Airship pioneer Hugo Eckener was an early associate of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, and earned worldwide fame as a zeppelin commander and tireless advocate for passenger airships.
Dr. Eckener’s contribution to zeppelin aviation had two equally crucial aspects; his skill in technical matters, such as the development of rigorous operating standards and his understanding of meteorology and pressure pattern navigation, and his sharp business acumen and ability to inspire public enthusiasm and support for airship travel.
Eckener was born on August 10, 1868, in the city of Flensburg, on Germany’s Baltic coast, and his experience sailing in the waters of the Baltic gave him important insights into weather and meteorology which were later crucial to his approach to airship operations.
Eckener’s formal education was in the field of psychology, in which he earned his doctoral degree, and he had no formal training in physics, engineering, or aeronautics. He moved to Friedrichshafen on the shore of the Bodensee (Lake Constance) for its healthy climate and the opportunity to continue his sailing.
Working as a journalist for the Frankfurter Zeitung, Eckener first saw an airship when he was assigned to cover the second flight of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s first ship, LZ-1, on October 7, 1900. Eckener found himself inspired by Count von Zeppelin — if not entirely impressed with the performance of the Count’s airship — and agreed to work for Zeppelin as a writer and publicist. Before long, however, Eckener became deeply involved in the technical and operational aspects of zeppelin flight, and by 1911 he was given his first airship command, the zeppelin LZ-8 Deutschland II.
The very first flight of Eckener’s very first command, LZ-8, ended in a crash. On May 16, 1911, as LZ-8 was being moved from its hangar, a gust of wind tore the ship away from its ground crew and smashed it against the roof of the hangar; there were no injuries, but the passengers and crew had to be rescued by a long fire ladder.
It has been said that Eckener’s most notable characteristics as an airship commander — his almost obsessive caution, and determination always to put safety above all commercial or political considerations — were born of this experience. Eckener did not believe in taking risks, or hoping to chance: “It is absolutely necessary to know an operation will be successful before proceeding,” he said.
As a commander, Eckener was known as strict, almost severe officer, who had little patience for incompetence or lack of effort. His was a formidable, imposing, formal personality, and even his closest colleagues and officers called him Herr Doktor and Sie, and never Hugo or du. But he was also known for fairness to his officers and crew, and calmness during moments of crisis and tension, and for his ability to remain on the bridge for literally days at a time when conditions were difficult.
Eckener and World War I
Though he remained a civilian during World War I, Eckener was deeply involved in Germany’s use of zeppelins during the war. Eckener was the senior advisor to the German Navy’s airship chief, Peter Strasser, and as director of airship training for the German Navy, Eckener trained more than 50 flight crews, comprising more than 1,000 men.
After World War I, the Allies’ reaction to the bombing of civilians by German airships (both those of the Zeppelin Company and the other principal German dirigible builder, Schutte-Lanz) caused the Allies to place harsh restrictions on all German aviation, and in particular on lighter-than-air actvities. The Zeppelin Company was effectively put out of business by the Versailles Treaty and the Allies policies after the War; strict restrictions limited the size of airships that could be built by the Germans, making the construction of a new intercontinental airship impossible, and DELAG‘s two commercial airships were given to the allies; the highly successful LZ-120 Bodensee to Italy, and the newly-built LZ-121 Nordstern to France.
Eckener and LZ-126 Los Angeles
It was in the wake of World War I that Eckener made perhaps his greatest contribution to the survival of the zeppelin. After the War, Germany was required to pay heavy reparations, not only for the war itself, but also for the destruction of German zeppelins by their crews, who preferred to destroy their own ships rather than allow them to fall into the hands of the Allies (in the way German sailors scuttled their ships at Scapa Flow). Eckener convinced the Allies to allow the Zeppelin Company to build a new ship, LZ-126, to be delivered to the Americans as ZR-3 USS Los Angeles in partial satisfaction of these reparation obligations.
The construction of LZ-126 kept the Zeppelin Company alive, maintaining not only its plant and equipment, but also its workforce of its highly skilled employees. The construction and operation of LZ-126 also provided Eckener and his colleagues with the knowledge and experience they would use to build Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg.
The transatlantic flight of LZ-126 from Germany to America was an aviation triumph, and Eckener and his crew were given a ticker-tape parade up Broadway in New York City, and were greeted at the White House by U.S. President Calvin Coolidge.
To finance LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, Eckener and his fellow Zeppelin officers — Hans Flemming, Hans von Schiller, Anton Wittemann, and Max Pruss — traveled throughout Germany giving hundreds of lectures and raising funds for the Zeppelin-Eckener-Spende (the Zeppelin Eckener Fund). While the Spende raised only 2.5 million of the 7 million marks needed to build LZ-127, with an additional million marks from the government, and financing from its other operations, the Zeppelin Company was able to begin construction.
LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin
Graf Zeppelin was built under Eckener’s driven leadership, and became the most successful zeppelin in history, completing many important and pioneering flights under Eckener’s command.
Eckener’s flights in Graf Zeppelin — including transatlantic crossings, a Round-the-World flight, and an exploration of the North Pole — brought him international fame and acclaim in the 1920’s and early 1930’s, and public opinion polls indicated that Eckener was one of the most famous men in the world at the time.
It was suggested that Eckener use his almost universal popularity in Germany to run for political office in the unsettled closing days of the Weimar Republic, but Eckener declined all appeals to become involve in politics so that he could devote himself completely to the development of the zeppelin.
Hugo Eckener and the Nazis
Hugo Eckener was noted for his early opposition to Hitler and the Nazis, and he was eventually removed from his position as leader of zeppelin operations because of his opposition to National Socialism. Eckener had infuriated the Nazis by refusing permission for a political rally at the Zeppelin hangar at Friedrichshafen at which Hitler would have spoken, and in 1931, Eckener made a national radio speech in support of German Centre Party Chancellor Heinrich Bruning which contained veiled but obvious criticism of the Nazis.
Considered politically troublesome by the National Socialists, Eckener gradually lost influence as the Nazis solidified their hold on German life after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933. Despite his dislike of the new regime, Eckener’s devotion to zeppelins had led him to seek and accept government support, but the increasing involvement of the Nazi government further reduced his authority.
The establishment of the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei (DZR) in 1935 signaled Eckener’s final loss of any real power over the zeppelin enterprise. To build LZ-129 Hindenburg, the Zeppelin Company had accepted 2 million marks from the Propaganda Ministry of Joseph Goebbels and 9 million marks from the Air Ministry of Herman Goering, but as a condition of the Air Ministry’s support, the Zeppelin Company was split in two parts in March, 1935; the original Luftschiffbau Zeppelin would be responsible solely for the construction of airships, while airship operations would be handled by the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei, affiliated with the German national airline Lufthansa. While Eckener officially remained the head of both companies, he was mainly a figurehead, and Captain Ernst Lehmann, who was much more supportive of the Nazi government, was given leadership of the DZR.
Eckener’s final and most notable break with the Nazi’s occurred in March, 1936, when Propaganda Minister Goebbels heard of Eckener’s outburst at Ernst Lehmann for canceling test flights to take Hindenburg on a propaganda flight during unfavorable weather conditions, which resulted to damage to the ship. The obsessively cautious Eckener was furious at Lehmann for jeopardizing the ship — and thus the entire Zeppelin program — by putting political considerations ahead of flight safety, because the three day propganda flight meant there would be no time to conduct important test flights before the ship’s first transatlantic crossing. Eckener reportedly lambasted Lehmann for risking the ship to make a “scheissfahrt” (shit flight) for the Nazis. Furious at Eckener, Goebbels decreed that Eckener’s name and picture could no longer be mentioned by the German press. Only a compromise brokered by Herman Goering (a letter from Eckener explaining that his concerns were solely technical, and not political), as well as Eckener’s international fame, protected Eckener from more serious consequences, and allowed him to continue to serve as commander of Hindenburg on various flights.
The Hindenburg Disaster
Hugo Eckener was in Graz, Austria when he received a telephone call from a reporter informing him that the Hindenburg had “exploded” at Lakehurst. Eckener’s initial reaction was that an “explosion” had to be the result of sabotage, which was reported in the press.
At the request of the German Air Ministry, Eckener hurried to Berlin, where he was told that the official government position rejected the possibility of any anti-Nazi sabotage.
Eckener proceeded by ocean liner to New York along with five other members of a German investigating commission, which included Hindenburg designer Ludwig Dürr, and headed directly to Lakehurst to view the wreckage and join the American inquiry being conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
After reviewing the witness reports and examining the wreckage, Eckener came to believe that the most likely explanation for the Hindenburg crash was that the sharp S-turn made by Captain Pruss during the landing procedure stressed the ship, causing a bracing wire to break and slash gas cell 4 or 5, releasing hydrogen which then combined with air to form a highly flammable mixture, which was likely ignited by an electrostatic discharge.
The sincerity of Eckener’s belief that the disaster was an accident, and not an act of sabotage, has often been challenged in light of the instructions he received from Goering’s Air Ministry to deny the possibility of a bomb, but Eckener reiterated this view in the memoirs he published after the war.
Eckener’s Final Years
Like many other Germans, Hugo Eckener and his family suffered significant privations in the years during and after the Second World War.
While other zeppelin pioneers, notably Max Pruss, tried to revive interest in the zeppelin in the early 1950’s, Eckener was convinced that the dramatic advances in heavier-than-air technology meant that the airship would never again be able to compete with the airplane.
Eckener died peacefully at his home by the shore of the Bodensee on August 14, 1954, at the age of 86.