LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin (Deutsche Luftschiff Zeppelin #127; Registration: D-LZ 127) was a large German passenger carrying rigid airship which operated commercially from 1928 to 1937. It was named after the German pioneer of airships, Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who held the rank of Graf or Count in the German nobility. During its operating life the great airship made 590 flights covering more than a million miles.
Design and development
The LZ 127 was originally planned to exploit the latest technology in airships, building on the advances of the earlier LZ126. Dr. Hugo Eckener had to campaign for its construction and only after two years of lobbying did that proceed at the Zeppelin works, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, at Friedrichshafen in Germany.
The Graf Zeppelin flew for the first time on 18 September 1928 and, with a total length of 236.6 metres (776 ft) and volume of 105,000 cubic metres (3,700,000 cu ft), was the largest airship up to that time. It was powered by five Maybach 550 horsepower (410 kW) engines that could burn either Blau gas or gasoline. The ship achieved a maximum speed of 128 kilometres per hour (80 mph, 70 knots) operating at total maximum thrust of 2,650 horsepower (1,980 kW), which reduced to the normal cruising speed of 117 km/h (73 mph, 63 knots) when running with normal thrust of 2,150 horsepower (1,600 kW), ignoring wind speeds. Some flights were made using only Blau gas, and for this purpose 12 gas cells were used with a total volume up to 30,000 cubic metres. That amount allowed around 100 hours at cruising speed. The fuel tank had a maximum capacity for 67 hours cruise. Using both gasoline and Blau gas could give 118 hours cruise.
Generally the "Graf Zeppelin" had a usable payload capacity of 15,000 kilograms for a 10,000 kilometres cruise.
Initially it was to be used for experimental and demonstration purposes to prepare the way for regular airship traveling, but also carried passengers and mail to cover the costs.
Two small ram air turbines attached to the main gondola on swinging arms generated supplemental electricity: one for the radio room, the other for passenger lighting and as a reserve. Accumulators stored the electrical energy produced so that radio operation was independent of airspeed. The main electricity generating plant was located inside the hull comprising two fuel-burning generators. The gondola also had a gasoline-fueled emergency generator.
Behind the front command cabin through a door lay the map room, with two large open access hatches to allow the command crew to communicate with the navigators. From the map room ascending a ladder allowed access to a keel corridor inside the hull. The map room had two large windows, one on each side. A rear door led from the map room to a central corridor with the three-man radio room to the left and the electric kitchen to the right, and a short passage to the main entrance-exit door on the right (when facing front). The corridor ended at a door that opened into the main dining and sitting room, with four large windows. At the rear of this room a door opened into the long corridor to access the passenger's cabins and washrooms and toilet facilities. Each passenger cabin by day was set with a sofa which by night the crew would convert to two beds, one above the other. The crew's quarters were inside the hull reached by a catwalk. The kitchen was equipped with a single electric oven with two compartments and hot plates on top.
The Graf's radio room was outfitted with the most modern radio equipment for an airship at the time. Three radio officers served there communicating with ground stations and ships, performing radio navigation, receiving weather reports as well as sending private telegrams for passengers. A one kilowatt valve transmitter (about 140 Watt antenna power) was used to send telegrams over the longwave band of 500 to 3,000 metre. An emergency transmitter with 70 Watt antenna power was available for both telegraph and radio telephone, using 300 to 1,300 metre wavelengths, powered either by the accumulator or the gasoline generator.
The main antenna comprised two 120 metre long wires, with lead weights at their ends. They could be lowered by electric motor or hand crank. The emergency antenna was a 40 metre wire stretched from a ring on the airship hull. Three high quality receivers, each with six valves, served the wavelength ranges 120 to 1,200 metre (Medium frequency), 400 to 4,000 metre (Low frequency) and 3,000 to 25,000 metre (overlapping Low frequency and Very low frequency). Additionally the room had a shortwave receiver for wavelengths 10 to 280 metre (High frequency).
A modern direction finder, as was then used for radio navigation in large passenger ships, used a steerable ring antenna to determine the airship's position from any two radio transmitters either land or ship-based. During the airship's transatlantic flight to the United States in October 1928, the radio room sent 484 private telegrams and 160 press telegrams.
From its first flight on 18 September 1928 until its last flight on 18 June 1937, the Graf saw nearly nine years of uninterrupted service, totaling nearly two years in the air and traveling 1.7 million kilometres. Its seventh flight was its first Atlantic crossing, thereafter it made regular flights across the South Atlantic to Brazil, one round the world tour, a polar expedition, two roundtrips to the Middle East, and a few within Europe. While the Graf Zeppelin only visited the United States five times (twice during the "Round the World Flight"), the airship made a total of 64 flights to South America.
First intercontinental passenger airship flight
Dr. Eckener commanded the "Graf Zeppelin" on its first intercontinental trip, a transatlantic crossing which left Friedrichshafen, Germany, at 07:54 on 11 October 1928, and arrived in the United States at NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey, on 15 October after having traveled 9,926 km in 111 hours. Notwithstanding the heavy headwinds and stormy weather that slowed the journey, Eckener had nevertheless repeated the success of his first transatlantic crossing made four years earlier in October 1924, to deliver the D-LZ126 (renamed the USS Los Angeles) to the U.S. Navy. Eckener and the crew were welcomed enthusiastically with a "ticker tape" parade in New York the next day and a subsequent invitation to the White House.
This first transatlantic trip was not without its difficulties, however, as the airship suffered potentially serious damage to its port tail fin on the third day of the flight when a large section of the linen covering was ripped loose while passing through a mid-ocean squall line. With the engines stopped, the ship's riggers did their best to tie down the torn fabric to the framework and sew blankets to the ship's envelope while attempting to not fall to the raging seas just below. Fortunately the riggers finished just before Dr. Eckener had to restart the engines when the ship had dropped to within a couple of hundred feet of the ocean's surface. The Graf crossed the U.S. coast at Cape Charles, Virginia, around 10 AM on 15 October, passed over Washington, D.C., at 12:20 PM, Baltimore, MD, at 1 PM, Philadelphia, PA, at 2:40 PM, New York City at 4 PM, and landed at NAS Lakehurst at 5:38 PM.
In addition to the passengers and crew, there was also a stowaway on the flight, 19-year old Clarence Tehune, who had secreted himself onboard the Graf Zeppelin in Lakehurst, New Jersey. He appears in a Gaumont Graphic Newsreel working for his passage in the airship's kitchen. Terhune was returned to the U.S. on the French liner SS Ile de France along with a number of airship crewmembers.. Autographs of Count Zeppelin and Hugo Eckener 2004.</ref>
The "interrupted flight"
While the "Graf Zeppelin" would eventually have a safe and highly successful nine-year career, the airship was almost lost just a half a year after its maiden flight while attempting to make its second trip to the United States in May 1929. Shortly after dark on 16 May, the first night of the flight ("1. Amerikafahrt 1929"), the airship lost two of its five engines while over the Mediterranean off the southwest coast of Spain forcing Dr. Eckener to abandon the trip and return to Friedrichshafen. While flying up the Rhône Valley in France against a stiff headwind the next afternoon, however, two of the remaining three engines also failed and the airship began to be pushed backwards toward the sea.
As Dr. Eckener desperately looked for a suitable place to crash land the airship, the French Air Ministry advised him that he would be permitted to land at the Naval Airship Base at Cuers-Pierrefeu about ten miles from Toulon to use the mooring mast and hangar of the lost airship Dixmude (France's only dirigible which crashed the Mediterranean in 1923 with the loss of 52 lives) if the Graf could reach the facility before being blown out to sea. Although barely able to control the Graf on its one remaining engine, Eckener managed to make a difficult but successful emergency night landing at Cuers. After making temporary repairs, the Graf finally returned to Friedrichshafen on 24 May. Mail carried on the flight received a one-line cachet reading "Delivery delayed due to cancelation of the 1st America trip" and was held at Friedrichshafen until 1 August 1929, when the airship made another attempt to cross the Atlantic for Lakehurst arriving on 4 August 1929. Four days later, the "Graf Zeppelin" departed Lakehurst for another daring enterprise — a complete circumnavigation of the globe.
The growing popularity of the "giant of the air" made it easy for Zeppelin company chief Dr. Hugo Eckener to find sponsors for a "Round-the-World" flight. One of these was the American press tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who requested the tour to officially start at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, NJ. As with the October 1928 flight to New York, Hearst had placed a reporter, Grace Marguerite Hay Drummond-Hay, on board, who thereby became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by air.
Starting there on 8 August 1929, Graf Zeppelin flew back across the Atlantic to Friedrichshafen to refuel before continuing on August 15 across the vastness of Siberia to Tokyo (Kasumigaura Naval Air Station), a nonstop leg of 6,988 miles (11,246 km), arriving three days later on 18 August. Dr. Eckener believed that some of the lands they crossed in Siberia had never before been seen by modern explorers. After staying in Tokyo for five days, on 23 August, the Graf Zeppelin continued across the Pacific to California flying first over San Francisco before heading south to stop at Mines Field in Los Angeles for the first ever nonstop flight of any kind across the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific leg was 5,998 miles (9,653 km) and took three days. The airship's final leg across the United States took it over Chicago before landing back at Lakehurst NAS on 29 August, taking two days and covering 2,996 miles (4,822 km).
The flying time for the Lakehurst to Lakehurst legs was 12 days and 11 minutes. The entire voyage took 21 days, 5 hours and 31 minutes including the initial and final trips between Friedrichshafen and NAS Lakehurst during which time the airship travelled 49,618 km (30,831 miles) whereas the distance covered on the designated "Round the World" portion from Lakehurst to Lakehurst was 31,400 km (19,500 miles). One of Hearst's guests on board was the newlywed couple; the Arctic explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins and his bride Suzanne Bennett. The trip was given to them as a wedding gift.
The polar flight
The ship pursued another spectacular destination in July 1931 with a research trip to the Arctic; this had already been a dream of Count Zeppelin 20 years earlier, which could not, however, be realized at the time due to the outbreak of war.
In July 1930, Hugo Eckener had already piloted the Graf on a three-day trip to Norway and Spitsbergen, in order to determine its performance in this region. Shortly after Eckener made a three day flight to Iceland, both trips completed without technical problems.
The initial idea was to rendezvous with the ill-fated Nautilus, the submarine of polar researcher George Hubert Wilkins, who was attempting a trip under the ice. This plan was abandoned when the U-boat encountered recurring technical problems, leading to its eventual scuttling in a Bergen fjord.
Eckener instead began to plan a rendezvous with a surface vessel. He intended funding to be secured by delivering mail post to the ship. After advertising, around fifty thousand letters were collected from around the world weighing a total of about 300 kilograms. The rendezvous vessel, the Russian icebreaker Malygin, on which the Italian airshipman and polar explorer Umberto Nobile was a guest, required another 120 kilograms of post. The major costs of the expedition were met solely by sale of postage stamps. The rest of the funding came from Aeroarctic and the Ullstein-Verlag in exchange for exclusive reporting rights.
The 1931 polar flight took one week from 24 June 1931 until the 31st. The Graf traveled about 10,600 kilometres, the longest leg without refueling was 8,600 kilometres. The average speed was 88 km/h.
All participants were satisfied after the trip: the airship demonstrated its usefulness in the Arctic.
Middle East flights
The "Graf Zeppelin" made two visits to the Middle East during its career. The first took place over four days in April 1929, without landing but during which mail was dropped to the large German colony at Jaffa in Palestine. The second flight took place in 1931 beginning on 9 April with a flight to Cairo, Egypt, where the airship landed less than two days later. After a brief stop the "Graf Zeppelin" proceeded on to Palestine before returning to Friedrichshafen on 23 April, just an hour over four days after departure. The trip took 97 hours, covered 9,000 kilometres and crossed 14 countries on three continents.
The highlights were:
The Graf Zeppelin undertook a number of trips around Europe, and following a successful tour to South America in May 1930, it was decided to open the first regular transatlantic airship line, traveling mainly from Germany to Brazil (64 such round trips overall) with occasional stops, among them Spain, Miami, London, and Berlin. At one of the Berlin visits a glider that was released from under its hull performed a loop in front of cheering crowds, and on one of the Brazil trips British Pathé News filmed on board..
Almost every flight had a reporter on board, who would radio a report to the ground via Morse Code. Such articles made Lady Drummond-Hay famous, and she would be pictured in advertisements featuring the Graf.
In October 1933, the Graf Zeppelin made an appearance at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago, after circling over the fair, then landing and relaunching 25 minutes later. Despite the beginning of the Great Depression and growing competition by fixed-wing aircraft, D-LZ127 would transport an increasing number of passengers and mail across the ocean every year until 1937. Post and cargo provided most of the income for operating the Graf. In one transatlantic flight the Graf would carry 52,000 postcards and 50,000 letters, and by its last flight it had carried 53 tonnes of mail. Since 1912 Zeppelins were allowed to postmark and sort mail onboard and the Graf managed to deliver South America-bound about a week faster than by ship. However in general the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei made a loss each year. When the Hindenburg entered service in 1936 prospects became better and a profit was expected for 1937 by delivering mail on both it and the Graf, but the Hindenburg's loss in May 1937 put an end to all commercial Zeppelin service.
Dr. Eckener intended to supplement the successful craft by another, similar Zeppelin, projected as D-LZ128. However the disastrous accident of the British passenger airship R101 in 1931 led the Zeppelin company to reconsider the safety of hydrogen-filled vessels, and the design was abandoned in favor of a new project. D-LZ129, which was to eventually be named the Hindenburg, would advance Zeppelin technology considerably and was intended to be filled with helium.
After the Hindenburg disaster the story arose that an embargo imposed by the United States because of the looming war prevented German access to the required large quantities of helium, leading to the conversion of the Hindenburg to a hydrogen design. However it is now known that Eckener successfully visited President Roosevelt himself, who promised to supply helium, but only for peaceful purposes. But after the annexation of Austria in March 1938, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes refused to supply helium, and the Graf Zeppelin II was ultimately inflated with hydrogen. It has been suggested that the use of helium was ruled out on financial grounds.
End of an era
After the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, public faith in the safety of dirigibles was shattered, and flying passengers in hydrogen-filled vessels became untenable. D-LZ127 Graf Zeppelin, which would have been incapable of flying with helium, was retired one month past the disaster and turned into a museum. The end for the Graf Zeppelin came with the outbreak of World War II. In March 1940, Hermann Göring, the German Air Minister (Reichsluftfahrtminister), ordered the destruction of the remaining dirigibles, and the duralumin parts were fed into the German war industry.
During its career, the ship flew more than one and half million kilometres (thus becoming the first aircraft in history to fly over a million miles), 590 flights, and made 144 ocean crossings (143 across the Atlantic, one across the Pacific) carrying 13,110 passengers with a perfect passenger safety record, making it the most successful rigid airship ever built.
As evidence of how it caught the imagination of the world, a number of countries issued postage stamps either commemorating flights of the Zeppelin or for use on this (and later) airships. Some are fairly common, others quite rare. A considerable number of covers (envelopes) carried on flights still exist and are avidly collected. In addition, a board game was made in its name.
Published - July 2009
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