Dr. Eckener's Dream Machine: The Great Zeppelin and the Dawn of Air Travel - Douglas Botting I suppose we've all seen the Goodyear or Fuji blimp and wondered what it might be like to go for a ride. (By the way, a blimp is a malformed balloon with rudder and fins, whereas a dirigible or zeppelin has a rigid skeleton making them more suitable for long distance trips and less susceptible to the effects of inclement weather. The U.S. Navy never did much with airships, especially after the Shenandoah was torn apart during a storm over Ohio in 1925.)

Anyway, Dr. Hugo Eckener might be considered the founding father of the modern passenger airship. He's one of those extraordinary people who devote their lives to a particular technology and are singularly good at it. He shepherded the program and was the driving force behind the around-the-world trip in 1929. Eckener was "drafter" by Count Zeppelin to take over his building program after Eckener, then a journalist, wrote critically of zeppelin development in 1906.

Funded by the Hearst fortune, the Graf Zeppelin's voyage was a sensation. That it survived was due to Eckener's skill who had become a meteorological expert and who managed even to tag along on the tails of a typhoon to gain extra speed. Their trip across Siberia was the fastest ever, exceeding even train travel by several days. There were several close shaves. Crossing the final mountain range, they had no reliable charts to indicate the height of the mountains and the maximum altitude of the GZ was about 8,500 feet, but to gain that altitude would have required dumping huge amounts of hydrogen that would have seriously degraded the performance. They wound their way through ever-narrowing valleys between mountain peaks with the sides of the mountains at times only 250 feet away from the GZ. It was an extraordinary display of airshipmanship.

It must have been a terrific way to travel, gliding across the countryside at a height of usually around 1,500 feet, although storms might loosen the sphincter more than a little. Apparently the passenger accommodations were quite luxurious although every precaution was taken to avoid anything that might have contributed to open flame. (It's ironic how many of the passengers got angry because they were not allowed to smoke and immolate themselves.)

As anyone who remembers elementary physics knows, the volume and lifting power of gas is greatly influenced by temperature. In the atmosphere temperature inversions are relatively common and approaching Los Angeles they hit one that had a 10 degree difference. Since in an airship that large, lift increase by 660 lbs for every one degree decrease in temperature, the ten degree difference that day made the ship 4000 lbs lighter which required venting substantial amounts of gas in order to land. That made for an almost catastrophic departure because they had no hydrogen gas at the facility and in order to get off they had to make an aerodynamic liftoff, using the engines to push it into the air. Unfortunately there were power lines at the end of the field. The cleared the gondola by a matter of feet and then had to dive down in order to bring the tail up which had a fin which would have hit the power lines on the way up. Tribute to extraordinary airship piloting but a real horror for the passengers.

Following their return to Germany, Eckener set about creating a transatlantic line and settled on South America as the perfect destination. It was too far for airplanes, and steamships were relatively slower. He inaugurated a trip that was 18,000 miles in length, from Spain to Argentina to Cuba to Lakehurst and back to Europe. There were some bumps along the way. They had to detour around Cuba because of storms and that pissed off some passengers who had paid enormous sums of money for the trip and wanted to land in Cuba. In any case, a terrific storm, had to be crossed in order to reach Lakehurst, something he could not bypass since it was a refueling point. The dirigible was tossed around like a "galloping horse" bucking up and down, terrifying everyone, but the ship suffered almost no damage.

For its brief time, the dirigible filled a need for long distance, nonstop travel. The cost was horribly high for passengers (about $70,000 in today's dollars) for the South America trip) and most of the money was made in first-trip-by-dirigible stamp cancellations and mail. Unfortunately, the dirigible was doomed, for even as the GZ was making its triumphant voyage, a British fighter pilot exceeded 350 mph in his plane. Of course, the Hindenburg was the final nail in the coffin.

Highly recommended.

Additional reading:

[b:The Golden Age of the Great Passenger Airships Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg|1191918|The Golden Age Of The Great Passenger Airships, Graf Zeppelin & Hindenburg|Harold G. Dick|/assets/nocover/60x80.png|363071]
[b:The Great Dirigibles|817287|The Great Dirigibles|John Toland|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1328865435s/817287.jpg|803174]
[b:Ohio's Airship Disaster The Story of the Crash of the USS Shenandoah|3242235|Ohio's Airship Disaster The Story Of The Crash Of The Uss Shenandoah|Aaron J. Keirns|/assets/nocover/60x80.png|3276942]

N.B. 9/12/13 Just discovered this fascinating documentary of the Round-the-World trip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4jq7oRxw-g