The destination for history

Zeppelin Hindenburg, transatlantic workhorse


In 1936 and 1937, the Zeppelin Hindenburg was the quickest way to travel between the United States and Europe. LZ-129 Hindenburg dazzled the world as the latest in a series of advances in transoceanic transportation. A hundred years earlier, Brunel’s steamship Great Western, steaming at 9 knots, crossed the Atlantic in fifteen days. By 1890, the Cunard liners Etruria and Umbria crossed the Atlantic at 19 knots in about a week. By 1936 – the year Hindenburg first flew – Cunard’s RMS Queen Mary sped at 30 knots, but it still took about five days to transport goods and passengers from Europe to America.

While Queen Mary steamed on the ocean below, Hindenburg carried passengers from shore to shore in a matter of hours; the airship’s fastest crossing was just forty-three hours. ‘Two Days to Europe!’ boasted Hindenburg’s brochures and posters.

In contrast with her rivals on the ocean, no Hindenburg passenger ever complained of seasickness. Cunard Line’s massive Queen Mary was over 80,000 tons and more than a 1,000ft long, but still moved so badly in rough weather that some said it could ‘roll the milk out of tea’.

Mary Day Winn of the New York Herald Tribune wrote: ‘ The real glory of Zeppelin travel … is its freedom from seasickness. It is the smoothest form of motion I have ever known, just a continuous floating, with no rolling, no dipping, and almost no change of levels. The sound of the engines can be heard only faintly – a low, steady murmur barely entering consciousness except when it slows up. There is no vibration.’

Between 1924 and the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, Zeppelins revolutionised transatlantic postal services by offering rapid airmail transport. Carrying and servicing mail and freight subsidised the giant airships’ flights. Hindenburg was the largest of them all, making it the world’s largest flying post office, and passengers and crew enjoyed postal services and facilities aboard. This early transcontinental carriage of mail connected the world through airmail among many countries and continents.

Hindenburg provided safe and timely freight services. Time-sensitive freight included live animals, perishable foods, flowers, pharmaceuticals, films, machinery and technical instruments, artworks, jewellery, toys and household goods. Hindenburg also carried large valuables such as automobiles, pianos and aeroplanes. On its first return flight from Lakehurst to Frankfurt in May 1936, the giant ship transported a Staggerwing Beechcraft (with its wings detached) in the central cargo bay – the first aircraft transported across the ocean as freight by Hindenburg.

The first Catholic mass to be celebrated in the air was conducted aboard Zeppelin Hindenburg during Hindenburg’s first flight to the United States in 1936. Father Paul Schulte received a papal dispensation to perform the mass after giving assurances that the sacramental wine would not spill during the service. Father Paul, a First World War German military pilot who had left the military for the clergy, became known as the ‘flying priest’ –using his flying skills to do missionary work in remote areas.

On the morning of 6 May, during her final flight, the weather finally cleared as Hindenburg flew over the North American coast. Passengers spotted Boston just before noon. By the time the airship reached New York City for a traditional loop over Manhattan, Hindenburg’s silvery hull reflected the spring afternoon’s bright sunshine. As usual, steam whistles and sirens all over the city wailed and traffic stood still so that New Yorkers could behold the immense marvel floating overhead. Already behind schedule, Hindenburg then flew south toward Lakehurst, New Jersey.

The First World War ace Ernst Udet served Nazi Germany’s Ministry of Aviation as head of its technical office. In a 1937 test experiment, Colonel Udet flew in a Focke-Wulf Stieglitz to hook on to a trapeze suspended below Hindenburg. This photograph from a collectible August 1938 Zeppelin calendar celebrates this challenging aerial feat.

Hindenburg made 62 successful flights before her ghastly end on 6th May 1937. In less than a minute, from the first outbreak of fire, flames reduced Hindenburg to a pile of scorched and twisted girders on the Lakehurst airfield.  The moment Hindenburg’s scorched framework settled to the ground, rescuers began hauling the survivors to the air station’s dispensary, using every available vehicle, even baggage trucks and the limousines waiting to ferry passengers off of the airfield.

The Zeppelin Company’s perfect safety record – 27 years of civil flight operations without a single passenger fatality – smouldered in the ashes. In the end, 13 of 36 passengers, 22 of 61 crew members, and one member of the civilian ground crew lost their lives in the disaster.

Extracted from Zeppelin Hindenburg: An Illustrated History of LZ-129 by Dan Grossman, Cheryl Ganz & Patrick Russell

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books