The dream of flight - a history of German Airship Aviation

By Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

Unique exhibits recount the spectacular flights of the airships, document the euphoria, and shine a light on the legends surrounding these giants of the air. The journey through airship history ends in the present: utopian airship visions supplement the materialised Zeppelin NT.

The Zeppelin Museum FriedrichshafenZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

Located at Lake Constance, the city of Friedrichshafen is closely connected to the history of German airship aviation.

Among the historical pioneers, one name is particularly closely associated with its development: Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin, inventor of the famous airship that bears his name.

Graf Ferdinand von ZeppelinZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

The Zeppelin Museum at Friedrichshafen recounts the story of Zeppelin's invention and its mixed history in German airship aviation.

The museum not only contains the world's largest collection on the history of airship construction, thus proving to be a competence centre for the history of German aviation; it is also dedicated to art from the Lake Constance region and houses some valuable collections such as the Otto Dix Collection. The Museum also houses a large part of the estate of internationally renowned artist and engineer Andreas Feininger.

This unique collection is presented in temporary, non-permanent presentations. In conjunction with temporary exhibitions of contemporary art, these mirror the Zeppelin Museum's aspiration to actively integrate the collection into current art-theoretical and socio-political discourse.

Graf Ferdinand von ZeppelinZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

Zeppelin - the man behind the name

Graf Zeppelin's airships made him world-famous. But aviation took the central role in his life only after the involuntary end of his career as an officer at the age of 51. Graf Zeppelin assumed command of most of the pioneering flights of his first airships from 1900. This active role corresponded with the ideal image of the time; of the aviation pioneer who combined theory and practice and defied all hazards and dangers. After the foundation of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH in 1908, Zeppelin - by now seventy years old - increasingly became a representative figure. He used his popularity shrewdly in the media to further his own goals. 

Graf Ferdinand von ZeppelinZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

At the same time he always sought new challenges and found them in the airplane.

Zeppelin sponsored many flying competitions and personally initiated the development of two military airplanes in 1914.

Alexander Baumann developed giant, land-based airplanes, which were used from 1917 as bombers over England.

Claude Dornier was commissioned to construct giant flying boats, using mostly light metal.

Graf Zeppelin took a lively and active interest in both developments until his death.

Ascent of the LZ1Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

As early as 1874, Graf Zeppelin had his ideas for an airship to cover long distance and carry heavy loads. After he left the military involuntarily in 1890, he devoted himself completely to his ideas. He sought employees and asked for support from the military, industry and science. Zeppelin intended to build very large airships for civil, military and science missions. LZ 1 made his first ascent on 2 July 1900 in Manzell Bay near Friedrichshafen.

The first Zeppelin airship remained in the air for 18 minutes. The experience of the maiden flight was converted immediately into technical improvements. Two further flights were made in October 1900 and had to be demolished afterwards due to a lack of money.

Graf Ferdinand von ZeppelinZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

Graf Zeppelin usually commanded the experimental flights of the first airships developed between 1900 and 1910 personally, thus being transfigured to the "ruler of the skies" to the public eye. With a handful of staff, he built the technically more advanced LZ 2 in 1905.

After its disappointing demise due to engine failure, LZ 3 proved the fundamental functionality of the Zeppelin airship. The increasingly extensive flights in 1908/09 with the airships LZ 4, LZ 5 and LZ 6 were dangerous undertakings due to the insufficiently developed technology, and the airships and crews survived often only by good fortune. But they provided valuable information for improvements.

The floating hangar near Manzell on Lake ConstanceZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

In these first years of their development, the airships were built, stored and repaired in an enormous floating hangar on Lake Constance, located at a distance of 600 metres from the shores of Manzell, a small town close to Friedrichshafen.

Landung des schwer zerstörten Schütte-Lanz Luftschiffes L. 5 an der Westfront (1915-07)German Federal Archives

But Zeppelin wasn't the only one researching the development of airships: Johann Schütte attempted to keep up with him with his wooden airships, and at the time of the First World War to build an airship suitable for the front.

One of the largest of these airships was SL 20, the last Schütte-Lanz airship to be put into service with the Navy. It made its first voyage in September 1917 and could participate altogether only in two reconnaissance trips, since it burned in January 1918 together with four Zeppelines after an explosion.

The British commercial airships by Barnes Neville WallisZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

Another use of airships were research expeditions.

In May 1928, Umberto Nobile led an Arctic expedition with the N4 Italia, the sister ship of the N1 Norge. An extensive research programme was also developed for this voyage. From Spitsbergen, the ship undertook two voyages. On the first voyage it explored the polar sea east of Spitsbergen over a distance of almost 4000 km. On the second trip, it crashed onto the pack ice on its way back from the North Pole. Eight of the 16 crew members were rescued after seven weeks.

From 24 to 31 July 1931, LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin drove into the Arctic. The ship was converted into a research laboratory for physical, meteorological and cartographic measurements. In order to be able to carry the five-ton Arctic and research equipment, every comfort for passengers was removed. For example, cardboard dishes replaced porcelain. Since the construction of LZ 127 also promoted its possible use for Arctic research, a certain obligation for an Arctic voyage arose. Luftschiffahrt Zeppelin GmbH and the scientific team agreed on a short voyage to reduce the ship's exposure to hazards.

The luxury liner of the air is built by Ludwig Dürr + Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbHZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

The highly complex skeletons of the large airships of the 1920s and 1930s were built at the airship yard in Friedrichshafen with these specially developed riveting pliers. For special applications, they were still in use in tank construction until the 1980s.

The partial reconstruction of LZ 129 Hindenburg for the opening of the Zeppelin Museum in the Hafenbahnhof in 1996 was also riveted by hand with these historical tools.

Atoms for Peace in the Cold War - Frank Tinsley's airship with nuclear reactor (1955) by Frank TinsleyZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

In the 1950s, Frank Tinsley came up with the idea of a nuclear airship as the American government developed the Atoms for Peace program in 1955. The aim was to promote the peaceful use of nuclear power. As a contribution to this project, comic-strip artist and illustrator Frank Tinsley published his version of a nuclear-powered passenger airship in "Mechanix Illustrated", a magazine for hobby mechanics. Tinsley's illustrations also found their way into specialist literature. The government remained sceptical and finally decided to build the civilian nuclear freighter "Savannah".

The Zeppelin Museum FriedrichshafenZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

Since the mid-1990s airships are once again being built in Friedrichshafen. Following the tradition of rigid airship construction, the Zeppelin NT, as depicted here, with new technology has a rigid supporting structure made from aluminium and carbon beams. The Zeppelin NT is able to fly very slowly and to remain immobile in a precise position in the air. Its possibilities for use range from passenger flights and advertising purposes to research contracts and surveillance missions. Since 2012 Type LZ N07/101 Zeppelins are also being built by Goodyear in the USA.

Automatic overpressure valve as used in LZ 129, LZ 130, LZ 131Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

Buoyancy, drive, aerodynamics - giants in motion

Loading the balloon basketZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

Helium gas is much lighter than the same amount of air. That is why it rises in the surrounding air and can even lift the weight of the balloon's envelope, its basket and a payload.

This is static lift. The surrounding air does not move. One cubic meter of helium can lift 1.11 kilos.

How does the airship move forward?Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

The streamlined, droplet-shaped form of the airship provides very little air resistance, with hardly any vortex. This means that the engine and propeller can move the airship forwards in an optimal way. The power of the engine is transmitted to the propeller by gears and converted into forward motion.

While the first zeppelins were still powered by Daimler engines, the LZ 10 "Schwaben" was the first Zeppelin airship to operate completely with Maybach engines. From its maiden voyage on 26 June 1911, all subsequent airships were operated with these engines. Only LZ 129 "Hindenburg" and LZ 130 were powered again by Daimler-Benz engines (as the company was called after the merger in 1926) and used diesel engines for the first time.

The propellers developed from small, quickly rotating metal ones to wooden propellers with a large diameter and a low number of revolutions. These were more efficient.

Static buoyancyZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

Hydrogen, helium and warm air are lighter than the surrounding air.

When filled with light gas or heated air, the volume of the balloon or airship displaces the surrounding air.

That is why these aircraft ascend, like a bubble of air in water. That is the principle of static buoyancy.

Exerting pressure - the girderZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

The distribution of pressure is visualized by light. In the long rectangular piece the pressure is contracted particularly at the point where you are pressing your finger.

If the pressure were to increase, that would be the place where the object would break. In strutted material the pressure is distributed evenly: light can be seen everywhere.

Due to the manner of construction, the pressure is spread across many points. That is why the grider can bear much greater pressure before it breaks.

Mb VIa-engine in the port-side car from LZ 121 NordsternZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

In April 1916 Karl Maybach began the development of the first German oversized and overdensified elevator engine.

The MbIVa had a larger displacement volume and higher compression than required for performance at sea level. At ground level only throttled operation was possible, at high altitudes the engine reached its maximum power.

During the First World War this development became necessary so that the military airships could avoid fighter planes and the bombardment by air defence guns in larger heights. From 1917 to 1921 Zeppelin airships were equipped with this engine. LZ 121 Nordstern was completed in 1921 and delivered to France as a repair service.

Partial reconstruction Hindenburg LZ 129 - outher shell by Ludwig Dürr + Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH FriedrichhafenZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

The luxury liner of the skies takes flight

Partial reconstruction Hindenburg LZ 129 - aluminium girders by Ludwig Dürr + Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH FriedrichhafenZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

At the heart of the Zeppelin Museum is this partial reconstruction, true to size, of the Hindenburg.

The B-Deck,the sleeping cabins, social room and the reading and writing room can be visited.

The smoking salon, however, as well as the interior long beam and ring carrier construction of the airship, can be viewed from the outside.

The construction was based on the original plans, while the manufacture and installation was conducted by Zeppelin Metallwerke. It took five years and almost 40,000 working hours to complete the work.

Hindenburg LZ 129 ModelZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

When the Hindenburg made a scheduled flight across the North Atlantic to the USA in 1936, she was the only aircraft on this important intercontinental route. Usually, however, passengers crossed the Atlantic by ship. The shipping companies courted the public with promises of ever larger, more comfortable and faster ships.

This contest found expression in the “Blue Riband”, for the fastest transatlantic crossing. Compared to the Hindenburg the ships were roomier and could take many more passengers in different price categories, but they could not compete with the speed of the airships.

 In the second half of the 1930s more and more airplanes crossed the North Atlantic on reconnaissance and mail flights. Long haul seaplanes for passenger transport were developed in the USA, Great Britain, France and Germany, which were intended to undercut the journey times of airships. The first trial flight by a seaplane with passengers across the North Atlantic was made by Pan American World Airways in June 1939.

Timetable for Zeppelin special trips to North America with LZ 129 "Hindenburg" (1936) by Deutsche Zeppelin-ReedereiZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

The first journey taken by the LZ 129 Hindenburg across the North Atlantic in May 1936 marked the establishment of the first ever regular airborne connection between Germany and the USA.

The airship was constructed especially for the North Atlantic route in order to accelerate the connection between Europe and the North American economic area: mail and passengers could now cross the North Atlantic in only two days.

The destination was the airship port of Lakehurst,  New Jersey, 130 km south of New York. In the 1936 flying season there were ten trips, with a passenger occupancy rate of 72%.

Partial reconstruction Hindenburg LZ 129 - boarding ladder by Ludwig Dürr + Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH FriedrichhafenZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

A highlight of the museum is the partial reconstruction of the Hindenburg.

Visitors can climb a boarding ladder onto LZ 129 passenger ship, rebuilt according to its original dimensions.

Partial reconstruction Hindenburg LZ 129 - salon by Ludwig Dürr + Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH FriedrichhafenZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

The design of the interior of the Hindenburg was impressively simple and elegant.

The aluminium furniture by the famous architect and designer Fritz August Breuhaus de Groot was characterised by stylish modernity. Its lightweight structure also had a functional purpose - wherever possible, weight should be saved.

The walls of the airship were covered with balloon silk. The artist Otto Arpke decorated all of the social rooms with wall paintings using a complicated spraying technique.

Table settingsZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

In the airship upscale table culture was cultivated.

The stewards spent a lot of time to cover the tables with starched linen covers, fine porcelain, silver cutlery and polished glasses.

Replika of passenger cabin of the LZ 129 by Fritz August Breuhaus de GrootZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

Hindenburg was originally built with 25 double-berthed cabins at the center of A Deck, accommodating 50 passengers.

After the ship’s inaugural 1936 season, 9 more cabins were added to B Deck, accommodating an additional 20 passengers.

The A Deck cabins were small, but were comparable to railroad sleeper compartments of the day.

Replika of passenger cabin of the LZ 129 by Fritz August Breuhaus de GrootZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

The cabins measured approximately 78″ x 66″, and the walls and doors were made of a thin layer of lightweight foam covered by fabric.

Cabins were decorated in one of three color schemes — either light blue, grey, or beige - and each A Deck cabin had one lower berth which was fixed in place, and one upper berth which could be folded against the wall during the day.

Ready for take-offZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

Tickets could be booked and purchased from the travelling office of the Hamburg-America travel services (Hapag).

The loading of luggage and the comprehensive and time consuming costums formalities were usually carried out on the eve of departure.

A journey to Brazil cost around 1.500 Reichsmarks, a trip to the USA between 1.000 and 1.250 Reichmarks.

These amounts represented approximately half of the anual wage of a mechanic on the Hindenburg. Travelling by airship was therefore a luxury reserved for more well-off people.

Mechanics of the HindenburgZeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

The jacket of the tropical uniform of the engineer Robert Moser (1913 - 1937) is here on display.

He was employed as an instrument mechanic by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH in 1933. When the crew for the new airship LZ 129 Hindenburg was assembled, he joined the regular crew.

At the age of 23 he was the youngest mechanic of the crew. Moser died in the Lakehurst accident. He had tried to save himself by jumping out of the airship, but had been buried under the falling wreck.

Explosion of the "Hindenburg"Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

On 6 May 1937, the LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire during its attempt to dock with its mooring mast at Lakehurst, New Jersey. 35 of the 97 people aboard were killed, as well as one worker on the ground. The disaster brought an abrupt end to the era of the large airships.

Credits: Story

Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

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