landing
at both Cardington and also at Hanworth aerodrome (a future Heathrow
Following a successful tour
to South America in May 1930, it was decided to open the first
regular transatlantic airship line, travelling mainly from Germany
to Brazil (64 such round trips overall) with occasional stops,
among them Spain, Miami, London, and Berlin. At one of the Berlin
visits a glider that was released from under its hull performed
a loop in front of cheering crowds, and on one of the Brazil trips
British Pathé News filmed on board.
Almost every flight had a
reporter on board, who would radio a report to the ground via
Morse Code. Such articles made Lady Drummond-Hay famous, and she
would be pictured in advertisements featuring the Graf.
Graf Zeppelin over Pitsea in Essex 1931
In October 1933, the Graf
Zeppelin made an appearance at the Century of Progress World's
Fair in Chicago, after circling over the fair, then landing and
relaunching 25 minutes later. Despite the beginning of the Great
Depression and growing competition by fixed-wing aircraft, D-LZ127
would transport an increasing number of passengers and mail across
the ocean every year until 1937.
Post and cargo provided most
of the income for operating the Graf. In one transatlantic flight
the Graf would carry 52,000 postcards and 50,000 letters, and
by its last flight it had carried 53 tonnes of mail. Since 1912,
Zeppelins were allowed to postmark and sort mail onboard and the
Graf managed to deliver South America-bound about a week faster
than by ship. When the Hindenburg entered service in 1936 prospects
became better and a profit was expected for 1937 by delivering
mail on both it and the Graf, but the Hindenburg's loss in May
1937 put an end to all commercial Zeppelin service.
Dr. Eckener intended to supplement
the successful craft by another, similar Zeppelin, projected as
D-LZ128. However the after the loss of the R.101 in 1930 led the
Zeppelin company to reconsider the safety of hydrogen-filled vessels,
and the design was abandoned in favour of a new larger project.
D-LZ129, which was to eventually be christened the Hindenburg,
After the Hindenburg disaster
in 1937, all Zeppelin flights were immediately grounded. After
review it was agreed that the Graf Zeppelin would have been incapable
of flying with helium, was retired one month past the disaster.
The ship was brought in to the airship shed at Frankfurt and deflated.
The ship was then placed on stocks, and formed part of a museum
exhibition. The ship stood in the hanger attracting many visitors
in it's final days.
The end for the Graf Zeppelin
came with the outbreak of World War II. In March 1940, Hermann
Göring, the German Air Minister, ordered the destruction
of the remaining dirigibles, and the duralumin parts were fed
into the German war industry.
The name fame of the Graf
Zeppelin is still known today as the most successful operational
airship of it's time