Nowadays, avgeeks worldwide are enchanted by the majesty of larger aircraft such as the Boeing 747, Airbus A380, and Antonov An-225. This fascination is far from a recent phenomenon. Before commercial air travel on fixed-wing aircraft became mainstream, airships were also an option for those who could afford this very exclusive form of travel. These enormous aircraft even made transatlantic flights, but how did long such journeys take?
The age of the airship
In the early 20th-century, the skies were not dominated by the conventional fixed-wing aircraft that we know today, but rather by airships. Also known as ‘dirigible balloons’, these made use of either hydrogen or helium to achieve lighter-than-air flight. These gases were chosen due to their high lifting capacities. Helium had the advantage over hydrogen of not being flammable, although this gas was not so easily available at the time.
As airship technology experienced further developments, transatlantic flight became a reality. The first commercial service flew from Friedrichshafen, Germany to Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1928, operated by the LZ129 ‘Graf Zeppelin.’ This departed on October 11th, and arrived just four days later. This represented an advantage in terms of speed over contemporary ocean liners. According to Airships.net, these would typically require between five and ten days to make a transatlantic crossing.
In August 1936, the German flagship LZ 129 ‘Hindenburg’ made the crossing from Lakehurst to Frankfurt in as little as 43 hours. This particular airship was the world’s largest by envelope volume when it entered commercial transatlantic service in 1936. The 200,000 cubic meter aircraft offered passengers both comfort and speed, cruising at 70mph / 113km/h with a maximum speed of 85mph / 137km/h.
The BBC describes the ‘Hindenburg’ as having been like “a hotel in the sky.” Its 50 passengers were accommodated in 25 twin-berth cabins, and they also had access to a restaurant, lounge, and cocktail bar. However, such luxury and speed came at a cost, with tickets in the mid-1930s costing between $400 and $450. This is the equivalent of over $8,000 today, and was also between three and five times as expensive as traveling on a contemporary ocean liner.
The end of an era
The decline of airships was brought about by a number of catastrophes in the 1930s. In 1930, the British airship R101 crashed during its maiden overseas voyage in France, killing 48 of its 54 occupants. This disaster spelled the end of British airship development, and further disasters were to follow.
In 1933 and 1935, two American airborne aircraft carriers (‘USS Akron’ and ‘USS Macon’ respectively) crashed in stormy conditions. The former of these saw 73 fatalities, but perhaps the most infamous airship accident is that of the German LZ129 ‘Hindenburg,’ which caught fire while landing in New Jersey following a transatlantic voyage.
36 passengers and crew perished in the disaster, which shattered public confidence in airships as a means of travel. The LZ127 ‘Graf Zeppelin’ made the final international airship flight a day later, returning safely to Germany from Brazil. The golden age of lighter-than-air flight was over.
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