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!