Certainly the most successful zeppelin ever built, LZ-127 was christened “Graf Zeppelin” by the daughter of Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin on July 8, 1928, which would have been the late count’s 90th birthday.
By the time of Graf Zeppelin’s last flight, nine years later, the ship had flown over a million miles, on 590 flights, carrying thousands of passengers and hundreds of thousands of pounds of freight and mail, with safety and speed. Graf Zeppelin circled the globe and was famous throughout the world, and inspired an international zeppelin fever in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Graf Zeppelin Test Flights
Graf Zeppelin made its first flight on September 18, 1928, under the command of Hugo Eckener. The ship lifted off at 3:32 PM and flew a little over three hours before returning to its base in Friedrichshafen.
A series of successful test flights followed, including a 34-1/2 hour endurance flight during which the new German ship was shown off to the residents of Ulm, Nuremberg, Wurzburg, Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, Cologne, Dusseldorf, Bremen, Hugo Eckener’s hometown of Flensburg, Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden.
Graf Zeppelin made the very first commercial passenger flight across the Atlantic, departing Friedrichshafen at 7:54 AM on October 11, 1928, and landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey on October 15, 1928, after a flight of 111 hours and 44 minutes. The ship carried 40 crew members under the command of Hugo Eckener, and 20 passengers including American naval officer Charles E. Rosendahl and Hearst newspaper reporter Lady Grace Drummond-Hay.
The ship’s first transatlantic crossing almost ended in disaster when it encountered a strong squall line on the morning of October 13th. Captain Eckener had uncharacteristically entered the storm at full power — he was known to reduce speed in bad weather — and the ship pitched up violently in the hands of an inexperienced elevatorman; the airships R-38 and USS Shenandoah had broken up under similar circumstances.
Eckener and his officers re-established control, but soon learned that the lower covering of the port fin had been torn away, threatening further damage which would have rendered the ship uncontrollable. Eckener sent a repair team of four men — including his son, Knut Eckener; senior elevatorman and future zeppelin commander Albert Sammt; and Ludwig Knorr, who would become chief rigger on LZ-129 Hindenburg — to repair the covering in flight. Eckener also made the difficult decision to send out a distress call, knowing that he was risking the reputation of his brand new ship, and perhaps the entire zeppelin enterprise. The distress signal was soon picked up by the press, and newspapers around the world ran sensational stories about the looming destruction of the overdue Graf Zeppelin on its maiden voyage.
The emergency repairs were successful, but the ship encountered a second squall front near Bermuda. Graf Zeppelin made it through the second storm, even with the temporary repairs to the damaged fin, and reached the American coast on the morning of October 15th. After a detour over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, to show Graf Zeppelin off to the wildly enthusiastic American public, Eckener brought his damaged ship to a safe landing at the United States naval base at Lakehurst, New Jersey on the evening of October 15, 1928. Graf Zeppelin was overdue, damaged, and had run out of food and water, but Eckener, his crew, and his passengers were greeted like heroes with a ticker-tape parade along New York City’s Broadway.
After two weeks of repairs to the damaged fin, Graf Zeppelin departed Lakehurst on October 29, 1928 for its return to Germany. The return flight took 71 hours and 49 minutes, or just under three days; the ocean liners of the day took twice as long to carry passengers across the Atlantic.
Graf Zeppelin Round-the-World Flight (“Weltfahrt”)
In 1929, Graf Zeppelin made perhaps its most famous flight; a round-the-world voyage covering 21,2500 miles in five legs from Lakehurst to Friedrichshafen, Friedrichshafen to Tokyo, Tokyo to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Lakehurst, and then Lakehurt to Friedrichshafen again.
It was the first passenger-carrying flight around the world and received massive coverage in the world’s press.
The flight was partly sponsored by American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who paid for about half the cost of the flight in return for exclusive media rights in the United States and Britain.
Hearst had insisted that the flight begin and end in America, while the Germans naturally thought the Round-the-World flight of a German ship should begin and end in Germany. As a compromise, there were two official flights; the “American” flight began and ended at Lakehurst, while the “German” flight began and ended at Friedrichshafen.
The Round-the-World flight carried 60 men and one woman, Hearst newspaper reporter Lady Grace Hay-Drummond-Hay, whose presence and reporting greatly increased the public’s interest in the journey. Other passengers included journalists from several countries, American naval officers Charles Rosendahl and Jack C. Richardson, polar explorer and pilot Sir Hubert Wilkins, young American millionaire Bill Leeds, and representatives of Japan and the Soviet Union.
Graf Zeppelin left Friedrichshafen on July 27, 1929 and crossed the Atlantic to Lakehurst, New Jersey, and the “American” flight began on August 7, 1929 with an eastbound crossing back to Germany.
Lakehurst – Friedrichshafen
August 7, 1929 – August 10, 1929
7,068 km / 55 hrs 22 mins
Friedrichshafen – Tokyo
August 15, 1929 – August 19, 1929
11,247 km / 101 hrs 49 mins
Tokyo – Los Angeles
August 23, 1929 – August 26, 1929
9,653 km / 79 hrs 3 mins
Los Angeles – Lakehurst
August 27, 1929 – August 29, 1929
4,822 km / 51 hrs 57 mins
Lakehurst – Friedrichshafen
September 1, 1929 – September 4, 1929
8,478 km / 57 hrs 31 mins
[see a complete list of passengers and crew aboard the flight]
The longest leg of the journey was the 11,247 km, 101 hour 49 minute flight from Friedrichshafen to Tokyo, which crossed thousands of miles of emptiness over Siberia. A planned flight over Moscow had to be canceled due to adverse winds, prompting an official complaint from the government of Soviet dicatator Joseph Stalin, which felt slighted by the change in plan. The passage over Russia’s Stanovoy mountain range in eastern Siberia brought Graf Zeppelin to an altitude of 6,000 feet. The ship landed to a tumultuous welcome and massive press coverage in Japan, where a crowd estimated at 250,000 people greeted the ship’s arrival and Emperor Hirohito entertained Eckener and guests at tea.
The next leg of the flight crossed the Pacific ocean enroute to Los Angeles; Eckener deliberately timed his flight down the American coast to make a dramatic entrance through San Francisco’s Golden Gate with the sun setting behind the ship. According to F.W. “Willy” von Meister (later New York representative of the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei), Eckener explained: “When for the first time in world history an airship flies across the Pacific, should it not arrive at sunset over the Golden Gate?”
After slowly cruising down the California coast to land in daylight the next morning, Graf Zeppelin made a difficult landing at Los Angeles on August 26th, through a temperature inversion which made it difficult to bring the ship down, requiring the valving of large quantities of hydrogen. The lost hydrogen could not be replaced at Los Angeles, and the takeoff, with the ship unusually heavy, was even more challenging; Graf Zeppelin only narrowly missed hitting power lines at the edge of the field.
After a difficult summertime passage over the deserts of Arizona and Texas, Graf Zeppelin flew east across America. The ship was greeted with wild enthusiasm by the people of Chicago, and ended its record breaking flight with a landing at Lakehurst the morning of August 29, 1929. The Lakehurst to Lakehurst voyage had taken just 12 days and 11 minutes of flying time, and brought worldwide attention and fame to Graf Zeppelin and its commander, Hugo Eckener
In July, 1931, Graf Zeppelin carried a team of scientists from Germany, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Sweden on an exploration of the Arctic, making meteorological observations, measuring variations in the earth’s magnetic field in the latitudes near the North Pole, and making a photographic survey of unmapped regions using a panoramic camera that automatically took several pictures per minute. The size, payload, and stability of the zeppelin allowed heavy scientific instruments to be carried and used with an accuracy that would not have been possible with the airplanes of the day.
The polar journey, like other zeppelin flights, was largely financed by stamp collectors; Graf Zeppelin carried approximately 50,000 letters sent by philatelists, and made a water-landing to exchange mail with the Soviet icebreaker Malygin, which itself carried a large quantity of mail sent by stamp collectors.
After the three-day Arctic flight, which included a landing in Leningrad, Graf Zeppelin returned to Berlin to a hero’s welcome at Tempelhof airfield, where the ship was met by celebrities including famed polar explorer Admiral Richard Byrd.[Read a detailed account of the Graf Zeppelin’s Polar Flight.]
By late 1933, Graf Zeppelin had not been to the United States in over four years, since the Round-the-World flight of 1929. When the Zeppelin Company was asked to fly the ship to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, officially dubbed the “Century of Progress International Exposition,” Eckener agreed on condition that the United States issue a special commemorative stamp and share the postal revenue with the Zeppelin Company. After initial opposition by the United States Post Office (and President Franklin Roosevelt’s initial rejection of the idea of a fourth zeppelin stamp), the Post Office eventually agreed to issue the stamp, and so at the end of Graf Zeppelin’s last flight to South America in October, 1933, instead of returning directly to Germany from Brazil, Graf Zeppelin flew to the United States for stops in Miami, Akron, and Chicago.
While Graf Zeppelin’s appearance was one of the highlights of the Chicago Fair, the swastika-emblazoned ship, which was viewed as a symbol of the new government in Berlin, triggered strong political responses from both supporters and opponents of Hitler’s regime, especially among German-Americans. The political controversy muted the enthusiasm that Americans had previously displayed toward the German ship during its earlier visits, and when Eckener took Graf Zeppelin on a aerial circuit around Chicago to show his ship to the residents of the city, he was careful to to fly a clockwise pattern so that Chicagoans would see only the tricolor German flag on the starboard fin, and not the swastika flag painted on the port fin under the new regulations issued by the German Air Ministry.
The Graf Zeppelin was recruited as a tool of Nazi propaganda remarkably soon after the National Socialist takeover of power in early 1933. Only three months after Adolf Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, the Propaganda Ministry ordered Graf Zeppelin to fly over Berlin as part of the government’s May 1, 1933 celebration of the “Tag de Nationalen Arbeit,” the Nazi version of the May Day celebration of labor.
Later in May, 1933, Graf Zeppelin flew to Rome in connection with Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’ first official meeting with the fascist government of Italy; Goebbels invited Italian Air Minister Italo Balbo to join him on a flight over Rome.
In September, 1933, Graf Zeppelin flew over the Reichsparteitag congress at Nuremberg (the “1933 Nuremberg Rally’) to dramatically herald Hitler’s appearance before the crowd.
Throughout the remainder of its career Graf Zeppelin was ordered to make numerous propaganda flights, occasionally in concert with LZ-129 Hindenburg after that ship was launched in 1936.
By the summer of 1931, after many pioneering flights which demonstrated the airship’s impressive capabilities and captured the enthusiasm of the world, Graf Zeppelin began regularly scheduled commercial service on the route between Germany and South America.
The passage to South American was an almost ideal route for a German airship; Brazil and Argentina had a considerable German population, and there were strong business and trade connections between these countries and Germany, yet the transportation of mail, passengers, and freight by ship took weeks. In addition, the ships to South America were far less comfortable than the luxury liners which crossed the North Atlantic to New York. Graf Zeppelin reduced the travel time between Germany and South America from weeks to days, and was therefore hugely popular.
Graf Zeppelin crossed the South Atlantic 18 times in 1932, and made a similar number of flights in 1933. By 1934, the Zeppelin Company was advertising a regular service to South America, departing Germany almost every other Saturday to Brazil, with connecting airplane flights to Argentina. In 1935 and 1936, Graf Zeppelin’s schedule was almost exclusively devoted to passenger and mail service between Germany and Brazil, with crossings back and forth almost every two weeks between April and December. Over its career, Graf Zeppelin crossed the South Atlantic 136 times; it was first regularly scheduled, nonstop, intercontinental airline service in the history of the world.
Graf Zeppelin’s Last Flight
Graf Zeppelin was over the Canary Islands on the last day of a South American flight from Brazil to Germany when it received news of the Hindenburg disaster in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Captain Hans von Schiller withheld the news from his passengers, and told them of the disaster only after the ship’s safe landing in Germany.
Graf Zeppelin landed in Friedrichshafen on May 8, 1937, and never carried a paying passenger again. The ship made only one additional flight, on June 18, 1937, from Friedrichshafen to Frankfurt, where she remained on display — all her hydrogen removed — until she was broken up on the orders of Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe in March, 1940.