A Flight on the Hindenburg: One Passenger’s Account

Clarence and Dorothy Hall were passengers on Hindenburg’s flight from Frankfurt to Lakehurst on August 5-8, 1936.  Clarence Hall described the flight in his diary, and his great-granddaughter, Becky Oehlers of the Hemidemisemiquaver Design Blog, has very kindly given permission for his diary entry to be reprinted here.

Clarence and Dorothy Hall aboard Hindenburg

Clarence and Dorothy Hall aboard Hindenburg

Clarence E. Hall was a well-respected lawyer in Philadephia, Pennsylvania, and he and his wife Dorothy were returning home from the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.  Among their fellow passengers on Hindenburg’s flight to the United States were boxer Max Schmeling and his trainer Max Machon; movie star Douglas Fairbanks [image] and his new wife, Lady Sylvia Ashley [image]; and three American naval officers acting as observers (Lt.Cdr. Francis Reicherfelder, Lt. Gerald Zurmuehlen, and Lt. (jg) M.F.D. Flaherty).

Hindenburg also carried newsreel films of the Olympics, which were dropped to Lakehurst by parachute in the morning to speed their delivery, while the airship waited for high winds to calm before landing later that evening.

The flight was under the command of Captain Ernst Lehmann, who invited the Halls to the control car as the ship passed over Philadelphia; following the Hall’s directions, Captain Lehmann guided the Hindenburg over their family home and Mr Hall’s office building before proceeding to Lakehurst for landing.

The diary provides a rare and detailed description of a passenger’s experience aboard the Hindenburg, and the Hall/Oehlers family are very gracious to share it with the world.

Hindenburg Transatlantic Journey – 1936

From the diary of Clarence E. Hall

An atmosphere of suppressed excitement began to pervade the Hotel Frankfurter Hof as the Airship travelers and their friends gathered during the course of the afternoon.  The friends were more exuberant, and the passengers disclosed an outward calm, but I doubt if one of them escaped the thrill which we felt at the impending adventure.

Toward Six o’clock three large buses ploughed slowly through the crowd which had gathered outside the hotel, the ordinary German curiosity being whetted no doubt by the prospect of seeing Max Schmeling and Douglas Fairbanks, who were booked as passengers.  The usual passport formalities were begun, tickets issued, and all baggage carefully weighed.  Those having more than twenty pounds per person were charged an excess rate.  At  Seven o’clock we suddenly realized that the busses were filling up, so we climbed in and were soon on our way through the beautiful environs of Frankfurt to the Air Field.  In half an hour we were passing through a narrow lane formed by the police,through the jam of people gathered there.  The order and efficiency was to later stand out in sharp contrast with the confusion and utter lack of police control over the mob at Lakehurst.  Our bags were already there ahead of us.  Before we scarecly realized it, we were up the stairs and within the body of this colossal silver shell.  At the top of the stairs a stewart relieved us of our cameras, cigarette lighters and matches, the cameras to be returned as soon as we were out of sight of land.

Inside the appearance of stability and comfort was amazing.  Our cabin is five by eight feet, two bunks- one above the other and most comfortable.  A stool is the only furniture.  A celuloid wash basin, a shelf, a shallow closet and a row of hooks completed the equipment.  The walls are of cloth (percale) each cabin a different shade, and the framework of beds, door and stool is aluminum.  Painted on the wall beside my berth was a picture of a lighted cigarette with a cross to serve as a constant reminder that the motto of the Airship is, or should be, “Rauchen Verboten”.  Our baggage unpacked, we were then able to look around.  The cabin next to us was marked “Herr Douglas Fairbanks, Frau Fairbanks”.  On the same deck (port side) is the dining salon 25×50 feet.  The walls are of cloth, attractively decorated in panels with small paintings in the center of each.  The furniture is of metal and red leather.  A railing seperates the inner space where the tables are placed to form a sort of promenade, from which an excellent view can be had.  The window slope outward and three open, so by leaning out a little, one can look under the Ship or astern to catch a glimpse of the forward motor gondola.  The starboard side is the same size.  It is devided by a half partition, one part being a lounge with an aluminum grand piano in one corner, the other a writing room.  The same arrangement of windows is made on that side.   The deck below is much smaller in area.  On it is located the shower baths, the toilets, and a bar adjoining the smoking room.  On one side of the smoking room is a low railing.  Outside of this, one may look straight down through the horizontal windows.  The walls are of leather, gilded on which are designs of famous air ships.  Our departure was not to be long delayed.  By 8 o’clock we were slipping smoothly and silently through the lee gate of the hangar into an almost breathless night.

Just as we were about to leave, Doug Fairbanks arrived with his bride and a little black Scottish terrier (named Bobby).  After we had reached a point far out in the field, an automobile drove across from the crowd to deposit Max Schmeling and his manager, whho scrambled on board,.  The men on the ropes paused in their steady march, a few short hoarse commands and suddenly we realized that the ground was falling away beneath us.  Steadily we ascended until at a height about 700 feet.  Then the distant roar of the motors gave the signal that the journey was actually begun, and into a cloudy sky streaked with red, we glided smoothly upward.

In the gathering darkness we could discern the roads and hills.  The searchlight in the belly of the Ship illuminated a rapidly moving circle on the ground.  In it, one could see the tiny red zeppelin which weighed down the radio antenna-gliding below.  Flashes of reflected light from little pools were like huge fireflies in the night far below us.  That little red “Zep” also as sort of a “cat’s whiskar” to prevent our getting too low without warning.  Sandwiches were served and a little later the smoking room was opened.  By 10 o’clock all were in full routine, so off to bed we slipped for a very good nights rest in our comfortable bunks.

Dorothy Hall on Hindenburg's Promenade

Dorothy Hall on Hindenburg's Promenade

Awakening at Six I went out to the salon.  The weather was cloudy, the ship travelling about 1000 feet altitude.  Breakfast was the usual Continental one.  Fruit, coffee, and fresh rolls baked on the Airship.  The personalities which were a sort of blur the night before began to take form.  Max Schmeling-sitting directly opposite a black-haired man broad forhead and cheek bones eyes deep set in bulbous lids, a sensitive small mouth and chin, not at all the pugnacious jaw-small hands, and a very quiet gentle manner.  All these characteristics bore out the reports we had had of him.  He spent most of the day by himself reading and writing.

The perfume of the Fairbanks apartment pervaded our cabin.  We have swapped ammenities and I had a long chat with Doug in the smoking room.  Sailing into warmer latitudes the clouds are drifting away.  We now fly over sapphire blue waters our altitude increasing gradually to 3000 feet.

We have been invited to “inspect the Ship”.  Led by one of the engineers, we were led through a vestibule and then a door, and found ourselves upon the “Cat Walk”, really the keel of the Ship.  It is a plank about one foot wide extending from tip to tip.  The circular ribs of the Ship are bound together by wires and cross members with the walk as sort of a spinal column.  Along this path we walked with nothing between us and the ocean far below except the fabric skin of the hull and a few wires and a rope, at which we clutched grimly.

Past crews quarters, repair stations, gas and oil tanks, water cisterns and storage sections we crawled.  The roar of the motors increased ,and beyond and quite unexpectedly, our guide pulled a cord.  Like a window shade, the skin of the ship opened and there we were looking down 3,000 feet to the sea.  Standing on that girder a foot wide and with nothing to hold onto but the little diagonal wires-nice sea, fine ship, all forgotten-we were just plain nervous.  I called a halt.  All I wanted was the firm, strong, good, comfortable cabin, but this was not to be.  We reversed our direction, and continuing forward were ushered into a sort of cubical, from this a ladder led down some 12 feet to the Control Car.  Here we found the officers in command, the charts, instruments for control, the two helms, everything moving like clockwork.  Three American Navy men, whom we had met the night before, were acting as observers and watching the business of navigating this huge projectile at 75 miles per hour-air speed.  What a rock of Gibraltar the smoking room was after the exposed position of that little glass bird cage, upside down.  For an hour I couldn’t bear to look out the window, and it wasn’t until after a good dinner that I really felt right-side-up.

Captain Lehman made the remark that an Airship can “pick it’s weather” and has complete freedom of choice as to which route to follow in reaching its destination.  The choice is of course determined by the localities of most favorable winds and weather.  For us it is the “Southern Course”.  Heading West from Brest and we veer South and have clear skies but head winds.  No motion, however, but a slow and almost imperceptable roll like a steamer on a calm sea.

The afternoon is spent in general conversation, writing, reading and a refreshing “nap”.  Max Schmeling stays much to himself. Doug Fairbanks’ bride, he former Lady Sylvia Ashley is charming.  We have spent several pleasant hours with them over cocktails.

The meals are delicious-luncheon consisted of soup, fish, chicken breast with rice, peas, asparagas tips, ice cream, cake and coffee.  Dinner: Consummee, fish, tenderloin of beef on toast with mushrooms, potatoes, salad, Charlotte Rousse with coffee.

The smoking room is the rendezvous before and after meals.  Presided over by Max, a steward, who makes excellent cocktails and watches everyone “like a hawk” to see that none inadvertently leaves with a lighted cigar or cigarette.  The doors are so arranged that not more than one person can enter or leave at the same time.

As we are to pass some of the islands of teh Azores at 3am, we were in our bunks and fast asleep by 10pm.

Sure enough, we reached the Islands on schedule-mountains rising from the sea, pale in the light of the full moon, plumed with clouds.

The second morning dawns clear.  We are at an altitude of 5,000 feet.  Below the calm sea is bright blue fading to grey at the horizon.  Great white clouds drift idly by below us, and looking across them is like looking across a field of white cotton batting, glistening clear in the sunlight.  It is though we are suspended by a star, immovable, while the earth and clouds reel beneah us.

We have received our most prized buttons, a silver and blue disc, about the size of a nickel-on the border is inscribed “Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei” (German Zeppelin Corporation).  The center is a globe with a Zeppelin Ship across it.  They are an “Open Sesame” in Germany.

From the registry I learn that we are the first Philadelphians to make the East-to-West crossing and the first Philadelphians as a couple to cross the Atlantic in either direction, together by air.

As the day progressed we again ascended to a world of white clouds in all directions, mountains, and valleys of clouds and lakes-the breaks through which the deep blue of the distant water can be seen.

Advices indicate that the course to the North will be better, so we head for Halifax; blue sky-clouds-blue water.  Sometimes we get up to 6,000 feet, and at one time as low as 400 feet-constantly testing for the best wind and level.

The smoking room is very popular-Douglas and Frau Fairbanks spent hours today working over a ji-saw puzzle, in which we all had to ultimately take a hand.  Bobby Fairbanks, is a great care.  Attractive youngster, runs all over the ship without the slightest timidity and relieves himslef freely to the horror of the stewards, and the somehwat doubtful amusement of the passengers.  As to the Fairbanks, Boby’s kidneys are absolutely nothing.  I am beginning to  understand the reason for the barrage of perfume which they have laid down.  Bobby is six months old, as cute a little black Scotty as you ever saw.  We have seen few ships and the hours slip by pleasantly.  Good appetite waits on dinner or supper.  Of course, two hours a day at this speed.  After coffee and liqueur we decided to retire early.

Saturday morning at 4am I arose to the lights of Nova Scotia.  The sea is as calm as a mill pond.  Far below little necklaces of light lay on the bosom of the deep, each marked with a fishing skiff.  We headed Southwest and on our arrival at Lakehurst will be about 11 o’clock.  As to whether we come down will depend entirely upon ocal conditions.  If cloudy we shall probably land at once.

By eight o’clock, we passed over the tip of Cape Cod lying below like a cardboard map, yellow sands, green plots and ponds, little sailboats, cottages.  Thence across Buzzards Bay to Mantauk, along the south shore of Long Island, Great Sound, and finally two huge circles about the towers of New York and on to  Lakehurst, arriving promptly at eleven.

A test of the air proved that the landing might be bumpy, as a gusty wind was blowing from a bad quarter.  Our good luck.  Word was sent down that we would not land and away we flew through the clear sky of a bright summer day.  Down the New Jersey coast-a circle around Atlantic City thence to Cape May- West across Maryland and the waters of the Chesapeake to Annapolis and on to Washington.  The Nation’s capitol never looked more beautiful as we circled twice around it and then headed North toward Baltimore.

Shortly after leaving Baltimore, Capt. Lehmann sent an officer below to invite Dorothy and me down to the Control Car.  After the usual precarious crawl along the catwalk, we climbed down the ladder to the little glass cage, nerve center of the great Ship.  There was Captain Lehmann knowing us as Philadelphians, who said, “Show me where you live and what part of Philadelphia you would like to have us go over”.  On the map I pointed out the Main Line and a curcuit was planned.  From then on, until we had passed over the Delaware River, I directed the course of the ship.  Approaching from the Southwest, we flew over Independence Hall and then described a large arc, followed below the left bank of the Schuylkill, Germantown, White Marsh to Norristown.  Turning there we ponted out Bryn Mawr, following Lancaster Ave to Wynnewood and passing directly over our place where we could clearly see the figures of the household on the lawn and waved to them.  Over West Fairmount Park to Market Street and as a final thrill passed directly over the Packard Building where the offices of Orr, Hall and Williams are located-over the Delaware to head straight for Lakehurst.

It was a very gracious courtesy on the part of an old friend, a thrill of a lifetime, and incidentally an honor I was able to share my City and its environs.  For forty minutes we cruised over this area, a longer time than was alloted to New York and Washington combined.  After that experience the rest of the journey was very tame.  In about a half hour-that is 7:00, we dropped our landing line at the Station and were safely down on Mother Earth.

No story of this crossing would be complete without recording the constant evidence of skill in the navigation and management of the Ship, and the courtesy and friendliness of the officers and personnel.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Stu December 30, 2012 at 8:45 pm

Dan;
Many thanks for posting this wonderful account of the courtesy and dignity of flying on the Hindenburg, the “concorde” of the day. Can similar memories and accounts more recent and fresh be had? Certainly, but I don’t think the customer’s direction of flight over a major city would be possible in the crowded airways of today. The wonder and magic of the flight would still be the same however. May it one day be again as it once was.

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The Hawk and Buzzard December 18, 2012 at 2:03 am

We couldn’t possibly imagine how magical this experience was. In 1936 the only passenger service across the Atlantic was either by ocean liner or airship. Air travel was something only a hand full of people in the entire world experienced. Most people likely never read a first hand account, or ever seen any color photographs of it. It would be like passenger service to the moon now. Awesome read.

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Albert September 29, 2010 at 6:19 am

Being a fellow Philadelphian, I could only imagine what a wonderful experience this trip was. Not only flying onboard the great Hindenburg, but having the opportunity of flying over Philadelphia and your home town by sheer luck. I am glad Mr. Hall wrote this in his diary so people will have the opportunity to relive through his words his wonderful journey. Thank You.

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Steve Nachttisch August 24, 2010 at 10:49 am

I`d like to flight with this silent ship… It must have been extremely exciting to travel this way.

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