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How Crony Capitalism Killed the Zeppelin

In today’s world, there are over 100,000 commercial airline flights every day and on rare occasion a small, tacky, promotional blimp. That’s made it unthinkable that lighter-than-air travel could ever be viewed as competitive to the airplane. But there was a time, before the Hindenburg disaster was forever etched in the public mind, when airships were considered the future of flight.

While the 1920s saw multiple disasters in airship adventurism, German zeppelins sailed above their European and American counterparts due to their good safety record, efficiency, and success. “The genius was essentially German,” said a president of Goodyear. Airships had been primarily a Teutonic undertaking since Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin began experimenting with the technology in the 1890s. The airships, regarded so highly during the early 20th century, were the descendants of his original creations.

The popular opinion of experts at the time was that the airship and airplane would have to work in tandem, focusing on their own comparative advantages. For example, Dr. L.B. Tuckerman wrote in a 1926 issue of Scientific Monthly that “for a full mastery of the air both airships and airplanes are necessary, each in its own particular field.” Others foresaw impending airship dominance. Major George Whale wrote in Scientific American in 1921, “Until some entirely new design of airplane has been discovered, it seems fair to assume that no heavier-than air machine is capable of undertaking non-stop flights over a distance exceeding 2000 miles, carrying any commercial load.” He based this conclusion on the superior lift ratio of the airship. Zeppelins were lifted by hydrogen, the lightest of all gases; although flammable, its nearest competitor, helium, could provide only 93 percent of the lift and was 40 times more expensive. Helium was also a rare commodity, exported mostly from Texas, a huge disadvantage from the point of view of a German company like Zeppelin.

Some people favored the airship for more aesthetic and visual reasons. It looked the part. Airplanes were noisy, reeked of oil and gasoline, and were constantly beset by turbulence. Airships, on the other hand, were silent, smooth-flying, and models of comfort. Writing in 1928 for The North American Review, Arthur R. Blessing could not hide his wonder at the magic of the dirigible:


The airship is the only true ship of the air. Although this is a trite saying, a moment’s reflection will show that the airship is in its own medium and that it is the only type of aircraft of which this can be said. Just as a large ocean liner floats on the water, an airship floats in the air, and it moves so steadily that there is not even a suggestion of sea-sickness.

Moving beyond poetry, Blessing argued that airships were safer than airplanes, a line of thinking that would baffle most people today:

In dealing with motor troubles, the airship has a tremendous advantage over airplanes. Any or all of the airship’s motors may be stopped or repaired and the craft will float until its propulsive power is again available. It is obvious that if the airplane motors stall, seconds count; there is practically no time to act in emergencies and the plane must land to the best of its ability.

Tuckerman made a similar argument. “Safety is a relative term,” he said. Mankind had been been traveling the seas for 5,000 years, and history contained chilling disasters and sunken boats beyond count. His point was that there is no such thing as absolute safety, and the occasional crash or setback should not impede continued improvements to the airship. Speaking in front of the Royal Society of Arts in 1920, Air-Commodore E. M. Maitland, who would become one of the main figures in British airship history, declared: “The danger in soundly built well-equipped airships flown by competent personnel is so small that in my opinion it will come to be regarded as nothing more than an every-day risk.”

Blessing pointed out how far the airship had come compared to the airplane, despite getting almost none of the same attention or investment: “It has been estimated that of all the money spent up to date on aviation, ninety-five percent, has gone into airplanes. Everything considered, it is remarkable that the airship has done as well as it has. It takes much research, money, and experience to develop such elaborate mechanisms into practical commercial success.”

His point is borne out by the numbers. During the creation of the Graf Zeppelin, the company’s most successful airship, the Weimar government subsidized the project with between 1 million and 1.4 million marks over the course of two years. Meanwhile, the German airline Lufthansa received 20 million marks in 1929 alone.

Despite the disparity, the Graf Zeppelin achieved records that airplanes at the time could only dream of. In 1929, it became the first aircraft to fly around the world, circumnavigating the globe in a little over 12 days, just under 300 hours. In comparison, it took ships longer just to cross the Pacific Ocean. The following year, the Graf started its regular route between Germany and Brazil, cutting travel time from two weeks to just three days. In Latin America, “zeppelin” became a byword for punctual and reliable transatlantic service. In the interests of science and continued publicity, in the summer of 1931, the Graf traversed the Arctic, covering 8,000 miles in seven days. Its successor, the Hindenburg, was the largest aircraft to ever fly.

In contrast, no airplane would carry paying passengers across the Atlantic until 1939. While the Graf Zeppelin was shuttling mail and people nonstop to South America, Lufthansa in 1933 and Air France in 1936 could only carry mail and only if they made several fuel stops along the way. Not until 1957 did Pan Am open nonstop air travel between New York and London, 20 years after the Hindenburg was crossing the Atlantic. Goodyear’s onsite representative in Germany, Harold G. Dick, concluded that the Hindenburg, had it chosen to, could have flown nonstop across the Pacific from San Francisco to Manila in 1936—while Pan Am was attempting to do so with four separate stops—with 1.3 tons of mail and nearly 100 people onboard.

The situation reversed itself after the Hindenburg disaster on May 6, 1937. As historian John Toland wrote, “Never before had photographers and newsreelmen been present to record a major tragedy; and within hours shocking pictures of the fire were wired all over the world.” Until then, zeppelins had a perfect safety record with zero fatalities outside of war, while airplanes maintained a weighty registry of crashes. Suddenly, however, the latter didn’t seem so bad. To quote Russell Owen of The New York Times, “Burning in midair seems more frightening than sudden death in an airplane.”

With the idea of hydrogen airships now permanently discredited and America refusing to sell nonflammable helium to Germany as a replacement, the fate of lighter-than-air travel was sealed. Harold G. Dick had his own theory for why this series of events occurred: “It is my belief that the basic reason helium was not released was because at that time, in the mid 1930s, the airship was so far advanced and ahead of the heavier-than-air competition that the best way for the airlines to eliminate the successful airship program was to ensure that the necessary helium be denied to the Germans.”

While this view lacks hard documentary evidence, Dick concluded that the comparative performances of the airship and airplane make the reasoning obvious. He also claimed that in July 1937, when plans were in motion for inflating the zeppelin’s newest airship with helium, Englishman and lighter-than-air enthusiast Captain J.A. Sinclair told him, “Imperial Airways has already seen to it that they’ll not get the helium.” Airlines then and even today were either owned outright by their governments or were only profitable due to substantial public subsidy. It would not have been difficult for an industry with such clout to lobby against one of its competitors, and the British lobby in the United States at the time was not insignificant.

The technological innovations produced by World War II and untold millions of dollars more in research and development taken from the public dole mean that the airplane has long surpassed the airship as the fastest and most useful mode of air travel. But this result, far from having been inevitable, leaves us wondering: how much of the game was rigged by political forces? And were future generations unjustifiably robbed of the opportunity to see a mighty zeppelin float above their heads?

It appears so, to the detriment of us all.

Hunter DeRensis is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative and a student at George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "How Crony Capitalism Killed the Zeppelin"

#1 Comment By Donald On October 22, 2018 @ 11:11 pm

Maybe they will come back, if their carbon footprint is smaller than an airplane of comparable carrying capacity. I don’t have the numbers on that. People would have to settle for much longer flight times.

Of course, this is TAC, where global warming is ignored, even when it is likely to contribute to mass migration, which seems to be a concern around here otherwise.

#2 Comment By Jeremy Buxton On October 23, 2018 @ 4:49 am

I would have thought that the fact that by 1937, Germany was being run by expansionist, racist, anti-democratic Nazis was a very good reason not to supply them with a vital strategic material.

#3 Comment By Stavros On October 23, 2018 @ 8:40 am

This column attempts unconvincingly to strain a large collection of economic and technical issues through a very fine political filter, failing to make the point that the death of airships was due to “crony capitalism” and government subsidy of alternatives. Airships failed for very good reasons as any study of the US Navy’s twenty year airship program will demonstrate. Their payloads were miniscule in comparison with the capital investments required to build them; their performance in bad weather was tragic with a consistent record of great loss of life; they were unable to land at any facility lacking expensive equipment and lots of labor; and it was clear to any sentient being by the mid-1930s that rigid airships had no future whatsoever. The concept was revived in WWII but in the form of non-rigid machines with long loiter times over convoys for use as antisubmarine weapons. After the war, they were relegated to obsolescence thanks to advances in faster and more effective aircraft surveillance capabilities like the Neptune. Airships now exist solely as aerial advertising billboards or specialized tourist rides, free of any government subsidies. My suggestion to the author is to pick a more appropriate and empirically valid topic with which to denigrate crony capitalism, like the ethanol industry.

#4 Comment By Oleg Gark On October 23, 2018 @ 9:40 am

Zeppelins were then, and now, far inferior to airplanes as transportation machines. It wasn’t crony capitalism or government perfidy that did them in, it was physics and engineering. A jet airliner can carry 500 people at 500 mph across oceans. The Hindenburg carried 36 passengers, a similar number for the crew and flew at the blinding speed of 80 mph. If you account for modern technology, a newly built Zeppelin could be made marginally better in all categories, but it would never be commercially viable as more than a sight-seeing machine.

But, they do look cool.

#5 Comment By A.G. Kimbrough On October 23, 2018 @ 2:15 pm

After The Days Of Infamy is now available for Pre-Order in Paperback and Kindle eBook forms from [1]

This Alt History Novel departs from reality with the 1932 discovery of helium on the island of Hokido. A secret agreement between Japan and Germany results in a technology exchange that enables Japan to develop a fleet of huge airship aircraft carriers.

#6 Comment By M. Orban On October 23, 2018 @ 2:26 pm

Zeppelin were killed by the twin enemies of traditional free societies everywhere:
Physics and economics

#7 Comment By James M Burgum On October 23, 2018 @ 3:01 pm

“Zeppelins were then, and now, far inferior to airplanes as transportation machines.”

You apparently missed the part about German Zeppelins having a perfect peacetime safety record until the Hindenburg, and the Hindenburg disaster would have been avoided if it flew with the Helium for which it had been designed. Until commercial aircraft were pressurized and could fly above the weather, they had an awful safety record; almost as bad as that of trains. Of course by the jet age heavier than air became the superior way to fly but this obvious observation is besides the author’s point.

#8 Comment By Michael Perse On October 23, 2018 @ 4:38 pm

And both the author and you apparently missed the lengthy list of other rigid airship disasters that had already occurred by the time of the Hindenburg disaster: Shenandoah, 1928 (14 dead); Akron, 1933 (73 dead) and Macon (2 dead). All were helium filled but no match for bad weather. By the mid-30’s aircraft were increasingly, cheaper, more reliable and easier to service and land almost any where compared to rigid airships; the writing was already on the wall.

#9 Comment By HenionJD On October 23, 2018 @ 7:21 pm

Maybe the fact that zeppelins had conducted the first aerial bombings of British cities during the First World War made US authorities a bit skittish about providing material assistance to the same folks as another major conflict loomed. Just maybe.

#10 Comment By Phil in KC On October 23, 2018 @ 7:59 pm

Where precisely is the crony capitalism?

The United States government classified helium as a strategic material. Helium was in such short supply during the 1920’s that the gas in one US airship was emptied into another–there simply wasn’t enough helium for the large airships. It would have been illegal for helium producers in the US to sell the gas to a foreign entity. As the supply of helium increased, the US stockpiled it.

#11 Comment By Oleg Gark On October 23, 2018 @ 9:13 pm

@James M Burgum

The DC-3 was a contemporary of the Hindenburg. Whereas the DC-3 helped America win WW2 and is still flying today in remote parts of the world, the remaining Zeppelins had their airframes melted down by the Nazis to build, you guessed it, airplanes.

No doubt safety was a big issue with early aviation, but the usefulness of airplanes outweighed their risk. Zeppelins couldn’t compete even though they had certain advantages.

#12 Comment By James Burgum On October 24, 2018 @ 12:52 pm

@ Michael Perse, anyone who knows anything about the history of rigid airships knows that only the Germans were successful with them. That is why I said “German Zeppelins.” Not only were their designs superior, but they were very careful about taking risks. The Akron and R101 flew into bad weather intentionally (so did the R100 but got away with it; at least it was a good design unlike the R101). The Macon had a design flaw that resulted in a damaged fin yet it flew with a temporary repair which was exposed by a bad gust of wind, tearing cells and bringing it down. The Germans were much more careful and their record reflects this.

#13 Comment By James Burgum On October 24, 2018 @ 12:59 pm

@ Oleg Gark, the argument is about safety, and as amazing was/is the design and impact of the DC3, it still does not have a safety record that can compare with the German Zeppelins. And of course the DC3 was more useful for the war effort than would be any ridig airship. And so what it the Germans thought the Duralumin was better used in airplanes? Of course, Goering had no interest in airships, to the Nazis they were no more than propaganda tools. The U.S. Navy made good use of non-rigid airships though.

#14 Comment By James Burgum On October 24, 2018 @ 1:11 pm

@Michael Perse, “And both the author and you apparently missed the lengthy list of other rigid airship disasters that had already occurred by the time of the Hindenburg disaster:..”

Apparently the author didn’t miss it either. You should work on your reading comprehension: “While the 1920s saw multiple disasters in airship adventurism, German zeppelins sailed above their European and American counterparts due to their good safety record, efficiency, and success. “The genius was essentially German,” said a president of Goodyear.”

#15 Comment By Glenn Johnson On October 24, 2018 @ 2:54 pm

@James Burgum, not to make too fine a point of this, but the structural failure in ZRS-5’s dorsal fin did not directly result in the ship’s loss. Rather it was the panicked reaction of the crew to dump ALL the ship’s ballast simultaneously, which caused a rapid and uncontrolled ascent to an altitude well above the ships’s “pressure height”, whereupon lifting gas relief valves automatically opened, which resulted in a loss of a volume of helium well beyond sufficient ensure that Macon could not remain aloft. The root cause of the tragedy is therefore better attributed to a handling error brought about by the (arguably likely survivable) structural failure.

#16 Comment By Dimitri Cavalli On October 24, 2018 @ 3:49 pm

If zeppelins come back, they could compete not against airplanes but Amtrak. They would be ideal for traveling shorter distances no more than 400 miles. If one is hijacked, then it will be difficult to fly it into a building.

Maybe the skin will have to be puncture and/or bullet-proof to prevent sabotage.

Helium’s use has been restricted to balloons and blimps. Will the cost of helium increase because of demand? Could another safe, but cheaper gas be used?

#17 Comment By Patricus On October 24, 2018 @ 7:19 pm

Unfortunately the next lightest gas, after helium, is nitrogen which is only slightly lighter than air and could lift very little weight. 80+% of the atmosphere is nitrogen.

#18 Comment By Jane Risvik On October 25, 2018 @ 12:50 am

Actually, a British company has revamped the airship. It doesn’t need a runway, goes 80 knots up to 20,000 ft, and can carry 10 tons. It’s slower than airplanes, but much more enviromentally friendly. I’d love it if Amazon were to use them if you check the “not in a hurry” box for the order.

#19 Comment By James from Durham On October 25, 2018 @ 7:34 am

Roll on the steampunk future!

Airships, Difference engines, automata and women in goggles!

“Out with the new, in with the old” as the song goes…

#20 Comment By Auguste Meyrat On October 25, 2018 @ 9:24 am

Interesting article. I’d agree with the comments that the reference to crony capitalism in the title is a bit of a stretch. It seems like airships were on the way out, with or without the bad PR and lack of investment, as Stavros points out. All the same, it does seem like there was a concerted effort to put airships out of commission. At least airships will always have a cherished place in steam-punk fantasy books.

#21 Comment By sglover On October 25, 2018 @ 11:40 am

Helium’s use has been restricted to balloons and blimps. Will the cost of helium increase because of demand? Could another safe, but cheaper gas be used?

You need to acquaint yourself with the periodic table of elements.

Probably the author of this laughable article does also. Judging by TAC’s plummeting integrity and quality, its editors seem to believe that the fate of the Hindenburg was a *desirable* end.

#22 Comment By Steve On October 26, 2018 @ 2:01 am

Airships were the Concordes of the day. Wealthy passengers could cross the Atlantic in less time than by ship and still travel in relative comfort. Airplanes were noisy and dangerous when they were available at all.

As for what might have happened, it is a moot point anyway. Within 2 years of the Hindenburg disaster World War II had started. And while large passenger airships filled a niche for civilian travel, they were useless for military purposes. By the end of the war airplanes has passed airships in cost and performance and the age of passenger airships was over.

#23 Comment By William On October 27, 2018 @ 1:53 am

How about lighter-than-air UAVs? Or UAVs with just enough helium lift to make their net weight negligible? That should vastly increase their flying time without requiring the complexity that would be needed to maintain neutral bouyancy like a true airship.

#24 Comment By Joe Cogan On October 27, 2018 @ 2:18 pm

Where’s the “crony capitalism”? It would have made zero sense for the US to sell helium to Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

#25 Comment By Elkmar Schrag On October 28, 2018 @ 7:01 am

I think there might still be a place for airships. Supplying locations in the far north for example, removing the need for expensive to construct air fields. Another use could be to patrol forest regions during fire season. With their capacity to stay aloft for long periods and their capacity to carry large quantities of water and fire suppression chemicals they could knock down a fire before it really takes hold.