by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Its fateful career as an aviation phenomenon was less than a decade, but the Graf Zeppelin, the hydrogen-filled mammoth dirigible, some 770 feet long and 116 feet at its widest, made in Germany and commanded by Hugo Eckener, made nearly 600 flights and logged over a million miles while conveying thousands of passengers and good deal of freight and mail between 1928 and 1937.
The airship’s maiden voyage, after some two years of construction, was in September 1928 from its base at Friedrichshafen, on the shores of Lake Constance in the southwestern corner of Germany, some 125 miles southwest of Munich. The three-hour test was followed by increasingly longer and further trips within the country, before a cross-Atlantic voyage was made over four days in mid-October (though it encountered a near disaster in flight requiring emergency repairs) to Lakehurst, New Jersey, its future American base, some fifty miles east of Philadelphia. Still, Eckener, the crew and the passengers were honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City on arrival.
The next major accomplishment, perhaps its greatest, was its Weltfahrt, or round-the-world trip, between 7 August and 4 September 1929, which also happened to be the first airborne circumnavigation of the globe with passengers, including Lady Grace Drummond Hay, who was the first woman to fly on the craft and who was a journalist for William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper syndicate.
Hearst was a sponsor of the flight, footing the bill for half the cost in exchange for media rights for the voyage in England and the United States. The international makeup of the passengers included people from Germany, Spain, Russia, Japan, Australia and France and two American Navy officers, one of whom was previously a Los Angeles resident and whose parents reunited with him. Of the crew, the youngest was a 15-year old cabin boy.
While there was a dispute about where the flight would begin and end, there were two official ones for within America and then everywhere else, though the journey began at Lakehurst with the first leg concluding in 55 hours at Friedrichshafen. The longest leg then followed with the craft landing at Tokyo on 19 August after 101 hours in the air, with a quarter million Japanese greeting the airship, and which included the young Emperor Hirohito having the crew and passengers for tea. Four days later, the Graf Zeppelin left for its Pacific crossing, which included a dramatic passage, planned by Eckener, at sunset over the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco.
After nearly 80 hours, the dirigible landed at the recently renamed Los Angeles Municipal Airport, also known as Mines Field, and where the National Air Races was held nearly a year prior. Tonight’s highlighted objects from the Homestead’s holdings are several photographs, taken by professionals and by bystanders, of the Graf Zeppelin moored at Mines. Press coverage was intense with many articles, photos and even commercial ads devoted to the dirigible’s visit to the Angel City.
As for adjacent landowners, there was “a harvest of gold reaped” as makeshift parking lots charged 50 cents per vehicle. The paper added that law enforcement personnel “were trying as best they could to regulate the huge crowds on every road leading to the airport” and noted that “thousands of cars were parked and the occupants walked to the fences to watch the great ships come in.”
The Los Angeles Times of 26 August recorded the heightened air of anticipation: “With the aproach of the Graf Zeppelin within sight of the Los Angeles Municipal Airport at Inglewood, the crowd was growing into gigantic proportions and it was estaimate that 500,000 people would be on hand at sunrise.” Moreover, some 50,000 people were staying overnight, most apparently confused about the arrival time, with quite a few people prepared with tents, blankets, portable stoves or light meals, while wise entrepreneurs arrived with makeshift hot dog stands, sandwich counters and soft-drink parlors.
Navy aircraft were also present, leaving from the airport to the field at Long Beach so they could take off from there and help assist the Graf Zeppelin as it neared its destination and a field hospital, with ambulances, was set up just in case it was required. Squads of sailors and marines rehearsed in advance, so that when the “spider lines” were dropped from the craft, they could be grabbed by the military personnel for mooring the behemoth.
It was noted that “at the landing mast the refueling crew idled about, ready to start the gas[oline] into the 1,000,000-foot container as soon as they got the word.” Not only was there the large press corps ready to write about the event, but radio broadcasting equipment and motion picture, including sound, cameras were on hand, as well. Finally, it was carefully organized that the airport be free of any “heavier-than-air” craft and other planes had to stay clear as landing commenced.
Not to be outdone by its competitor, the Los Angeles Express issued an extra edition on the 26th, in which it reported that “the great cheer went up at 1:45 a.m. in the darkness beyond the field when the Graf first became visible to those on the ground.” The zeppelin came in from the northeast, having flown over downtown Los Angeles and then turned to make its approach, being about 1000 feet in the air as it reached the northeast corner of the airport, which was flooded with massive arclights, and then turned diagonally and then left via the southwest corner to return for its dramatic dawn mooring.
This occurred at 5:35 and the paper stated that “after the ship had come to within a few feet of the earth the ground crew walker her over to her 60-foot mast, at the south end of the airfield. Auto horns blared. Whistles blew. Thousads—hundreds of thousands—cheered.” An inversion layer, however, required the release of hydrogen, which could not be replaced at Los Angeles.
The cables were attached to hold the nose of the massive ship to the mast and “gigantic winches ground and slowly the ship was pulled into her berth, her nose heading eastward, into the rising sun.” A reception committee, including Los Angeles Mayor John C. Porter and Governor C.C. Young greeted Eckener and the others at the administration building. Thirty-five cars were used to ferrry crew and passengers to customs in that structure and then to breakfast and rest at the Ambassador Hotel.
After a badly needed rest, including by Eckener, who complained of a badly upset stomach, the crew and passengers were feted by some 1,100 guests at an 8:00 banquet at the Ambassador. The mayor and governor, along with German consul S.C. Hagen, were the principal speakers, while Eckener and Lady Drummond Hay answered on behalf of their compatriots. Wanting to waste no time to get across the country before seasonal storms were expected on the east coast, the party then received a police escort back to the airport for an immediate departure.
At a quarter after midnight on the 27th, with some 500,000 people to witness the event, the Graf Zeppelin began its ascent from a spot next to the administration building with its nose pointed toward the southeast, but it was reported by the Times that “the ship was held down for approximately an hour after it cast off from the mooring mast. When it was let go by the ground crew the engines roared on full force, the craft nosed sharply up, its tail barely clearing electric lines on the Redondo Boulevard side of the field, and in two minutes it was up 1500 feet.
The Express, though, was not as sanguine about this close call regarding those power lines, the poles of which were surmounted with red warning lights, with an article headline declaring, “Throngs See Graf Escape Tragic Crash,” and its coverage beginning with,
A half million hearts stood still—a million knees went weak.
And then the Graf Zeppelin, either by supernavigation or wonderful luck, or something undefinable, cleared the high-tension wires and, nosing upward, heading due east, was on its way on the final lap of its ’round-the-world journey.
That was a thrill . . . for, in taking off from Los Angeles the mighty giant of the air, with its sixteen passengers and its crew of thirty-six, missed disaster by a margin of an estimated five feet.
The account of the Los Angeles Record fell somewhat between the others in its description, while asserting that there were many fewer spectators to see the Zeppelin’s departure. The paper reported that “the German Graf Zeppelin missed disaster by just a few feet here shortly after midnight today as it started a conquest of the North American continent, the final lap of its race around the world, against time.” It added that “the great dirigible, victorious over the storms of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the hazards of Europe and Asia, almost met ruin the network of high tension wires which surround Mines field.”
The account continued that the craft “failed to gain altitude as quickly as anticipated, and only the skill of its commander [no mention of luck here], Dr. Hugo Eckener, took it out of the most serious situation encountered on its tour.” As to those watching, the Record added, “the crowd of 125,000 at the airport, sensing the predicament, cheered mightily as the giant bag, with its tail dragging slightly, successfully cleared the wires.”
Experts weighed in with the view “that a strata of cold air” was to blame for the problems with takeoff as it held the airship down with the tail nearly touching the ground (other accounts suggested the tail actually dug into the earth). So, as the craft rose, Eckener had to level it out “and drove its nose directly toward the network [of wires], bringing the tail up.”
Once the wires were safely cleared, the nose was again pointed up and the ascent continued successfully. The paper concluded by stating that the layover at Los Angeles was supposed to last longer, but Eckener was keen to get an early departure to best the record for a circumnavigation, that being 23 hours established the previous year.
Prior to leaving the Angel City, the commander was concerned that there was too much weight for the craft to safely fly over the Rocky Mountains, so water ballast was jettisoned, spare parts and equipment left behind and some of crew and passengers were sent east by airplane. As noted above, moreover, there had been an unexpected loss of hydrogen on landing at the airport, so the craft was heavier than desired. It also turned out that the scraping of the ship as it struggled to get aloft before barely getting over the wires caused some loss of the fabric sheathing.
Over Arizona and New Mexico, there were some serious head winds from likely monsoonal storms and the craft took nearly a half-hour to travel some twenty-five miles and it reputedly had to take a zig-zag course through the former. Near the little hamlet of Hachita, in the southwestern corner of the latter, it was reported by the Express that the altitude was such a problem that the Zeppelin “lost altitude . . . and was less than 100 feet from the ground.”
While Eckener thought that, because of storms in the Midwest, he would have to take a southerly route over New Orleans, Birmingham, and Atlanta before moving up the Atlantic coast, he was hoping instead to turn northeast from Texas through Oklahoma and Missouri before stopping at Chicago and then across northern Indiana, possibly stopping for the National Air Races at Cleveland before going through Pennsylvania and upstate New York and then turning south to Lakehurst.
It turned out that the Graf Zeppelin was able to take the latter course and it was met with large crowds and great enthusiasm in the Windy City, though it bypassed Cleveland and the races before arriving at its final destination on the 29th after just shy of 52 hours crossing the country. Having logged some 21,500 miles with an actual flying time of 12 days and 11 minutes, Eckener and the crew were lionized for their achievement and the airship spurred a zeppelin craze, even as, within two months of the achievement, the Great Depression burst forth.
Two years later, with scientists from Germany, Sweden, the Soviet Union and the United States on board, the dirigible traveled through the Arctic to allow for meterological observations, including measurement of the planet’s magnetic field near the North Pole and the taking of panoramic photos of areas that were not previously surveyed.
For the 1933 World’s Fair at Chicago, the craft, which, however, was emblazoned with the swastika of the newly installed Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, made an appearance after leaving Brazil (there was a regular route for pasenger service between that nation and Germany) and stopping at Miami and Akron, Ohio (home of Goodyear, the owner of the famous blimp) and it then made its way home.
For four years, the Graf Zeppelin was used both for commercial travel to and from South America and Germany and for propaganda purposes by Hitler’s gradually militarizing dictatorship. A new dirigible, the Hindenburg, was launched to great fanfare by the Nazis in 1936 and used for trans-Atlantic passenger service.
The Graf Zeppelin, meanwhile, was over the Canary Islands on a return trip home from Brazil when news was transmitted that the Hindenburg, evidently leaking hydrogen gas, caught fire and crashed at Lakehurst, killing three dozen people in just over 30 seconds of disintegration.
The Hindenburg disaster spelled the immediate end of commercial uses of zeppelins, though improved airliners were also gradually making the use of the craft increasingly obsolete. The Graf Zeppelin completed its passage to Friedrichshafen and then it was grounded after a short trip to Frankfurt, with the craft dismantled on orders of Hermann Göering in spring 1940 after the start of the Second World War.
The arrival of the Graf Zeppelin at Los Angeles in late August 1929 was an important moment in local and world aviation history and having these highlighted photos and several more not shown here in the museum’s holdings is great to document this signal event.