LZ-130 — named Graf Zeppelin — was the last large rigid airship ever built.
Built from essentially the same blueprints as her sister ship, LZ-129 Hindenburg, LZ-130 was nearing completion at the time of the Hindenburg disaster on May 6, 1937. Originally intended to join Hindenburg in transatlantic service in October, 1937, LZ-130 was modified to use helium after the Hindenburg crash, delaying her first flight.
Because helium provides less lift than hydrogen, LZ-130’s passenger capacity was reduced from the 72 carried by Hindenburg to just 40, and because helium was expensive and difficult to obtain, modifications were required to avoid the need to release helium during normal operations; the engine cars greatly enlarged to accommodate equipment to recover water from exhaust gases, with tractor propellers (facing forward) rather than the pusher propellers on Hindenburg.
After the fiery crash of Hindenburg it seemed likely that the United States, which had a practical monopoly on helium, would lift its 1927 export restriction and allow German passenger airships to use the nonflammable gas, but with the increasing aggression of the National Socialist government in 1938, including the annexation of Austria and the occupation of Sudeten Czechoslovakia, the American government would not allow the exportation of helium to Germany. LZ-130 spent her short career inflated with hydrogen and never carried a paying passenger.
Graf Zeppelin made her first flight on September 14, 1938, under the command of Hugo Eckener, and made a total of 30 flights during her two year career. In addition to propaganda flights over Germany, German-annexed Austria, and German-occupied Sudetenland, LZ-130 conducted multiple military reconnaisance flights including a two-day flight in August, 1939, dedicated to electronic surveillance of Britain’s Chain Home radar network.
LZ-130’s last flight took place on August 20, 1939; twelve days later Germany invaded Poland, beginning World War II, and the ship never flew again. In March, 1940, Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goring ordered the dismantling of LZ-127, LZ-130, and LZ-131, which was then under construction, and by late April the ships had been cut into scrap. On May 6, 1940 — the third anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster — Wehrmacht demolition specialists destroyed the Zeppelin Company hangars in Frankfurt.