Origins of LZ-129 Hindenburg
The astounding success of the Graf Zeppelin had proved the viability of long range passenger transportation by airship, and by the late 1920’s, Hugo Eckener and the Zeppelin Company were enthusiastic about building a fleet of ships specifically designed for intercontinental passenger transportation.
The ship originally planned for this role was LZ-128, which it would have been 761 feet long and lifted by 5,307,000 cubic feet of hydrogen. But the fiery crash of the British airship R-101 in October, 1930 (in which passengers and crew were killed by the hydrogen fire that followed the crash, rather then by the impact itself) convinced the Zeppelin Company to alter its plans and develop a ship capable of being lifted by helium.
Helium is heavier than hydrogen, and therefore provides less lift, so a helium airship must be larger than a hydrogen airship to carry the same payload. The plans for the 5.3 million cubic feet LZ-128, therefore, were abandoned in favor of a design for a much larger ship, the 7 million cubic feet LZ-129, later to be named Hindenburg.
Eerily — in light of later events — the Zeppelin Company purchased 5,000 kg of Duralumin from the wreckage of the British R-101 and used the metal to fabricate components for the Hindenburg.
When completed, LZ-129 was 803.8 feet long, with a diameter of 135.1 feet, and a total gas capacity of 7,062,000 cubic feet of hydrogen.
LZ-129 and its sister ship, LZ-130, are still the largest objects ever to fly.
Actual construction of LZ-129 began in the Fall of 1931, but progress lagged due to a severe lack of funds during the Depression. At first, the Nazi Party’s assumption of power in January, 1933 had little effect on the fortunes of the Zeppelin Company, partly due to Air Minister Hermann Göring’s dislike of lighter-than-air flight. But Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was aware of the potential symbolic value of LZ-129 as a showcase for German strength and technology, and in 1934 Goebbels offered Hugo Eckener 2 million marks toward the completion of LZ-129.
Determined to overshadow his rival Goebbels, Hermann Göring offered an additional 9 million marks from the Air Ministry, but the offer came with conditions: In March, 1935, the Air Ministry split the Zeppelin Company into two firms; the original Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, which would be responsible solely for the construction of airships, and the newly created Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei (DZR), half-owned by the German national airline Lufthansa, which would be responsible for airship operations.
The establishment of the DZR also served the interest of the Nazis by effectively removing Hugo Eckener from the leadership of German zeppelin operations. Ernst Lehmann, who was much more amenable to the National Socialist government than Hugo Eckner, was put in charge of the DZR, and Eckener became mostly a figurehead.
The Hindenburg as Nazi Symbol
Nazi officials were very much aware of the symbolic value of the huge and impressive airship, and frequently called on Hindenburg for propaganda flights, often in company with the Graf Zeppelin.
Hindenburg made appearances at public events such as the 1936 Berlin Games and the Nuremberg Party rally, and Hindenburg’s first major flight, after test flights were completed, was a 74-hour propaganda flight in support of Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rhineland.
When boxer Max Schmeling defeated black American boxer Joe Louis, the Nazi government arranged for Schmeling to return to Germany on Hindenburg.
Schmeling’s victory in the boxing ring had made him a national hero, and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels wanted to maximize publicity for Schmeling’s homecoming; to associate the victorious boxer with this symbol of technological achievement, and demonstrate German supremacy in all fields from sport to aviation, the government had Schmeling cancel his reservation on an ocean liner and return to Germany aboard Hindenburg instead.
Hindenburg was completed with the financial support of the Nazi government, and the ship’s first flight took place on March 4, 1936, lasting 3 hours and 6 minutes. Over the next two weeks the ship made several additional test flights, performing well in all ways, and on March 23, 1936 Hindenburg carried passengers for the first time when she took approximately 80 reporters on the short flight from Friedrichshafen to Lowenthal.
After its basic test flights in early March, 1936, Hindenburg was scheduled to make a series of endurance trials in preparation for its first transatlantic crossing on March 31, 1936.
In place of the much-needed endurance trials, however, the Nazi government’s Ministry of Propaganda requested that Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin undertake a joint three day flight in support of the upcoming March 29 plebiscite on Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rhineland.
Beholden to the Nazi government, which had put him in charge of the DZR, Ernst Lehmann agreed to cancel the test flights and make the propaganda flight instead, and Lehmann even went forward with the planned flight despite unfavorable gusty conditions on the day of departure. Hindenburg’s ground crew lost control of the ship while preparing it for the takeoff, and the stern slammed into the ground damaging the lower fin.
Hugo Eckener was furious at Lehmann for jeopardizing not only the brand new ship, but the entire zeppelin program, and his outburst at Lehmann — and at Propaganda Minister Goebbels — for risking the airship to make a “œscheissfahrt” (shit flight) for the Nazis represented Eckener’s most dramatic break with the Nazi government.
Despite the damage, the fin was quickly repaired, and Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin spent the next few days broadcasting music and pro-Hitler announcements from specially-installed loudspeakers, and dropping swastikas attached to tiny parachutes and propaganda leaflets encouraging Germans to vote “Yes!” for the Fuhrer in the Rhineland referendum. According to the official results of the election, 98.8% of the voters approved Hitler’s policies.
The cancellation of Hindenburg’s endurance trials, however, put the ship at risk, as Hugo Eckener had predicted. Hindenburg had engine trouble on its first transatlantic crossing, just two days after the propaganda flight, and the ship suffered multiple engine failures on its return flight across the ocean. The engine failures were traced to problems with the Daimler diesels which undoubtedly would have been discovered during the test flights canceled by Lehmann.
Hindenburg also demonstrated its propaganda value on August 1, 1936, when the ship flew over the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Spectators in the Olympic stadium and crowds of up to 3 million Germans and visitors in the streets of Berlin watched Hindenburg cruise above the city for more than an hour at an altitude of approximately 750 feet.
Under the command of Max Pruss, Hindenburg carried 65 passengers, and also 778 kg of mail (which was dropped by parachute over Berlin’s Tempelhof airfield), and the flight was a financial success for the DZR as well as a propaganda triumph for the Nazi government.
Nuremberg Nazi Party Rally
Hindenburg was again enlisted as a propaganda vehicle on September 14, 1936, when the ship, following 17 aircraft flying in a Swastika formation, flew over the final day of Der Parteitag der Ehre (the 8th NSDAP Congress) in Nuremberg.
On May 6, 1936, LZ-129 began the service it was built for; regular transatlantic crossings between Germany and the United States, carrying up to 50 passengers with both comfort and speed.
The passengers on Hindenburg’s maiden voyage to America included celebrities, wealthy travelers, journalists, and members of the Nazi elite. (See complete passenger list with photos and biographies.)
The flight featured the first Catholic mass ever said in the air, and a broadcast over the NBC radio network including a recital on Hindenburg’s specially-made lightweight duralumin piano.
Read an account of Hindenburg’s maiden voyage to North America by United Press reporter Webb Miller, who was a passenger on the flight.
Hindenburg’s 2-1/2 day crossing of the North Atlantic was an astounding accomplishment at a time when even the fastest transatlantic ocean liners (such as the Blue Riband-winning Queen Mary, Normandie, and Bremen) made the trip in five days, and slower ships took as long as 10 days.
Hindenburg’s fastest crossing of the North Atlantic took place in August, 1936; the ship lifted off from Lakehurst, New Jersey at 2:34 AM on August 10th and landed in Frankfurt the next day, after a flight of just 43 hours and 2 minutes.
Of course, Hindenburg’s speed came at a price; passage between Europe and America via Hindenburg cost $400 one way in 1936, and $450 in 1937, while first class passage on a German ocean liner could be had for as little as $157. The best German liners of the day, Bremen and Europa, charged $240 (HAPAG/NDL rate brochure), and rates on Cunard’s Queen Mary were similar (Cunard rate brochure). And a passenger could cross the Atlantic in third class for just $82.00 (see complete 1936 transatlantic rates; view jpg or download .pdf).
(Converting these prices to current values is a theoretically complicated exercise, since different economists approach this topic with different assumptions, but those who are interested in converting these fares to current prices might look at http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare.)
In addition to revenue from passengers and freight, Hindenburg derived income from the large quantities of mail it carried. (See examples of Hindenburg mail.) Because of Hindenburg’s irregular sailing dates during its maiden season, coupled with the high price of postage for zeppelin mail, most of the letters carried in 1936 were philatelic (items designed especially for stamp collectors or those seeking a souvenir of the zeppelin service) rather than commercial, but plans to introduce a more regular schedule in 1937 and possibly lower the cost of postage left the DZR hopeful that significant income could be earned by carrying business mail.
By the end of 1936, Hindenburg had crossed the Atlantic 34 times, carrying over 3,500 passengers and more than 66,000 pounds of mail and freight, and the ship’s highly successful 1936 season seemed to indicate that regular transatlantic air service had arrived.
On October 9, 1936, just before Hindenburg’s last flight from the United States to Germany, 72 wealthy and influential passengers were invited on what became known as the Millionaires Flight; a 10-1/2 hour cruise over New England to generate support for a German-American transatlantic zeppelin service. The passengers were awestruck by the ship, the Hindenburg received wide coverage in the press, and the future of the passenger zeppelin seemed brighter than ever.
With the success of Hindenburg’s 1936 season, eighteen round-trip flights between Germany and the United States were scheduled for 1937, and a companion ship, LZ-130, was nearing completion at the Zeppelin Company construction shed in Friedrichshafen.
During the winter between the 1936 and 1937 seasons Hindenburg underwent maintenance and renovations at Frankfurt. Since the ship was being operated with hydrogen — rather than the helium for which it had been designed — it had a greater lifting capacity, and additional passenger cabins were added to take advantage of the additional lift.
Hindenburg made six successful flights in 1937, including a round-trip from Germany to Brazil, and test flights in which World War I ace and Luftwaffe leader Ernst Udet attempted to fly a small airplane onto a trapeze-hook mounted on the airship.
On Hindenburg’s first North American flight of the 1937 season, under the command of Captain Max Pruss, the Hindenburg crashed at Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 13 of the 36 passengers, 22 of the 61 crew, and a civilian member of the ground handling team, and the era of transcontinental passenger zeppelin travel came to an end.
For complete information about the crash of the Hindenburg at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937, visit the Hindenburg Disaster.