Hotels in the Sky — Mike Ogden — 20th April 2015.

My wife and I once had a trip in a hot air bal­loon.  It was an enjoy­able exper­i­ence float­ing around in the “ether” but our dir­ec­tion was entirely at the mercy of the pre­vail­ing wind. Airships were a step for­ward from this mode of travel and were the number one height of luxury travel in the early 1930’s. No prob­lems with leg room as in today’s planes, (not that it bothered me, being ver­tic­ally chal­lenged), air ships were built with accom­mod­a­tion sim­u­lat­ing ocean going liners.

Germany led the way in air­ship design and con­struc­tion. Count van Zeppelin was 62 in 1900 and developed the first air­ships.  He flew for 18 minutes over Lake Constance and hence­forth pro­duced more advanced air­ships and in 1909 DELAG air­line became the first German air­line.  The Zeppelin was 803 feet long (two foot­ball pitches) and 135 feet wide.  It trav­elled from Frankfurt to Lakehurst, New Jersey,  in a jour­ney that took 70 hours.

Britain had to com­pete with Germany and thought that air­ships sim­ilar to van Zeppelin’s design would be of great use.  The first in Britain was com­pleted in 1911.  It was called HMA Mayfly but, unfor­tu­nately it broke up  before leav­ing the hangar.  Britain made many modi­fic­a­tions and the R34 flew the Atlantic, the R36 was built with fifty sleep­ing berths and the R38 crashed at Hull.

During the First World War Germany used air­ships for bomb­ing raids and recon­nais­sance and even Sheffield was bombed in 1916 by an air­ship, killing 24 people, the vic­tims were buried in Burngreave cemetery.

In the 1920’s the British Empire was spread around the globe and it was con­sidered neces­sary to have rapid links to keep in touch with the colon­ies.  Airplanes were now developed but did not have the pas­sen­ger capa­city or the luxury travel afforded by air­ships.

In 1927 the R100 and R101 were con­trac­ted to carry 100 pas­sen­gers in com­fort.  The accom­mod­a­tion con­sisted of large lounges, dining halls, super­ior sleep­ing accom­mod­a­tion and cock­tail bars.  The R1101 was to fly to India and back in two weeks but, when con­struc­ted, was found to be too heavy.  It was there­fore cut in half and an extra seg­ment with more gas bags was added to enable it to lift off.  (The gas­bags were bags made from cow­hide coated with var­nish, sewn together and filled with hydro­gen.  Helium was too expens­ive and only avail­able in the USA).  The R101 did not have a cer­ti­fic­ate of air­wor­thi­ness to fly and was only given it on the morn­ing of depar­ture.  As this ship was gov­ern­ment funded they were eager to get it air­borne.  It took off on October 4th, 1930.  Bad weather was exper­i­enced over France and the R101 crashed into a hill­side. It hit the ground at only 13 m.p.h. but a spark ignited the fire and, of 54 people on board, only 6 of them sur­vived.  Due to this dis­aster, its sister ship the R100 which was destined for transat­lantic travel to Canada, was scrapped before being com­pleted.  Thus ended Britain’s air­ship era.

Meanwhile, in Germany, the Zeppelins were still being built.  The rise of the National Socialist Party (NAZI) was grow­ing and Goebbels provided two mil­lions marks to build a new air­ship, the LZ129, alias Hindenberg.  As helium was only avail­able in the USA hydro­gen was used.

The Hindenberg was huge.  One thou­sand feet long, it provided luxury accom­mod­a­tion, includ­ing lounges, read­ing rooms, bars, a piano and a smoking room!   The smoking room was pres­sur­ised to keep out the hydro­gen.  It had three levels of accom­mod­a­tion and, in 1936, they had a gala dinner and many celebrit­ies atten­ded.  Douglas Fairbanks and Neville Shute flew in these ships.  A one way ticket cost 450 dol­lars.  The con­trol car was sim­ilar to a ship’s bridge and had a crew of forty.  Direction was con­trolled by a ship’s steer­ing wheel and a fur­ther elev­a­tion wheel was needed to keep the ship level.

When the Hindenberg docked on the 6th of May 1937 in New Jersey it burst into flames.  It took only 34 seconds to burn, 35 people died and 62 sur­vived.  It was thought that the gas cells were dam­aged and hydro­gen escaped and was set alight by an atmo­spheric  dis­charge.

Thus ended the era of the air­ships.  All were scrapped and air­ship trans­port­a­tion became extinct.

This was an enjoy­able and inform­at­ive talk by Mike who answered many ques­tions from the audi­ence.  I was thank­ful that my bal­loon trip was powered by hot air and not hydro­gen espe­cially as we landed on a firing range near Longnor!