DELAG: The World’s First Airline

DELAG brochure

DELAG brochure

The world’s first passenger airline, DELAG (Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft, or German Airship Transportation Corporation Ltd) was established on November 16, 1909, as an offshoot of the Zeppelin Company. The company provided passenger air service until 1935, when its operations were taken over by the newly-formed Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei.

While many of the early flights were sightseeing tours, the DELAG airship Bodensee began scheduled service between Berlin and southern Germany in 1919. The flight from Berlin to Friedrichshafen took 4-9 hours, compared to 18-24 hours by rail.  Bodensee made 103 flights and carried almost 2,500 passengers, 11,000 lbs of mail, and 6,600 lbs of cargo.

DELAG offered the world’s first transatlantic passenger airline service, using LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin to make regular, scheduled flights between Germany and South America beginning in 1931. Graf Zeppelin crossed the South Atlantic 136 times before being retired after the Hindenburg disaster in 1937.

DELAG also employed the world’s first flight attendant, Heinrich Kubis.

The Origins of DELAG

DELAG’s goal was to commercialize zeppelin travel by providing passenger air service, and to purchase airships built by the Zeppelin Company at a time when support by the military was still uncertain. DELAG was created under the leadership of Zeppelin Company executive Alfred Colsman, who was was married to the daughter of aluminum manufacturer Carl Berg, who supplied aluminum for Count Zeppelin’s airships.

Alfred Colsman (far left) and Count Zeppelin (center, in white yachting cap)

Alfred Colsman (far left) and Count Zeppelin (center, in white yachting cap)

DELAG Before World War I

Between 1910 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, DELAG zeppelins carried over 34,000 passengers on over 1,500 flights, without a single injury.  The majority of the passengers were given free flights to publicize the zeppelin industry (especially members of German royalty, military officers, aristocrats, government officials, and business leaders), but DELAG also carried 10,197 paying passengers before having to cease operations with the beginning of the war.

Passengers aboard a luxurious DELAL zeppelin

Passengers aboard a luxurious DELAG zeppelin

DELAG used hangars and landing fields at Frankfurt, Oos (Baden-Baden), Dusseldorf, Lepizig, Postdam, Hamburg, Dresden, Gotha, and elsewhere in Germany (click links for photos), and sold tickets in cooperation with the Hamburg-Amerika steamship line as ticket agent.

DELAG was not able to fulfill its goal of providing regularly scheduled intercity passenger service before 1914, but its pre-war zeppelins introduced thousands of people to air travel.

DELAG After World War I

The revolutionary design of the airship LZ-120 Bodensee, introduced in 1919, finally allowed DELAG to compete with the railways and offer daily passenger service between Friedrichshafen and Berlin.  Beginning August 24, 1919, Bodensee flew northbound to Berlin on odd days of the month, and returned south to Friedrichshafen on even days; the flights included a stop at Munich until October 4, 1919.

DELAG acquired a second ship from the Zeppelin Company in 1920; LZ-121 Nordstern was intended to provide international passenger service between Friedrichshafen, Berlin, and Stockholm, but had not yet gone into service when DELAG was forced to cease operations by the Military Inter-Allied Commission of Control estalished under the Treaty of Versailles.  DELAG’s two airships were transferred to the Allies as war reparations:  LZ-120 Bodensee was given to Italy, and LZ-121 Nordstern was given to France.

DELAG Airships

LZ-7 Deutschland

Deutschland has the distinction of making the first commercial flight of the first commercial aircraft in history, but it was a flight which ended in a crash.

Early zeppelin in flight

LZ-7 in flight (with thanks to Andreas Horn for the identification)

Early zeppelin in flight

LZ-7 in flight (with thanks again to Andreas Horn)

Mahogany paneled passenger cabin of LZ-7

Mahogany paneled passenger cabin of LZ-7

LZ-7 departed Dusseldorf on its seventh flight, on June 28, 1910, with Zeppelin Company director Alfred Colsman and a full complement of 23 passengers, mainly journalists covering the flight, enjoying the view from its carpeted, mahogany-paneled, mother-of-pearl-inlayed passenger cabin.

Before long, due to a combination of engine trouble, weather, and the relative inexperience of the ship’s military pilot, LZ-7 crashed into the Teutoburger Forest and was destroyed.  Fortunately, there were no serious injuries.

Passenger cabin of early zeppelin

Passenger cabin of LZ-7 (with thanks to Andreas Horn)

Crash site of LZ-7 in the

Wreckage of LZ-7 at its crash site in the Teutoburger Forest

LZ-8 Deutschland II

LZ-8 was launched March 30, 1911, intended to replace the wrecked LZ-7.

LZ-8 Deutschland II

LZ-8 Deutschland II

Unfortunately, LZ-8, also named Deutschland, had a similarly short career.  On May 16, 1911, with Hugo Eckener in command of an airship for the first time, LZ-8 had barely left its hangar when it was pulled from its handling crew by a gust of wind and smashed against the roof of the hangar; the passengers and crew were able to escape without injury by climbing down a long fire ladder, but the ship was a total loss.

Crash of Deutschland II, under the command of Hugo Eckener

Wreck of LZ-8 Deutschland II

It has often been said that the almost predictable wreck of LZ-8 — the day’s gusty wind conditions made the flight ill-advised from the start — contributed to Hugo Eckener’s intense caution in the future, and his determination never again to sacrifice safety to pressure from passengers, the public, or any other source.

LZ-10 Schwaben

Schwaben was launched June 26, 1911, and entered passenger service the next month, on July 16, 1911.   Frequently commanded by Hugo Eckener, LZ-10 made over 200 flights and carried over 4,300 passengers, mostly on local flights from the hangar at Oos (Baden-Baden), but also from Dusseldorf, Potsdam, and Frankfurt, and occasionally from other cities.

LZ-10 Schwaben in flight

LZ-10 Schwaben in flight

Schwaben was destroyed by a fire and hydrogen explosion at Dusseldorf on June 28, 1912.

Wreck of LZ-10 Schwaben

Wreck of LZ-10 Schwaben

LZ-11 Viktoria Luise

LZ-11 first flew on February 14, 1912, and was named after Princess Viktoria Luise of Prussia, the only daughter of Kaiser Wilhem II.

LZ-11 Viktoria Luise

LZ-11 Viktoria Luise

The ship made local sightseeing flights, mostly from Frankfurt, but also from Postdam, Oos (Baden-Baden), and a few other cities.  LZ-11 made almost 500 flights, carrying almost 10,000 passengers.

LZ-11 Viktoria Luise

LZ-11 Viktoria Luise at Oos (Baden-Baden)

Passenger cabin of LZ-11 Viktoria Luise

Passenger cabin of LZ-11 Viktoria Luise

Viktoria Luise was transferred to the German Army at the beginning of World War I and used as a training ship for the military.

Relative sizes of LZ-11 Viktoria Luise, LZ-120 Bodensee, LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin. and LZ-129 Hindenburg

Relative sizes of LZ-11 Viktoria Luise, LZ-120 Bodensee, LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin. and LZ-129 Hindenburg

LZ-13 Hansa

Hansa made the first international flight by a DELAG ship, traveling from Hamburg to Copenhagen and back on September 19, 1912.  Hansa’s first flight was on July 12, 1912, and it carried over 8,200 people on almost 400 flights, mostly from Hamburg and Postdam, but on occassion from other cities such as Leipzig, Gotha, and Berlin.  Hansa was last based in Dresden until the outbreak of World War I, when it too was transferred to the Army as a training ship.

Passenger cabin of LZ-13 Hansa

Passenger cabin of LZ-13 Hansa

LZ-17 Sachsen

LZ-17 made its first flight on May 13, 1913.  Sachsen was the first ship commanded by Ernst Lehmann, who received his airship training in the ship from Hugo Eckener.

During 1913, Sachsen was used mainly for local sightseeing flights at Oos (Baden-Baden) and Leipzig, with occasional flights from Hamburg, Dresden, and other cities.

LZ-17 Sachsen

LZ-17 Sachsen

In 1914 the ship made most of its flights from Hamburg, with additional flights from Potsdam and Leipzig.

Sachsen proved to be an extraordinarily successful ship for DELAG, and carried 9,836 passengers on 419 flights in civilian service.

Sachsen with the zeppelin hangar at Leipzig

Sachsen with the zeppelin hangar at Leipzig

With the outbreak of war in August, 1914, Sachsen was transferred to the Army as a training ship, still under the command of Ernst Lehmann, and the leader of the German Navy’s airship service, Peter Strasser, received his training from Eckener and Lehmann aboard Sachsen.  Sachsen was later modified to incorporate bomb racks and machine guns and made numerous bombing attacks on targets in Belgium, France, and England.  The ship was dismantled in 1916.

LZ-120 Bodensee

The first civilian zeppelin built after the war, LZ-120 was primarily designed to provide fast air transportation between Friedrichshafen and Berlin.  Construction was completed within six months, and the ship, named Bodensee, made its first flight on August 20, 1919.

Wind tunnel testing of design for LZ-120 Bodensee

Wind tunnel testing of design for LZ-120 Bodensee

Bodensee’s highly advanced and aerodynamically-determined teardrop shape (which differed greatly from the thin, pencil-like shape of most previous zeppelins) was a great leap forward in zeppelin design, due primarily to the engineering theories of designer Paul Jaray.  With its revolutionary design and four 245 hp Maybach MB.IVa engines, LZ-120 Bodensee could reach a speed of 82 MPH.

LZ-120’s shape provided less drag, increased speed, and greater aerodynamic lift, and became the basic model from which LZ-126 Los Angeles, LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, and LZ-129 Hindenburg were adapted.

LZ-120 Bodensee

LZ-120 Bodensee

LZ-120 Bodensee passenger cabin

LZ-120 Bodensee passenger cabin

A relatively short, small ship, Bodensee carried 706,000 cubic feet of hydrogen (later increased to 796,300 during a refit).

Bodensee traveled the 370 miles between Friedrichshafen and Berlin in 4-9 hours, compared to the 18-24 hours it took by rail.  With washrooms and a small kitchen for light meals, Bodensee could carry up to 26 passengers in comfort as well as speed.  In the three months after the ship’s launch, LZ-120 made 103 flights (almost all of them between Friedrichshafen and Berlin) and carried almost 2,500 passengers, 11,000 lbs of mail, and 6,600 lbs of cargo.

LZ-120 Bodensee

LZ-120 Bodensee

LZ-120 was taken from DELAG by the Military Inter-Allied Commission of Control and delivered to Italy on July 3, 1921, where it was renamed Esperia.

LZ-121 Nordstern

LZ-121 was built to provide the first international passenger zeppelin service, with plans for scheduled flights between Friedrichshafen, Berlin, and Stockholm.  LZ-121 was completed in 1920 and christened Nordstern, but the ship was taken from DELAG by the Military Inter-Allied Commission and delivered to France on June 13, 1921, and renamed Méditerranée.

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