L.A. Smog and Near Disaster for the Graf Zeppelin; 85 years ago today

I am very grateful to Lynne Kirste of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for passing along this restored high-definition footage of LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin taken at Los Angeles 85 years ago today, August 26, 1929.

This might easily have been one of the last films ever made of LZ-127: The ship was very nearly destroyed on its departure from Los Angeles the next day.

Near Disaster at Mines Field

Graf Zeppelin arrived at Los Angeles on August 26, 1929, after a 79 hour flight from Tokyo during the airship’s famous Round-the-World flight in 1929.


When the ship arrived at Mines Field at 5:00 in the morning it descended through a typical Los Angeles temperature inversion — the same phenomenon that causes smog to stick to the ground. The temperature was 77 degrees Fahrenheit at 1,500 feet over the field but only 66 degrees at ground level; as the ship descended into the colder air it became more buoyant and a large volume of hydrogen had to be valved to make the ship heavy enough to reach the ground.


Captain Hugo Eckener and his officers feared they could experience the same phenomenon on departure; their ship might be trapped on the ground like Los Angeles smog, buoyant in the cold air at ground level but without enough lift to climb through the warmer layer above.

To make things worse, the hydrogen tanks at Mines Field did not have enough gas to replenish all the hydrogen that had been valved to land.  Eckener ordered drastic measures to lighten the ship: Fuel and water ballast were reduced to minimum levels; anything that could be left behind was offloaded; and Eckener sent six crewmen ahead to Lakehurst, the next stop, by train.  But even that did not lighten the ship enough for it to rise into the warm air over the field.  Eckener decided to use aerodynamic lift to force the heavy ship to climb, and with four of the engines at maximum power the ship raced down the field with its elevators pointed up to lower the tail and raise the nose.  But even at sixty miles per hour the ship would not climb.  Raising the elevators further would cause the tail to hit the ground, but as the ship approached the high-tension lines at the edge of the field Eckener knew he had no choice; if the ship hit the electrical wires it would be destroyed in a blaze of flaming hydrogen.  Eckener ordered the elevators full up; the tail fin was driven into the ground and it dug a furrow almost 200 feet long as the ship scraped along.  Finally the nose lifted upward, and the gondola cleared the wires by a matter of feet.


But the danger was far from over.  While the ship’s nose was now clear, its tail was still below the fast-approaching wires. Choosing his moment carefully, Eckener ordered his son Knut, who was handling the elevator wheel, to apply full down elevator; the ship’s nose pivoted down, the tail raised up, and the tail fin cleared the wires, just barely.  Graf Zeppelin had come within a few feet of destruction.

The Film

The film, made by amateur filmmaker Newcomb Condee, was restored and made public by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive.

According to the Academy:

Enthusiastic amateur filmmaker Newcomb Condee joined over 100,000 people who flocked to see the Graf Zeppelin while it was moored for refueling at Mines Field in Los Angeles, now the site of Los Angeles International Airport. While most of the spectators had to content themselves with distant views of the airship, Mr. Condee managed to obtain a press badge, which allowed him to walk right up to the zeppelin and film this impressive silent footage with his 16mm home movie camera. Mr. Condee, a lawyer who would eventually become a judge in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, can first be seen in the footage joking with armed National Guardsmen patrolling the airfield.

The Newcomb Condee Collection at the Academy Film Archive comprises 95 home movies, shot between 1926 and 1974. The films document the Condee family, their travels, and the changing landscape of Southern California, where they made their home. This footage of the Graf Zeppelin was preserved by the Academy Film Archive in 2012.

Graf Zeppelin and the Los Angeles Landscape

Graf Zeppelin’s visit to Los Angeles left a notable but temporary landmark; the Zep Diner at 515 W. Florence Avenue, near the intersection with S. Figueroa.  It is now a McDonald’s parking lot.

Zep Diner, Los Angeles

The Zep Diner, Los Angeles

Thanks again to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for restoring and sharing this historic footage, and to Lynne Kirste, Special Collections Curator of their Film Archive, for passing it along. 

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Lowell SilvermanDagmara Lizlovsdavid kipenRobert Pohl Recent comment authors
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Lowell Silverman

Without a doubt, the Mines Field takeoff is one of the most thrilling stories in airship history. I recently came across an account from Hubert Wilkins in Simon Nasht’s “The Last Explorer” in which right before the Graf Zeppelin’s vault, U.S. Navy observer Charles Rosendahl yelled at Eckener: “Doctor, bring… Read more »

Dagmara Lizlovs
Dagmara Lizlovs

After looking at the picture of the Zep Diner, I would like to mention that Zeppelins (Cepelinai) are the national dish of Lithuania. I first come across this dish at my dad’s Lithuanian parish when one of the parishioners asked me if I wanted to try his Zeppelins. Among the… Read more »

Dagmara Lizlovs
Dagmara Lizlovs

The Graf Zeppelin was not bucked over high tension wires it seems, so much as it was jumped over high tension wires like a well schooled Thoroughbred taking a difficult cross country obstacle. I’ve owned a Quarter horse/Thoroughbred cross that loved to jump. He could also buck. There is a… Read more »

Dagmara Lizlovs
Dagmara Lizlovs

Before I clarify further my above post, I would like to say that Dr. Eckener wasn’t the only one to jump an aircraft over an obstacle. Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen did so as well. I have his autobiography – “The Red Battle Flyer” translated by J. Ellis Barker, published in… Read more »

david kipen
david kipen

So basically, the pilot only got the Graf Zeppelin out of LA in one piece by bucking her over some hight-tension wires like a bronco? Mr. Grossman, that’s wonderful! Where can I read any contemporary accounts about this? In the captain’s log somewhere? I don’t suppose Lady Grace Marguerite Hay… Read more »

Robert Pohl
Robert Pohl

This is the same issue facing Captain Lehmann when he took off for his famous 101 hour flight in July 1917. He was close to the maximum capacity when he took off, and then found himself in a temperature inversion, so the only way to take off from Seerappen was… Read more »