Before Aircraft – How Zeppelins Crossed The Atlantic

Lighter than air with sleek curves and a shimmering silver appearance, the German-built Zeppelin was the fastest way to travel between the United States and Europe between 1936 and 1937.

The Hindenburg flying over Manhattan in 1937. Photo: Associated Press via Wikipedia Commons

A hundred years earlier, a Brunel designed steamship had made the Atlantic crossing in 15 days. As advances in motor-powered ships improved, that time reduced, to the point that the Queen Mary could make the crossing in five days. However, it was still much slower than traveling by Zeppelin.

The Hindenburg crossed the Atlantic in less than two days

The LZ-129 Hindenburg Zeppelin dazzled the world of transoceanic travel when it made the crossing to Europe in just 43 hours, leading its owners to print brochures and posters boasting “Two Days to Europe.” In contrast to traveling by ocean liners, no passenger aboard the Hindenburg ever complained of being seasick. Renowned American writer and humourist Mark Twain once said when talking about seasickness:

“At first you are so sick you are afraid you will die, and then you are so sick you are afraid you won’t.”

Despite its massive size and incredible luxury, the Queen Mary was no match for ocean storms that passengers said could “roll the milk out of tea.”

When describing the glory of traveling across the ocean by Zeppelin, 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.”

The Hindenburg was like a floating Post Office

The Zeppelin’s pivotal role was not in transporting passengers, but rather for carrying mail. So much, in fact, that they were almost floating Post Offices. Besides being much fast than boats when it came to freight, the Zeppelins came into their own when transporting perishable cargo like flowers and short-life foods.

The Hindenburg arriving for the first time in America. Photo: Wide World Photos/Minneapolis Sunday Tribune via Wikipedia Commons

Sadly the days of Zeppelins crossing to Europe ended on the morning of May 6, 1937, as the Hindenburg tried to dock at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. As the Hindenburg crossed the American coast and passengers were given a sensational view of Boston, the airship continued south to New York for its traditional loop around Manhattan.

As usual, steam whistles and sirens went off all around the city as traffic came to a stop so that New Yorkers could marvel at the big silver balloon in the sky. Now already late, following headwinds over the Atlantic, the Hindenburg hastily tried to tie up to its mooring mast before bursting into flames.

The Hindenburg disaster was the end of the Zeppelin

When the scorched framework of the Zeppelin finally came to rest on the ground, bystanders eagerly rushed to the aid of passengers desperate to escape from the flames.

34 people were killed in the Hindenburg disaster. Photo: National Air chief @ Flickr Commons via Wikimedia Commons

To this day, nobody knows what caused the Hindenburg to catch fire, with many hypotheses claiming everything from static electricity to a bomb. Some even suggest that it could have been caused by a gunshot from the ground. What we do know, though, is that despite a perfect 27-year safety record, 13 passengers, 22 crew, and one person on the ground died as a result of the fire.

With World War II looming, the Zeppelin days were already numbered. Following the Hindenburg disaster, public confidence was so shattered in the airship that the era of the transatlantic Zeppelin came to an abrupt end.