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.