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, 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.
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.