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Among other achievements the “Graf Zeppelin” has flown round the world and explored the Far North


BUILT IN 1928, the airship Graf Zeppelin is now in retirement

BUILT IN 1928, the Graf Zeppelin is now in retirement, having flown more than 16,000 hours, covered 1,060,000 miles and carried 13,000 passengers. The Graf Zeppelin made 148 transoceanic crossings, and was at one time used on a regular service across the Atlantic. The airship is 772 feet long and has a maximum diameter of 100 feet.

THE airship which first demonstrated to the world that long-distance transportation by air was possible was the German L 59, forerunner of today’s transoceanic commercial airship. In the war of 1914-18 Germany, blockaded by sea, decided to communicate with her forces in Africa by air. The L 59 was prepared for this difficult task.

On November 21, 1917, she left Jambol, Bulgaria, for German East Africa, with supplies of medicine and for the relief of General von Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops.

While flying at an altitude of nearly two miles near Khartoum her commander received a wireless message advising him to return “as the German had surrendered to the British”; so about 95 hours after her departure she again landed at Jambol. The information contained in this message was inaccurate. The L 59 had achieved a record non-stop flight which was not surpassed until several years after the war. The ship had flown 4,230 miles, but still had sufficient fuel left for another 64 hours’ flying. This flight convinced Germany of the possibilities of world operation by her Zeppelins. The Graf Zeppelin was completed in September 1928, and the following month she flew to the United States and back for the first time. She is now in retirement, having flown more than 16,000 hours, covered 1,060,000 miles and carried 13,000 passengers.

In all, the Graf Zeppelin made 148 transoceanic crossings, and her flight round the world with freight, mail and a complement of sixty-one is one of the outstanding events in air travel.

Having left her base at Friedrichshafen, she pointed her nose on a northerly course and began the first passenger and mail flight round the world on August 15, 1929. Her passenger list on that occasion contained the names of people from Great Britain, Germany, France, America, Russia, Spain, Switzerland and Japan, and showed the international interest taken in this pioneer effort.

About six and a half hours after the departure, the airship passed over Berlin. Then Stettin, Danzig, and the Baltic Sea were passed, and late in the afternoon Konigsberg, marked by its medieval brick fortresses, became the turning point towards the east. The route lay over Tilsit (East Prussia) and portions of Poland and Lithuania, and at 7.45 that first evening the airship crossed the Russian frontier.

Countless lights were visible from the Graf Zeppelin, some in clusters’ of villages or towns, some reflected in the rivers, and all denoting a slumbering world, awakened only for a moment as the giant airship passed overhead. The dark shadow racing across the countryside gave a true indication of the ship’s speed.

The Graf Zeppelin flew over Vologda, U.S.S.R., with its forty-eight churches, and later the Ural Mountains were sighted directly ahead, stretching across the airship’s course. They were crossed at a height of 4,000 feet, and then began the long procession of lakes, rivers and swamps which extends almost to the Pacific.

It is a sombre and inhospitable region. A forced landing in such desolate parts would probably have been fatal.

Only sixty-one hours after the airship had passed over Berlin, Yakutsk was reached, and for the first time in the journey the engines were slowed down. Here the ship descended to 400 feet, and dropped a wreath in memory of the German prisoners of war who had died in Siberia.

Famous German airship flights

THE CONTROL ROOM was in the front part of the car of the Graf Zeppelin, with the passenger cabin behind it. This photograph, taken at Friedrichshafen, shows the method of handling the airship when near the ground. Rope spiders enable groups of men to apply their pull to various parts of the airship.

FIFTEEN TONS OF EXTRA EQUIPMENT were taken on board the Graf Zeppelin for her North Polar exploration trip. Among this equipment were tents, sleeping bags, kitchen utensils, provisions for three months, sleds, skis, guns and ammunition and fishing tackle. Several cameras were built into the ship and were operated by photographic experts who were among the scientists on board.

The airship’s course then swung to the south-east, and by the early afternoon only the Stanovoi Mountains lay between her and the Pacific coast. The charts showed this range to be about 4,600 feet high; though the airship climbed to nearly 5,600 feet, she had seek the tortuous mountain passes. Often she had peaks about 6,500 feet high on either side, and so close that it seemed one could reach out and touch them. Then the Sea of Okhotsk came into view - a welcome sight after the swamps of Siberia. When the coastline was crossed at the town of Ayan, the most difficult part of the flight had been left behind.

In the Gulf of Tartary, between the mainland and Japan, a typhoon was encountered. The airship passed through repeated rain squalls and strong wind and four days after the start landed at Kasumiga-ura, near Tokyo.

She had covered 7,030 miles in 101 hours 49 minutes. Three-fourths of the time the ship had flown with only four of her five engines. Ample fuel and oil remained on board to take her non-stop from Germany to Los Angeles, had not the visit to Japan been necessary on political grounds.

The Graf Zeppelin’s passengers and crew received a tumultuous welcome at Tokyo. At 3 p.m., on August 23, the ship again took the air, heading on an east-south-easterly course across the Pacific. Soon the unmistakable signs of another typhoon could be seen ahead. The setting was as dramatic as could be imagined. Lightning flashed close aboard, and sharp gusts slapped the ship.

The situation was critical, but for the second time on this remarkable voyage the airship safely weathered a storm of a type which severely tries the stoutest craft.

On her third day out the airship spoke to the first steamer that had come into sight on the broad Pacific. This was the Japanese cargo vessel, Hakutatsu Maru. As the Graf Zeppelin had been flying through fog, for almost thirty hours of her crossing her position was checked with that of the steamer. Their positions agreed almost exactly.

When the airship arrived at San Francisco, two days nineteen hours after having left Tokyo, she was surrounded by aeroplanes and given one of the greatest aerial welcomes ever recorded. It was decided not to land at Los Angeles until daylight the next morning; so the Zeppelin cruised slowly down the coast that night. Shortly after daybreak she landed between Hollywood and Los Angeles.

A ZEPPELIN EXHIBITION exists at Friedrichshafen alongside the Zeppelin sheds

A ZEPPELIN EXHIBITION exists at Friedrichshafen alongside the Zeppelin sheds. This exhibition illustrates the development of German airships from the first one up to the present day. The photograph shows a special padded helmet of a type used during the war of 1914-18 by members of crews in engine gondolas. The helmet permitted engineers to hear instructions in spite of the noise made by the engines.

That same night, after she had refuelled, the airship left Los Angeles on the third stage of her great flight. It was at this departure that those on board had their most thrilling experience.

During the day, while the ship was moored on the ground, strong sunshine had heated the gas inside her. At sunset the abnormal temperature fell; instead, there was a subnormal temperature. This caused the ship to become much heavier, and the take-off very difficult. The Graf Zeppelin at first rose, and then, because of a strong inversion (that is, an increase of temperature with height, in place of the normal decrease), the airship lost height. Four engines went full speed ahead, with elevator up, to depress the tail and elevate the bow, so that the ship would climb. She was so low that the climbing angle put the tail on the ground, causing the lower rudder to drag a few feet. Under the increasing speed, the ship leaped, then settled, struck and dragged again, leaving a deep furrow.

The speed increased. Round the flying field were high-tension electricity wires suspended from poles, each pole marked by a brilliant but forbidding red light. The Graf Zeppelin raced towards these wires at ever-increasing speed.

The forward car cleared the wires by a few feet, but the Graf Zeppelin was then inclined at an angle of 10 to 12 degrees. Her tail was 700 feet astern of the forward car, so that the after end of the airship was still some vertical distance below the wires. The people on the landing ground scattered; on board no one spoke.

Dr. Eckener nodded and his son, Knut, awaiting this signal, span the elevator wheel. Down went the bows towards the ground at 50 miles an hour - even though the ship was not far from it - but up went the stern. The tail cleared the wires, the controls were reversed, and the Graf Zeppelin was safely climbing into the air once more.

The airship followed the coastline southwards as far as San Diego, then eastwards along the Mexican border, and over the mountains at 6,000 feet. At daybreak she passed Yuma, Arizona, a town that proclaims in stony outline on the ground to the air traveller - “Yuma - Hot as Hell”.

From Yuma the great circle route was followed across the American continent. At 6.40 a.m. on August 29 the Graf Zeppelin circled the Statue of Liberty, New York, and landed at Lakehurst, New Jersey, half an hour later.

After a stay of three days the airship left Lakehurst; two and a half days later she crossed the Spanish coastline, to arrive back at Friedrichshafen, 67½ hours after having left Lakehurst. The duration of the world flight was 20 days 4 hours 14 minutes. The distance covered was 21,300 miles. Of the whole time, 7 days 5 hours 54 minutes were spent in ports, so that the time in the air was 12 days 18 hours 20 minutes.

Polar Surveys

In the summer of 1910 the late Count von Zeppelin, with Prince Henry of Prussia, went to Spitsbergen to make preparation for a Polar flight with one of his airships. The war of 1914-18 intervened, and in 1917 Count Zeppelin died. Twenty-one years after the flight had been projected, an airship bearing Zeppelin’s name left Friedrichshafen, under the command of Dr. Hugo Eckener, on a voyage of exploration to the Arctic.

Although no special difficulties were expected, it would have been careless to venture into the Far North without taking suitable precautions. On board were tents, sleeping bags, kitchen utensils, provisions for three months, sleds, skis, guns and ammunition, and fishing tackle. Each member of the crew had his kit of sewing materials and medical supplies. In all there were fifteen tons of extra equipment on board the airship.

A number of scientific subjects, including meteorology, magnetometry, geodesy, geology, flora and fauna, were to be investigated. Several cameras were built into the ship and these were operated by two experts.

From Berlin the Graf Zeppelin set off over the Baltic Sea, passing the island of Gottland, to Reval (now Tallinn) and Leningrad. From here the airship flew north towards Franz Josef Land, a considerable part of which was to be surveyed.

In a quiet bay on Hooker Island lay the Russian steamer Malygin, with an expedition on board. The airship landed on the water close to the steamer, and delivered and collected mail. In the boat that came alongside to transfer these mails was the Italian General Nobile, then serving with the Russians. On board the Graf Zeppelin was Lincoln Ellsworth, and, as Nobile drew near, Ellsworth recognized a companion of former Polar expeditions.

The airship soon took off and her real work began. In the north of Franz Josef Land, the explorer Nansen had sighted two islands, which he named Eve and Liv; but he had not been able to reach them. With the Graf Zeppelin in accurate survey of these two islands was made. Still farther north two new glacial formations were discovered and photographed. The airship’s course then swung to the east, over the boundless ice, and along the 82nd parallel of latitude.

DURING HER ARCTIC VOYAGE the Graf Zeppelin alighted on the water near the Russian steamer Malygin

DURING HER ARCTIC VOYAGE the Graf Zeppelin alighted on the water near the Russian steamer Malygin. This ship was on an expedition and the airship brought mails to her. Lincoln Ellsworth, who was in the airship, met his former Polar companion, the Italian General Nobile, who was a member of the expedition in the ship. Nobile was in the boat which came alongside the airship to collect the mails.

Strange as it may seem, travel in the frozen north was never monotonous. The ice itself changed constantly in colour as it glittered in the sunlight; the little puddles of melted snow had a light blue brilliance. Seals, sea-lions, walruses, Polar bears and innumerable strange birds were seen.

The colour of the sea ranged from deep green to bluish black and the rocks on the islands showed brown, yellow or bright red against the black lava. Inland the ice towered over everything and formed into fantastically shaped glaciers. At some points the last plunge of the ice into the water was over cliffs 2,000 feet high; at other places it made its way over a flat coastal plain.

The interior of North Land was then almost entirely unknown, so this, as well as the island of Novaya Zemlya, was explored by the ship. Professor Mollshanov, a Russian scientist, assisted research by sending pilot balloons into the stratosphere.

The Graf Zeppelin now turned towards Cape Chelyuskin and over the Taimyr Peninsula. Here was found a Mountain range the existence of which no one had ever imagined. Its peaks measured up to 2,000 feet.

Then the flight continued southwards across country towards the mouth of the River Yenisei, and here, over the Dickson Wireless Station, mail and newspaper packages were dropped by parachute.

The last part of this aerial voyage of discovery over the Arctic was devoted to the northern part of Novaya Zemlya and to the narrow strait between its two islands.

On the flight through the strait some wonderful pictures were obtained. Where the glaciers came down from the interior and pushed their way into the fjord, they assumed fantastic forms. On the sides of the hills were seen enormous sections of rock polished smooth by extinct glaciers. The whole course of these great rivers of ice could be traced from the series of terraces of polished rock over which they had moved to the wide-spreading delta.

The Graf Zeppelin returned home by way of Archangel, Leningrad and Berlin. Little more than a week had passed after her departure when she arrived back at Friedrichshafen. A huge area, hitherto unexplored, had been photographed and many valuable meteorological observations made.

The exploratory balloons, equipped with miniature short-wave stations, which automatically reported temperature, humidity and altitude at regular intervals, had done useful work. A few days had sufficed to accomplish what would otherwise have required elaborate expeditions working over a period of years. No other aircraft had attained so much, in a single flight, over these frozen regions.

REMARKABLE PHOTOGRAPHS WERE OBTAINED from the Graf Zeppelin as she cruised over Arctic regions. The whole course of extinct glaciers could be traced from the airship by the series of terraces of polished rock over which they had moved to their wide-spreading deltas. In this photograph, which was taken during the early part of the trip, the Russian vessel Malygin can be seen.

During her long and successful career the Graf Zeppelin has had her adventures and narrow escapes from destruction. She had sixty people, several tons of freight and 66,000 letters on board when she left Friedrichshafen, under the command of Dr. Eckener, on her maiden oyage across the North Atlantic. The airship was not allowed to cross France in a direct line to the west, but had to fly southwards along the valley of the Rhone, thus adding 1,250 miles to her voyage.

From the French frontier she was convoyed across the prohibited territory by French military aeroplanes. The ships on the normal route between the English Channel and Newfoundland reported a strong gale, but over Madeira the sun was shining and weather was fair. So the airship, keeping south, headed out over the Atlantic.

On the second night of the voyage, however, the south wind was warm and moist; in the morning severe storms were sighted. The first gusts that hit the ship knocked the coffee cups from the breakfast table.

Soon afterwards the chief engineer on duty ran breathlessly into the control car. His report was certainly alarming. The lower covering on the elevator fin had been ripped loose, a gaping hole showed in the ship and the shreds of the fabric tore at her sides.

Worse still, the greedy wind whistled round the tender fabric of an all-important gas bag, now deprived of its protection from the elements. The Graf Zeppelin was now like a ship with her rudder damaged, labouring in a heavy sea which threatened at any moment to burst her main hatches and cause her to founder.

With sixty people on board something had to be done, and done quickly. Every minute increased the danger. The engines were stopped and volunteers were called for.

Knut Eckener, son of the ship’s commander, armed with tools, cord and blankets, led five of his shipmates out along the swaying fin, the girders of which, lashed with rain, were now wet and slippery. The airship was then two thousand feet above a storm-tossed sea.

On the face of it the Zeppelin seemed to be in a hopeless predicament, for no aircraft had ever lived through such a misfortune. The gale howled about the Zeppelin and torrential rain poured down on her. Deprived of her engines and aerodynamic lift, the airship was becoming heavier and heavier with the weight of rainwater. She was being steadily forced lower and lower towards the angry sea that threatened to destroy her.

Atlantic Disaster Averted

At 700 feet Flemming, then Officer of the Watch, turned to Dr. Eckener. “Sir,” he called, shouting to make himself heard above the roar of the gale, “something must be done. We must start the engines.” Eckener looked at him, and estimated the added dangers this would involve to the men - his son among them - at work out on the fin. The airship continued to sink.

“Herr Doktor,” again shouted Flemming, “I must have the engines, the ship is now at 500 feet.” Eckener’s face went ashen. He knew that the engines would increase the pressure and his only son might be swept into the sea hundreds of feet below.

The use of the engines might save the ship and the lives of others on board; but few men have been faced with such a difficult decision. Yet it was only a matter of seconds before Dr. Eckener replied, “Very well, start your engines.” The engine telegraphs clanged and the propellers roared into action. Knut Eckener saw the propellers revolve, realized what was happening and held on to his dangerous perch.

His father, with the first movement from the engines, got up from his chair and walked slowly aft along the keel of the ship. He found that his son had completed his work on the fin. He had managed to cut away the flapping shreds, tied the ends tight, spread some blankets over the damaged portion, and secured the whole with cord. A few minutes later, gripping the edge of the fin, he crawled into the body of the ship to safety.

This battle with the elements took place exactly in mid-ocean. To strain the damaged fin as little as possible, the Graf Zeppelin flew on towards Lakehurst at half speed. Dr. Eckener. having satisfied himself that all was now as well as could be expected, returned to the control car. He had to face another dark night of squally weather and black clouds. Then in the brighter morning, America rose out of the grey-green sea.

As the Graf Zeppelin, with daylight showing through her fins, appeared over New York that city gave her a characteristic welcome; whistles blew, horns hooted, and aeroplanes circled and dipped in salute. She moored at Lakehurst, and when her crew landed they were received everywhere with spontaneous enthusiasm.

AFTER HER PACIFIC CROSSING the Graf Zeppelin landed outside Los Angeles

AFTER HER PACIFIC CROSSING, which formed part of the round-the-world flight of the Graf Zeppelin, she landed outside Los Angeles, on the Pacific coast of California. This photograph shows her moored to the low mast. The after part of the airship was attached to a trolley ; the circle c' the lines on which this trolley ran can be seen. This arrangement enabled the airship to turn head to wind whenever the wind direction changed.

You can read more about “Airships”, “Ferdinand, Count von Zeppelin” and “The Second Graf Zeppelin” on this website.

You can read more about the “Hindenburg” in Wonders of World Engineering

Famous German Airship Flights