History of the Zeppelin Airships
On July 2, 1900 the first Zeppelin Airship LZ 1 rose into the sky from a floating raft on Lake Constance in Germany. Its inventor, Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin, had already occupied himself with the idea of an airship in 1873, but was only able to realize it after completing his military career. A committee of experts, appointed by Emperor Wilhelm II, turned down Zeppelin’s plans for the construction of a stiff airship for security reasons. And so Graf Zeppelin was forced to find other financing possibilities. In 1898 he founded a “Joint-stock Company for the Promotion of Aeronautics” with about 800,000 marks as starting capital. The Graf contributed about half of that from his own private assets. And so finally the LZ 1 was able to be built. However, the financing of further building projects remained problematic. After the Company for the Promotion of Aeronautics had been dissolved, and several public requests for donations hadn’t achieved the hoped-for success, Zeppelin once more invested his own private assets. The Württemberg King Wilhelm II supported his plans by putting the proceeds from a lottery to a value of 130,000 marks at his disposal. The Reichs Government also contributed 50,000 marks, so that a second airship, LZ 2, could be built. By now, the military administration was also interested in Zeppelin’s airships. They acquired the LZ 3 for three million marks as a military airship. It was in action until 1913.
When on August 4, 1908 the LZ 4 was to prove its long distance flying suitability in a 24-hour test flight, a catastrophe occurred. After a stopover in Echterdingen near Stuttgart a storm front with strong gusts of wind tore the Zeppelin from its anchorage at the bow. The handling team couldn’t hold the ropes. When the drifting Zeppelin touched the tops of fruit trees, 15,000 cubic metres of hydrogen ignited. The airship went up in flames. The people were full of consternation and wanted to support Graf Zeppelin financially. Already one day after the accident several 100,000 marks had been donated. Altogether 6.25 million marks were donated by the people. In 1908 the Airship Company Zeppelin GmbH was founded. At first, military use of the airships had precedence. Between 1909 and 1918 101 airships were built for the military. During World War I German Zeppelins aroused fear and horror over England’s cities.
After World War I passenger airships should be built. The LZ 126 was built for the USA as reparations and transferred to Lakehurst in a transatlantic flight. After an 81-hour flight over 7,525 km it landed there and was received with great enthusiasm. In May 1926 they began with the construction of the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, and a regular overseas service started.
The airship LZ 129 Hindenburg made its first Atlantic crossing in March 1936. On May 6, 1937 another catastrophe occurred during the landing in Lakehurst. The LZ 129 was completely destroyed by fire after an explosion on board. 36 people were killed. Even up to the present day, the cause of the disaster has never been found.
After that it was clear that passenger transport with hydrogen airships was too dangerous. However, as helium was too expensive, and as it was also difficult to obtain, airship construction in Germany was stopped. In the 90s the Luftschifftechnik GmbH developed a high-tech Zeppelin NT (Zeppelin New Technique) with filler gas helium in Friedrichshafen. The prototype started on its maiden voyage on September 18, 1997.
The Airship LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin
It was constructed as a passenger airship for long distances. The hull of the LZ 127 is divided into 17 compartments, each containing a hydro-gas cell. Altogether 105,000 cubic metres of hydrogen gas can be taken in. In the rigid frame there is room not only for the hydro-gas but also for the liquefied petroleum gas. The main rings are at intervals of an average of 15 m and are crossed diagonally with steel wires. The outer skin consists of cotton material which is painted over. In order to avoid too much influence by the sun, aluminium powder is mixed into the paint. That is the reason for its silver-coloured appearance.
The altitude and side rudders at the rear can either be operated by hand or electrically. There was also a rudder indicator showing the position of the rudders.
The LZ 127 was driven by five engines in the machine gondolas outside the hull. (The engines could only be placed in the interior with airships which were filled with helium.) Powerful Maybach 12-cylinder engines driven by gas or petrol each developed 530 hp. So that there would be no air eddies, which would each disturb the other, the two front engine gondolas are somewhat higher and further apart than the middle ones. The only rear engine hangs in the middle. Machinists operated the engines and controlled the performance during the flight directly from the gondolas. In order to get there, they had to use walkways in the interior of the airship.
The measurements of the LZ 127 are comparable to a huge ocean liner: 236.6 m long and 30.5 m largest diameter. In spite of this, it only weighed 58 tons. As a comparison: a Jumbo Jet seems pretty paltry with a length of 71 m.
The overall performance of 2,650 hp allowed a great speed of 100-110 km/h, the top speed was 128 km/h. 20 passengers could be transported a distance of 10,000 km.
The internal service area of the LZ 127
At the front on the underside of the airship is situated the pilot’s gondola, which gradually goes into the hull of the ship. At the front there is the control room with hand wheels for the altitude and side rudders. Behind that there are the navigation room, kitchen and radio room. In the centre of the gondola there is a recreation and dining room for the passengers, and further behind cabins and washrooms. There were folding beds which were used as sofas during the day. Folding tables and chairs were situated at the windows. There were also shelves for storage, but large suitcases etc. had to be stored further back in the ship’s hull at either side of the corridors leading to the engine gondolas.
On long journeys about 40 members of staff were needed, because they had to be on duty round the clock: 1 pilot, 3 guard officers, 3 navigation officers, 1 balloon master, 1 rigger, 3 side and altitude rudder operators, 1 driving engineer and his assistant, 2 driving masters, 15 machinists, 1 electrician, 3 radio officers, 1 catering officer, 1 steward, 1 cook. One third was always on duty. On short journeys of course less staff were needed.
Before the voyage the specific weight of the hydro-gas has to be checked. Hydrogen, fuel and ballast are replenished according to need, post and supplies are loaded. Once the passengers have boarded, there is a short test of the engines made in the hall. The sandbags hanging on the airship are taken away, the wooden trestles which the airship is resting on are taken away. In that way the airship is roughly weighed out. The holding teams now grip the ropes on both sides of the pilot’s gondola and the rear gondola. The airship is now weighed finely: the teams let loose briefly. If the ship is too light, some gas is let out. If it is too heavy, water ballast is thrown out. At the end, the LZ 127 has to “swim”.
Part of the holding teams then fastens the exit ropes, the rest hold on to the grip rods and at the command “Airship march” the airship is pulled out of the hall and onto the centre of the square. The ship is turned so that it is facing the wind, wind-force and direction are measured. As temperature fluctuations can cause fluctuations in buoyancy, the weight has to be measured once more. (An increase in temperature of just 1 makes the airship 350 kg lighter.) Now the ropes can be unhooked and at the command “up” the ship is thrown up by the teams. Then it rises noiselessly and almost vertically into the sky. At the hight of about 100 m the engines are started and the journey begins.
When the airship rises, the gas in the interior of the airship extends through the decreasing outer pressure. For security reasons some gas has to be let out. And so the LZ 127 loses about 4 % of its hydro-gas when rising to a height of 400 m. Therefore, after a longer journey 15-20 % have to be replenished.