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Learning Units (Hours)
They were “the biggest birds that ever flew” – the great dirigible airships of the early twentieth century. The greatest of them all would be the 129th “Luftschiff” (Airship) produced by the Zeppelin Company of Friedrichshafen, Germany. LZ (Luftschiff Zeppelin) 129 would be known to the world as “Hindenburg” – named for Paul von Hindenburg, former president of Germany. She was the epitome of the rigid airship builder’s art, bringing luxury, speed and comfort to seventy passengers fortunate enough to be able to afford the transatlantic passage. Indeed, it seemed as though airships had a distinct advantage over airplanes in the long-distance market in the 1920s and ‘30s, despite their dismal history. It would all come to an ignominious end one fateful day in early May 1937 on a field in central New Jersey, while the world looked on.
It seems counter-intuitive for us today to conceive of people traveling across oceans and continents in a flying machine whose buoyancy depended on several million cubic-feet of a highly explosive gas; hydrogen. In reality, there was no alternative for the Zeppelin Company since the other lifting gas – helium, was unavailable to any but American airships. Though it does not have the same lifting capacity as hydrogen, helium was safe and a native natural resource found in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Once as rare as black pearls, by the 1920s the technology to produce it in quantity and at low cost gave America the monopoly on helium. Other technologies such as “duralumin” – an aluminum alloy invented in Germany, would give the rigid airship lightness and strength. WWI would be a proving ground and test-bed for Zeppelin technology with the lessons learned applied to the post-war rigid airship, but still flammable hydrogen was the only choice to fill the gas bags of German Zeppelins since America banned sales of helium to other countries in the inter-war period.
The story of the great airships is intertwined with that of manned flight itself. After all, a dirigible (steerable) rigid airship is, in effect, a powered and controlled “free balloon.” Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, father of the rigid airship, flew his first “Zeppelin” (LZ-1) in 1900. His was not the first, but his perseverance – even in the face of disaster, would pay off. He first became interested in lighter-than-air flight while serving as an observer with a Union Army balloon corps during the American Civil War. His Zeppelins bombed cities and served splendidly as naval scouts at the Battle of Jutland during WWI. After the war, the most successful Zeppelin of all was LZ-127 – a.k.a. “Graf (Count) Zeppelin.” Her long career of transatlantic crossings, artic exploration and historic round-the-world voyage made airship travel seem safe and viable in the period roughly from the mid-1920s to the mid-‘30s. But like LZ-129, she was an accident waiting to happen but never did. The Hindenburg was less fortunate and brought with its tragic demise the end of a glorious era of aerial transportation.
This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.
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