Although I’ve flown transatlantic many times, I simply can’t fathom what it was like doing it in an airship. Yet, in 1937, that’s exactly what (rich) people did. The transatlantic route went from Lakehurst, NJ to Frankfurt, Germany, with the flight lasting 48/58 hours – by far the fastest way to cross the Atlantic (the Queen Mary took 5 days), and more comfortable (no sea sickness).
The naval air station at Lakehurst began in 1916 as a testing site for Russian Army ammunition, was acquired by the US Army during WW1, and, in 1921, became the center of the US Navy’s airship development program. Hangers on the base housed 3 of America’s 4 rigid airships, plus squadrons of blimps (Rigid airships/dirigibles have a fixed internal structure, while blimps have no internal structure and are just gas bags). Hanger 1, where the dirigible USS Shenandoah was built, held the record for the world’s largest single room.
Hanger 1 also served as the US home of the Hindenburg, owned by the German Zeppelin company, who rented the space from the navy. Lakehurst served as their gateway to New York City.
Rigid airship flight had been around for a while, and the Hindenburg made 10 Lakehurst/Frankfort trips during its 1936 season (during the winter, the airship ran a Frankfort/Rio trip). It was 804 feet long, and traveled about 75 mph. Although the first lighter-than-air craft were French hot air balloons that used heated air, by the late 1700’s physicists had discovered that hydrogen was an even more effective lift gas. After observing the Union’s use of lighter-than-air balloons in the American Civil War, German Count Von Zeppelin engineered the first rigid airship with both lifting and steering capabilities. Just about all airships of the era were lifted using hydrogen gas. Although flammable, hydrogen was cheap and easy to obtain, unlike the more stable helium, which was found only in the US and only in very limited quantities (so limited that they sometimes had to empty one airship to fill another). Despite the dangers, hydrogen use was very common and had an excellent safety record. In the beginning of WW1, Germany used dirigibles in its attempted conquest of Britain, where it proved effective until the British began producing airplanes with guns that effectively ended their combat use (although dirigibles and blimps continued to be used by navies for oceanic submarine scouting missions).
The use of dirigibles continued for civilian and mail transportation. Onboard these airships, like the Hindenburg, passengers traveled in style. They had suites resembling those on trains, a dining car, a lounge, promenades, and even a smoking room (it was the 1930’s…!). Luxury travel, indeed.
The Zeppelin Company’s perfect safety record – 27 years of civil ﬂight operations without a single passenger fatality, ended during the Hindenburg‘s first North American run of 1937. After a long delay (headwinds over the Atlantic and thunder storms over Lakehurst), the airship began its docking procedure. The cause of the fire is still inconclusive, but the result is that after dropping the docking lines, while still about 200 feet in the air, the ship caught fire and collapsed, killing 13 of 36 passengers, 22 of 61 crew members, and one member of the ground crew. Its demise was captured on audio by Chicago news reporter, Herb Morrison,
“It’s fire and it’s crashing! … This is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world! Oh, it’s crashing … oh, four or five hundred feet into the sky, and it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. There’s smoke, and there’s flames, now, and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity, and all the passengers screaming around here! … I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest, it’s just lying there, a mass of smoking wreckage, and everybody can hardly breathe and talk … Honest, I can hardly breathe. I’m going to step inside where I cannot see it…”
The Hindenburg disaster spelled the end of an era. With public confidence shattered, the new airline industry took over, bringing an end to commercial rigid airship travel.
Today, the Lakehurst Historical Society runs free tours of the site a few times each month. Visitors must register in advance and provide identification (the site is on an active military base). Tours begin at the 1932 Cathedral of the Air, with its spectacular aviation themed stained glass.
Drivers then caravan to the Hindenburg disaster site to learn about airships and the history of the Hindenburg. The ground marker shows where the gondola portion of the airship crashed.
Visitors are then taken to the museum, which is housed in Hanger 1.
The first room contains airship memorabilia and a gift shop. The tour continues into the hanger (which is HUGE and definitely worth seeing), followed by several rooms of military history. Unless you are into military history, you can ask to leave at this point. We didn’t realize that this part of the tour added another hour…