A Passenger’s Description of Hindenburg’s Maiden Voyage
I Found No Peace
Late in April, 1936, I sailed on the S.S. Bremen to Germany to make the first transatlantic flight in the Zeppelin Hindenburg, inaugurating the first regular passenger service by air across the North Atlantic.
Although I had traveled about 150,000 miles by airplane in America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, this was to be my first experience aboard a lighter-than-air craft. The United Press insured my life at Lloyd’s in London; the one-per-cent premium was comparatively low; they had paid seven per cent for my flight to India five years before.
The little town of Friedrichshafen, beside the placid Lake of Constance, close to where Austria, Switzerland, and Germany meet, seethed with excitement. The German nation regarded the inauguration of air service to the United States with justifiable national pride, for it had definitely gained supremacy in pas- senger, mail, and freight service to both North and South America by air. Only seventeen years before, the Treaty of Versailles had virtually swept Germany’s shipping from the seas when the Allied Powers had seized her merchant marine and also crippled her air development by the treaty. Now the Ger- man flag had returned to the seven seas; the Bremen and Europa were two of the fastest and largest liners in the world, and the airship Graf Zeppelin was making her 100th crossing of the South Atlantic to South America. She had safely carried more than 12,000 passengers in her career and traveled nearly a million miles. The first flight of the Hindenburg would clinch German predominance in transoceanic air traffic, and a sister ship for the Atlantic services was under construction. Germany rejoiced.
As darkness fell on May 6 buses took the fifty-one passengers and about a ton of baggage to the vast Zeppelin hangar. Fifty pounds of baggage could be carried free; excess weight cost about seventy-five cents a pound.
After we passed through the customs and passport control and were warned against carrying matches aboard, we mounted into the bottom of the craft by a retractable stairway. A band played, hundreds scurried around under the ship shouting fare- wells, the passengers craned out of the open windows, Herr Arthur Voigt, a Danzig millionaire, unbuckled his wrist watch and tossed it out as a farewell present to a relative. There was as much tension and excitement as at the sailing of an ocean liner.
About a quarter past eight the two hundred men of the ground crew hauled at cables and briskly walked the craft, which was attached to a movable mooring mast, out into the field.
At a word from Commander Ernst Lehmann, the cables were thrown off. The huge ship, nearly one-sixth of a mile long and as high as a thirteen-story building, weighing 236 tons with its load of fuel, mail, freight, foodstuffs, water, passengers, and crew, lifted gently as thistledown. One hundred and six persons were aboard, the largest number ever to embark on a trans-oceanic flight.
As the huge bulk drifted upward silently and slowly we looked down into the upturned faces of thousands of frantically cheering townsfolk, spotlighted by the downward beams of two searchlights in the belly of the ship. The waving forest of arms gradually receded. Signal bells jangled in the engine gondolas and the four motors roared. It was 8:27 P.M.; we were off on the 4,3oo-mile flight to America, suspended in air by 6,710,000 cubic feet of inflammable hydrogen gas.
From the slanting windows of the passengers’ promenade deck, we glimpsed the snow-covered mountains of Switzerland and Austria and the gleaming surface of the Lake of Constance beneath. The Hindenburg headed down the Rhine toward the English Channel a detour of hundreds of miles because France refused to permit the ship to cross her territory. Stewards with wireless telegrams paged the passengers and distributed a passenger list like that of an ocean liner. They announced that smoking was prohibited until an hour after sailing, and then it must be done in the hermetically sealed smoking room.
After the excitement of the take-off subsided, passengers inspected their accommodations, which comprised about 4,500 square feet entirely enclosed within the belly of the craft. On each side of the twenty-five two-bedded cabins ran a promenade forty-six feet in length flanked by slanting windows permitting a view outward and downward. Alongside the starboard promenade were a salon and a writing room furnished with duralumin chairs, writing desks, and piano. The dining room, forty-six feet long, with two tables seating fifty persons, adjoined the port promenade. The rooms were tastefully decorated. Each small, comfortable cabin had a wash basin with hot and cold water, a tiny desk, a clothes closet, and an electric light.
The deck below the cabins housed the shower baths, the kitchens with electric cooking apparatus and refrigeration, the toilets, and the smoking room. Inasmuch as the hydrogen gas in the sixteen bags that supported the craft was highly inflammable, extraordinary precautions had to be taken with the smoking room. You passed through a special entrance constructed like two leaves of a revolving door, and this locked the air in the room. Air pressure was maintained higher inside than outside in order to prevent gas from entering even if leaks should accidentally develop. The ash receivers automatically closed air- tight to extinguish the lighted butts. Drinks were served from a small bar adjoining.
Within an hour after the take-off the passengers settled down to a routine of life similar to that on shipboard, playing cards, writing postcards, drinking beer, and eating sandwiches. Professor Franz Wagner, a celebrated European musician, played the piano; Pauline Charteris, wife of the British novelist, and Lady Wilkins, wife of Sir Hubert Wilkins, danced with several of the passengers. Others strolled to the promenade and hung out of the open windows to see the Rhine gleaming in the moon- light a thousand feet below.
I had difficulty convincing myself that we were actually making a historic flight, the first regular passenger service to North America. We slipped through the air with velvety smoothness and almost no vibration. The ship did not sway or buck, the motors hummed but faintly. It was only when you thrust a hand out of the open window into the eighty-miles-an-hour wind that you had any idea of our speed.
At 10:20 P.M. the lights of Mannheim slipped beneath us, and at 11:15 we slid over the millions of lights of the great city of Cologne. Except for the initial take-off, that provided about the only thrill of the evening. After passing Cologne most of the passengers adjourned to the smoking room and toasted Commander Eckener and Captain Lehmann. Others went to bed, leaving their shoes out in the corridor as on shipboard. Newspaper correspondents aboard set up their typewriters in the salon and typed occasional bulletins, which were wirelessed direct to the United States.
Before daylight we reached the mouth of the Rhine, coasted down the English Channel, and caught a glimpse of the white cliffs at Dover. As the British objected to the Hindenburg’s flying over England, it kept about a dozen miles out at sea.
As we slipped along the south coast of England at eighty miles an hour the rising sun silhouetted the South Downs like a relief map. The sea was calm and the passengers all slept, except the newspaper correspondents. Shortly after six I leaned out the promenade windows and watched the last land we were to see for 3,000 miles slowly slide away from us or so it seemed. That was the jutting point of Land’s End, the southwesterly tip of England; its white houses, red cliffs, and fresh green fields glistened in the early morning sun.
As the rocky finger of Land’s End faded from sight and we started across 3,000 miles of rolling water, the full realization of the romance and adventure of the flight came home to me. During the forenoon we flew for hours a few hundred feet above a vast sea of dense, cottony clouds so white that it was almost impossible to look at them in the blindingly brilliant sunlight. The sharp black cigar-shaped outline of the Hindenburg flashed along across the snow-white floor, sometimes surrounded by three concentric circles of brilliantly glowing rainbows.
At 8: 30 A.M. the passengers assembled for a breakfast of fruit, sausages, jam, toast, and coffee. The tables bore vases of fresh flowers and exquisite blue-and-white china. Presently we sighted the liner Staatendam, which saluted us with blasts of her siren; passengers crowded the decks waving handkerchiefs. Throughout our crossing we saw only half a dozen vessels although we were on the regular steamship track part of the time.
That day Sir Hubert Wilkins, the famous Arctic explorer, worked on his plans for a submarine in which he intended within a year to go to the North Pole under the ice. “I shall have a special submarine constructed,” he said, “which will carry us from Europe to America under the ice of the Arctic region. I plan to start from Spitsbergen, off the coast of Norway, and travel twenty-two hundred miles under the ice to Point Barrow in Alaska, by way of the North Pole, at an average speed of about sixty miles a day. I proved by my previous experiments under the ice near Spitsbergen that it is perfectly feasible. We would come up through the ice once daily to make scientific and meteorological observations, transmit wireless messages, and recharge our batteries.
“My previous experience in the Arctic and Antarctic has shown that there are seldom more than twenty-five miles with- out great rifts in the ice, through which we could rise. If we find no rifts when we want to come up, we shall drill through the ice. I have invented a special thermal drilling device which will enable us to drill through ice up to eighteen feet in thickness, at the rate of a foot a minute. We could emerge through these holes.
“I am convinced that we shall find near the North Pole the greatest depths of water yet found on the globe. We shall take soundings continuously. I believe that the earth is shaped slightly like an apple with a great depression at the top in the North Pole region. .1 am going to make the trip in connection with my scheme for a world-wide meteorological organization; in these days of air travel such an organization is necessary. The weather of the world is greatly influenced by vast air currents originating in the Arctic regions. Eventually it will be necessary to have permanent meteorological posts in the Arctic. This, I believe, can be done only by means of relays of submarines.”
Captain Ernst Lehmann conducted me through the interior of the craft. I reminded him that nineteen years before he had commanded a Zeppelin which bombed London. “I was two miles below you dodging your bombs,” I said. He laughed: “Well, that was a long time ago.”
On a foot-wide catwalk a few inches above the fabric of the belly of the ship, we threaded our way from the stem down into the immense tail fin of the Hindenburg. Sixteen great hydrogen bags filled most of the interior. They contained nearly seven million cubic feet of gas ten times as light as air and so inflammable that one spark would explode the craft in an instant. The huge rings of aluminum alloy which formed the Zeppelin’s out- line were braced by an intricate system of strong “Swiss cheese” girders and finger-thick wires. On either side of the catwalk lay great tanks carrying 143,000 pounds of Diesel oil, water tanks, bays for food supplies, freight, and mail, and officers’ and crew’s quarters.
As I trod the narrow runway I clutched nervously at struts and girders, fearing that a misstep would plunge me through the thin fabric into the ocean half a mile below. “You needn’t be so concerned,” Lehmann said, noticing my expression. “That fabric is strong enough to bear the weight of a man. You wouldn’t go through if you slipped off on it.” He perceived my incredulous look. “Here, I’ll show you.” He jumped off the catwalk on to the fabric, only a fraction of an inch thick. It bore him easily, although it was not attached to the body structure anywhere within eight feet. He explained that the fabric was unbelievably strong, having been manufactured at great expense for this particular duty.
Lehmann took me down into the control cabin, suspended under the belly of the ship, whence the Zeppelin was navigated. From there we viewed a marvelous panorama of ocean in every direction, with the immense bulk of the Hindenburg above and behind us. Dials, gauges, meteorological and navigating instruments filled the cabin. He showed me the operation of devices which valved out gas or water ballast to lower or raise the ship, a duplicate steering apparatus, and signal telegraph and telephone to every vital part of the ship. He explained the weather charts, which were revised every few hours on the basis of wireless reports from ships at sea.
With Fritz Sturm, chief engineer, I visited one of the engine gondolas, suspended on struts fifteen feet in space outside the envelope of the craft. That was an experience I do not want to repeat, and when I asked Lehmann’s permission I did not know what it entailed.
To reach the gondola I climbed out over empty space on a collapsible ladder a foot wide slanting down from an opening in the envelope into the egg-shaped gondola. Before starting Sturm tied a helmet to my head, told me to leave my overcoat behind, and then showed me how to clutch the frail ladder on two sides, crooking my elbow around it to the windward and clutching the other edge with my fingers. This precaution was necessary to prevent the eighty-miles-an-hour wind from tearing me bodily off the ladder. I found it a ticklish, frightening business; each time I raised a foot the wind wrenched it away from the ladder rung and flung it back toward the stern of the ship. Nothing in the world could save you if the hurricane-like wind tore you off the ladder. Nothing but yawning space spread out on either side, and the ocean lay half a mile below. After a few steps down the slanting ladder I wished I hadn’t conceived the foolhardy idea of visiting the gondola.
Inside the gondola a narrow passage ran alongside the 1,100-horse-power Diesel engine, which drove a huge nineteen-foot propeller that deafened me with its thunder in spite of my padded helmet. Only a few struts the size of an ankle fastened this power plant to the craft, which loomed gigantically beside us. Once inside the gondola, Sturm closed the collapsible ladder. Empty space surrounded us on every side; we felt as if we were being shot through the air inside a huge artillery shell with open windows. An engineer remained continually on duty inside each of the four gondolas, shifts being changed every few hours.
Next morning, from an altitude of about three-quarters of a mile, I actually detected the curvature of the globe with the naked eye. From that height we could see scores of miles; the atmosphere was remarkably clear and the horizon sharp as a knife. By following the horizon closely I perceived, or thought I did, the slight bend of the earth’s surface. That provided one of the greatest thrills of the trip; I had always known that the earth was round, but it was deeply stirring actually to see an infinitesimal section of its rotunditv . Once before I had felt that same awesome sensation when I stood one night on the edge of the chasm of the Grand Canyon and watched the opposite lip of the abyss wheel up toward the stars. I saw the turning of the earth as the rim of the Canyon rose, covering star after star; I imagined I even felt the world whirling under my feet.
About one o’clock Friday morning, in mid-Atlantic, the Hindenburg ran head on into a severe storm. In inky darkness as black as the inside of a black cat, the vast bulk of the Hindenburg swayed and bucked; hail and torrents of rain lashed at the windows of the promenade decks. With a few passengers I gazed down at the fascinating spectacle of the heaving ocean 2,000 feet below, one round area in the blackness illuminated by the spotlight in the belly of the craft. The downpour of rain and gale-force wind buffeted the craft about half an hour. This was the first time we had felt any deviation from the velvety motion of the ship.
So far as I could tell, none of us watching the storm felt any trepidation or appreciable sense of danger. The passengers already asleep were not awakened, vases of sweet peas and carnations on the writing and dining tables did not turn over. In my cabin not a drop spilled from a full glass of water. But at last you realized you were flying the Atlantic and were out here alone and helpless, 1,500 miles from land, fighting the elements and beating them.
Dr. Hugo Eckener, his deeply lined, weather-beaten face calm and composed, lumbered up from the control car. “This is really a severe storm,” he said, “but I am pleased by the behavior of the ship. As you see, the motion is gentle. We have collected in special tanks five tons of water from the storm to replace many tons of weight lost by consumption of fuel oil. That will be useful to us in landing. With that additional weight we shall not have to valve out so much gas to get her down at Lakehurst. Sometimes when we sight a rain storm on the horizon we go over and run through it for the purpose of collecting water ballast. Unless we collect water from rain storms during a flight, we sometimes have to valve out as much as one-third of our gas. That is expensive; it has to be replaced before we commence another flight. We collect in tanks all of the water used by the passengers for toilet and bathing purposes during the trip and use it for ballast.”
In the morning I saw a lone white bird 900 miles from land; he tried to follow us for awhile but gave it up, and we left him out there alone. I’ll wager he doesn’t go home to roost very often. Some 500 miles off Sable Island we passed over several glittering icebergs, one about an acre in extent, and watched three whales spouting.
Father Paul Schulte, of Aix-la-Chapelle, known as the “flying padre,” celebrated the first mass in the air, for which the Pope had granted special permission. Schulte erected an altar in the salon, where all the passengers gathered. The candles were not lighted because of danger of explosion.
That night stewards served a five-course gala dinner, including fresh trout from the Black Forest. Many of the passengers wore evening clothes for the occasion. After dinner we made a broadcast to the United States including a piano recital by Professor Wagner, songs by Lady Wilkins, and speeches by Dr. Eckener and several of the passengers, including myself. After the broadcast, passengers gathered in the smoking room and bar to celebrate with many toasts and songs our approach to the American continent. Pauline Charteris introduced a song she had picked up in Nassau which ran: “Mamma don’t want no gin, because it makes her sin.” We discussed a suitable name for the first child conceived in mid-air aboard a Zeppelin a possibility nowadays. I suggested Helium, if it were a boy, and Shelium, if a girl. That idea was adopted. The hilarious party continued most of the night.
In the morning before dawn we caught the first glimpse of the American continent. At 4: 12 A.M. we sighted on our right a necklace-like string of lights miles long the coast of Long Island. Passengers crowded to the promenade windows. At 4:35 we came over Long Island and cruised toward Brooklyn while passengers gathered in the dining salon for a light breakfast of sliced sausages, coffee, toast, and jam. The sleeping millions a thousand feet below seemed unaware of our passage.
At exactly five A.M. the Hindenburg slid over the Battery. Dawn was just breaking. Suddenly a great pandemonium of hundreds of whistles from steamers and liners rose to greet us. We saw white jets of steam from the whistles of boats in the Hudson and East rivers. Passengers craned from the windows in excitement, chattering in several languages. Lights in the promenades were turned out to afford a better view.
We cruised up past the Empire State Building at reduced speed, passing only a few hundred feet above it. The sight brought exclamations of wonder from Europeans aboard who had never seen New York.
About the center of Central Park the Hindenburg swerved toward the Hudson and flew over Germany’s other symbol of emergence in world commerce the liner Bremen, which directed two powerful searchlights upon us. Her deep-throated whistle bellowed. Our German passengers waved handkerchiefs from the windows in a fever of patriotic excitement.
The continued shrieking and bellowing of steamship whistles awakened thousands below. We saw people running from buildings and pointing and staring upward. Then, as the sun rose the airship turned down the Hudson and flew directly over the Statue of Liberty toward Lakehurst. I hastily wrote a description of our passage over New York and dropped it out of the window to one of our men when we hovered over the Lakehurst field.
The gigantic bulk of the craft settled gently at Lakehurst sixty-one hours and thirty-eight minutes after leaving middle Europe, a flight of 4,381 miles. We had eaten only two luncheons, two dinners, and three breakfasts aboard. We had spanned the ocean so rapidly that we had difficulty keeping track of the time on board because our days were twenty-seven hours long. This led to constant confusion between Greenwich time, Central European time, ship’s time, which roughly corresponded with our position on the globe, Eastern Standard time, and Eastern Daylight time; and a prankster who frequently set back the clock in the bar so he could celebrate longer introduced still another factor. Even the airship officers sometimes seemed a little uncertain about Eastern Standard and Eastern Daylight time and their relation to ship’s time and Greenwich time.
This rapid translation from continent to continent across 3,000 miles of ocean left in me an uncanny sense of confusion. The mind had not been able to keep pace with the body. Less than sixty-two hours before I had been in middle Europe. In that time 106 of us had been transported across one-fourth of the globe and my body, so it seemed, had left my mind behind. It took another day before I became orientated and fully grasped the idea that I was back in America.