Lighter Than Air (Part 2)

by John Delach

After the loss of the Macon, only the Germans remained in the game. Unable to secure helium from the USA because of our distaste for Hitler and his Third Reich, the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei filled their flagship, the Hindenburg LZ 129, with volatile hydrogen. Their queen of the skies made her first voyage in 1936 and spent a successful summer carrying passengers across the North Atlantic between Berlin and Lakehurst, New Jersey. 

Their good luck ran out early in the next season when Hindenburg was consumed by fire during its spectacular cremation while landing at that Naval Air Station on May 6, 1937. Thirty-five of the 97 passengers and crew on board perished in this disaster whose cause is still a matter of speculation.  

The whimsical concept of developing a fleet of zeppelins for commercial or military use should have died on that rainy afternoon but Hindenburg was the lead zeppelin of a projected fleet of three luxury liners. Hindenburg’s twin, LZ 130, was then under construction at the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin works when that disaster struck. Construction began in 1936 with its first flight on September 14, 1938. The airship’s intended name was: “The Graf Zeppelin II.” 

“The designer and chief engineer, Dr. Hugo Eckener, vowed never to use hydrogen in a passenger airship again.  This led to modifications such that the Graf Zeppelin II could be inflated with helium.” 

Since the United States remained the only source of helium. Dr. Eckener traveled to Washington to meet with President Roosevelt. Speaking from the heart as an aviator, he gained FDR’s trust. The president agreed to authorize the export of helium to Germany solely for peaceful purposes. Unfortunately for the good doctor, when Germany annexed Austria, any trust FDR had for Germany vanished and helium would never be available. Hydrogen became the only gas available for LZ 130.

“The airship was christened and flew for the first time on September 14, 1938. Only Zeppelin Company officials and Hermann Goering were present; no other government representatives came to the christening. Eckener alone, made the inaugural speech welcoming this new airship, the last of her kind. A banner hung in front of the massive hanger announcing the birth of the Graf Zeppelin II, but the absence of that name painted on the airship was significant. Without access to helium, “It became obvious that the ship would never serve its intended purpose as a passenger liner.” 

Nazi Germany’s aggression would have curtailed actual passenger travel in any case. “The Reich Air Ministry permitted the LZ 130 to fly for one year until September 1, 1939 without any transportation of passengers and outside tropical areas.” 

Instead, the air ministry arranged for the passenger accommodations to be fitted with radio surveillance and navigational instruments. LZ 130 was then dispatched as a mail carrier or to participate in several air shows, then called, Flying Days, to acquire vital data for future combat operations. 

One of the last series of flights brought the airship over the Southeastern coast of England between August 2 and 4. The purpose of this espionage trip was to secretly collect information on the British Home Radar System. 

With war imminent, the air ministry ordered LZ 130 removed from its hanger, turned around and re-inserted for easier dismantling. Its gas cells were emptied, and sophisticated electronic equipment was removed. 

The last great airship remained immobile in its hanger until February 29, 1940 when Goering ordered the Graf Zeppelin II and the third sister, LZ 131, still under construction, to be destroyed. 

On May 6, 1940, an enormous explosion leveled the hangers allowing the framing for the inert LZ 130 and the partially built LZ 131 to be collected for the war effort. 

Curiously, Goering’s order was carried out three years to the day after the destruction of the Hindenburg.