US Navy and the Hindenburg

hunsackerAs America’s early 20th Century skies were home to “rubber cows” flown by showmen-pilots collecting a respectable box office, retired German Army General Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s namesake airships chiseled out a fairly reliable intercity passenger service.  LCDR Jerome Hunsacker (photo), later named to the Joint Army-Navy Airship Board, was dispatched to Europe in 1913 to observe aeronautical progress. Disguised as a tourist, Hunsacker bought a ticket and flew on the Viktoria Luse, unwittingly beginning what would become a long relationship between the US Navy and the Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft (German Airship Travel Corporation, or “DELAG), the world’s first practical airline.

vitoriaDELAG was created after Count Zeppelin’s airships first snubbed by his own Army. Later, after suffering fatal crashes of the first two Naval Zeppelins, no one would have foreseen the Count’s gentle passenger airships (photo) becoming wonders of the military world before his death in 1917. English-speaking today media emphasizes Zeps’ use as bombers, but in reality, far more scouting missions were flown. New passenger ships were again built after the war.


Rightly or wrongly credited with battle-swaying intelligence at the battle of Jutland, every major Navy wanted their share of the seemingly exotic technology when Versailles sought to strip Germany of anything useful. Even the two new passenger Zeppelins were taken. Not a signatory, the United States lost any chance to be in on the plunder when scuttling crews removed supports so their fragile rigid airships’ own weight ruined them once cut loose of their suspending hangar cables.

tex-and-garlandFollowing the ZR-2 accident, the Allies allowed the Yank Navy to buy a real Zeppelin. American success with obtaining the factory original owed much to the often overlooked work of its Inspector of Naval Aircraft, CDR Garland Fulton, Naval Academy ’12, roommate of Richard E. Byrd and classmate of Donald W. Douglas. Fulton (photo, visiting ZRS-4’s construction with her inspector, “Tex” Settle, on his right) returned to head BuAer’s LTA Design Section after a number of his shipmates flew the Atlantic  in LZ-126, on her way to becoming the USS Los Angeles.  Other officers would liaison aboard LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin’s few visits to North America. When USS Shenandoah (ZR-1) hero Charles E. Rosendahl and another officer disembarked at Lakehurst, NJ during the Graf Zeppelin’s around-the world cruise in 1929, the liaison was part of a seemingly bright future.

(At this point the reader should have familiarized his or her self with our pages devoted to the US Navy’s ZRS program, which resulted losing their homebuilt rigid airships.) A few months after Macon sank,  American hope to retain rigid airship training is found in a letter from the Bureau of Aeronautics to one LCDR Scott R. Peck.  “Subject: Instructions regarding participation in flights of Zeppelin LZ-129.” Future C-in-C Fleet Admiral E. J. King, then Chief of BuAer, had only months earlier directed that the rigid airship officers reach consensus and report on lessons learned from operations with the Navy’s flying aircraft carriers, the USS Akron and Macon, while the impressions were still fresh. Then, in the winter of 1935, he ordered LCDR Scott E. Peck, peckveteran of the Navy’s first airship, to become familiar with “the Revocable Permit executed by the Navy Department which allows the operators of LZ-129 the use of terminal facilities at Lakehurst and Miami.”  While no one knew what name would be stenciled on the dirigible just being finished – some assumed Adolph Hitler – there were certainly to be no freeloaders aboard. King specified, “…more than your mere presence as an observer on board, and involved your standing an auxiliary watch for purposes of instruction.”  King directed, “Points of particular interest are German methods and practices in airship operation, including ground handling methods and equipment, and comparison of these methods with American methods.” The Admiral did not want him to spy on the swastika-emblazoned dirigible, exactly, and directed Peck that his reports should not “…overstep the bounds of courtesy which makes your duty possible.”

Arriving on Valentine’s Day 1936, Peck, who’d had rather austere bunks on American rigids, was flabbergasted with the new LZ-129. His first report gushed, “The lounging spaces for the passengers 129-promanade-2can be called no less than luxurious. The interior appointments compare favorably with the better class of ocean liner. Every conceivable convenience is provided… I may appear over enthusiastic but to me it would be a stretch of the imagination to the breaking point to believe such comfort and luxury on an airship.”

Photo: Centerline passage to cabins; typical cabin; promenade re-arranged banquet style; smoking room (adjacent to the wet bar).

Peck also reported about a third of the workforce was already making rings for the LZ-130 because, “Airships are seen as an accepted means of transoceanic transportation and are no longer considered experimental. The plans and construction schedule here at Friedrichshafen clearly reflects that attitude.”

lehmannIn Peck’s first meeting with the LZ-129’s Captain, Earnst Lehmann (photo), “He immediately took up the subject of airplane hook-on and stated the LZ-129 would definitely be equipped with a perch before the first flight to Lakehurst… they are most anxious for a hook-on demonstration on the first flight to the U.S.” Peck allowed that one of the several experienced Navy hook-on pilots themselves might be loaned, but downplayed the hope of using an American airplane. “Captain Lehmann and others here think the actual use of the hook-on plane principal should be confined to taking on board late mail, mail from intermediate points and delivered by feeder lines.” One of USS Macon’s Waco XJW-1s and her senior hook-on pilot, Lieutenant H.B. “Min” Miller, were briefly considered for return to Lakehurst.

Peck’s discussion of ground handling contained a now-chilling prophecy: “I am told it is not their intention to ever land the ship to a mast (flying moor) but to always land on the field and walk the ship to the mast.”

2-copyAlso in his 26 FEB 36 report, Peck related Dr. Hugo Eckener had assured the US Navy rep was to be on every LZ-129 flight except the first one. That promise could not be kept. Peck reported 7 MAR 36 the LZ-129’s maiden flight (made without a name, risking the ancient mariner’s curse) was on the 4th, for three hours, and she had flown on the 5th and 6th for eight and three hours respectively.  More than two weeks later, Peck lamented he’d not made the next three flights either, owing to a V.D.I. (said to be the US Dept. of Commerce equivalent) order and, “… there was hardly vonschillerstanding room on the LZ-129.  She carried altogether 132 people, including a press delegation.” Instead Peck accepted the invitation of Graf Zeppelin Captain Hans Von Schiller (photo) to go aloft on the LZ-127’s maintenance check flight to at least observe the newer ship in flight.

127from129Keenly aware of the Goodyear-Zeppelin ships’ reputation for high vibration from their in-line engine configuration, Peck noted, “Along the entire length of the keel no vibration is evident except that caused by occasional slackness in the outer cover.”  Peck reported crewmen’s claims of the new big diesels averaging 1450 RPM and the ship had reached 73.4 knots. Closing, Peck wrote, “There is a rumor the ship will be christened the Von Hindenburg on Thursday 26 March,” ignoring the ancient mariner’s curse on ships launched without being named, let alone the German political turmoil over the choice.

staioneryThe sold-out manifest was loaded for Rio the morning of 31 MAR 36. Scotty Peck, at long last, was aboard LZ-129 and typing his report with a borrowed typewriter – but on “Luftshiff Hindenburg” stationery. “There were 35 passengers, about 2 tons of freight and 55.5 tons of fuel oil. The course was set down the Rhine and over Holland. This was necessary because France had not given permission to fly the usual route down the Rhone river valley.” Of this first trip Peck noted that in spite of up to 44-knot headwinds that would delay them, “Airspeed was maintained at about 66-7 knots… course was from Cape Finistere over the Canary Islands, Cape Vierde Islands, SanFernado Islands to Pernambuco. The ship circled Pernambuco to show the ship and drop mail.” Passengers marveled that “storm force 10” roughing the waters below was hardly noticeable aboard the airship. 

Before crossing the equator the four ladies aboard were noted to have switched to their summer attire. Male passengers could only wish they could don lightweight clothing, and happily accepted a christening of cool fresh water by oakum-crowned “King Neptune” as the ship crossed the line.

Peck was respectful of the control car crew to carefully avoid annoying his hosts, something an overenthusiastic US Navy officer had done during an LZ-127 trip. Staying out of the way, he certainly observed what Brandt later wrote about bridge operations: “Every so often a sharp whistle can be heard. This is the noise the echo sounder makes… there is an instrument known as the remote thermometer, which measures the difference between the outside air temperature and the temperature of the lifting gas… This panel also has a hygrometer to measure the relative humidity. Above are the water ballast release toggles which are colored green, yellow and red. Green signifies fresh water, yellow signifies dirty water.”  

Writer Brandt reported that the system for recovering lost fuel weight was quite simple, but effective to prevent the waste of hydrogen – that could come in handy later. “We caught up with the cloud. Then the rain beat against the windows of the Hindenburg for a good fifteen minutes, and it ran down in streams over the whole hull. All along the sides of the ship, halfway down, there are catchment channels which feed this rainwater straight into the ballast tanks. We chased and caught four clouds, which gave us fifteen tonnes of water ballast. Now with this lovely new ballast in place the fuel that we had used up, we could do all sorts of things like climbing higher, going down lower; flight profiles where we would otherwise have to be much more frugal.” (Photo – keel watch.) 

Landing at Rio the morning of 4 APR 36, Peck noted the muddy conditions. “The ground crew consisted of 200 Brazilians of the lower social order… Whole groups never at any time had their spiders attached to the ship.”  There was no chance of a Graf- like belly slam owing to sudden tropical squalls: the new ship’s near- perfect waterproofing repelled rain weight. However, after the poorly trained ground handlers caused several cycles of dumping ballast and valving hydrogen, the mooring wire parted. Knut Eckener climbed down from the car and jumped onto the soggy ground. Peck overcame his self-imposed silence: “I asked permission to leave the ship and with much pointing and waving of arms managed to get the port trolley (forward) connected.” Captain Lehmann had done the same on the starboard, then both officers heeled into the mud to aid docking, made possible by using the big diesels into the Aeropuerto Bartolomaeo Gusmao’s  brand-new shed (photo, a later docking there). Owing to the rather stiff Brazilian travel requirements, Peck likely did not even get an overnight liberty in Rio.

While newspaper, newsreel and radio reporters would be on hand to interview passengers on many trips, little attention was paid to cargo. Surprisingly, no one except the writer Brant seems to have taken a photo of the somewhat vital process of unloading the passenger’s luggage, and that on his South American terminus.


4-copyThe return trip was more thrilling owing to engine-stopping hiccups. (One of four diesel engine cars, photo.) Peck, recalling the earlier British struggles to fly a railroad locomotive diesel, reported, “The engines are a military secret and very little authentic information is being circulated.”  However there was no disguising that as fast as they could get a stalled engine going again, another would quit, causing some tense moments in mid-Atlantic.

Peck noted the ship’s full load and the tropical conditions found the gas cell’s safety valves chattering, “…as super-heat increased the ship was flying right at pressure height a great deal of the time with hydrogen blowing occasionally.” Around noon on the 6th “…the automatic valve on number 3 cell stuck wide open… the cell lost 75 to 85% of its gas.” Rising in the vent shaft and passing out the topside, the pure gas mixed with air and readily found ignition amid the atmospheric electricity at the ship’s pressure height, likely igniting one of the largest oxy-hydrogen fires in history.  No one noticed. The experienced Zeppelin crew, some veterans of being shot at during scouting and bombing missions, reacted swiftly and quietly to the emergency.   Without dumping ballast, they flew the ship on the elevator angle, heavy, through the night, compensating for the huge quantity of peck-jackethydrogen vented. Quietly reporting the potentially deadly loss of lift over the mid-Atlantic, Peck (photo) urged, “I would not want the Zeppelin people to think that I had passed this information to anyone outside our service so I therefore request that the information be handled accordingly.” (Indeed, this information was kept from the public until Goodyear-Zeppelin liaison engineer Harold G. Dick, who was also on board, revealed it publicly during his lectures in the late 1970s, and in his later book.)

Peck does not state where he was on the ship when the valve stuck open. The potentially deadly loss of lift must have, however, created a great deal of concern on the bridge. As Brandt wrote later, “On the centre partition wall nearby is the gas control panel. Each individual cell is shown. In a single glance you can tell how full each cell is and what the pressure on the cell wiring is. This wall also has the switches (sic) that control the gas valves, with a black wheel that will open all the wheels together… when the gas cells are completely full they press down on this wire netting and these spring-loaded plates. This completes an electrical circuit which gives an indication on the flight deck showing how full the gas cells are, and how much pressure they are under. “

Once back in Germany, the schedule had allowed a few weeks change that valve, rework the engines and to apply the lessons learned before the new ship was ready to tackle the rougher North Atlantic, departing May 6th.


Peck wrote very little about the first North Atlantic crossing, but newspapers told the story of the luxury, fastest-ever crossing.  Lady Hubert Wilkins sang a concert accompanied by well-known European pianist Frans Wagner on the ship’s specially-made grand piano. The first of many icebergs were sighted and photographed by passengers.

Arriving at Lakehurst to newsreels’ proclaiming her amazing speed, the learning experience began. As Brant also wrote, “The two aired undercarriage wheels, one on the control car and one on the lower fin, are a new feature for this airship… these two wheels (which are semi retractable in flight) are designed to absorb touchdown forces.” Happily the well experienced ground crew was ready, the low, slow approach and touchdown were smooth.


Close-ups of the control car show a happy Scotty Peck (wearing aviator’s greens, photo, circled) home again after his near three-month assignment.  It then fell to NAS Lakehurst’s CO C.E. Rosendahl’s (arrow) team to walk the big ship onto the Wellman mast.

129-track-inAs one reporter wrote, “Once the bumper wheel of the Hindenburg touches the ground… a cable drops from the ship’s nose to be attached to the [wire in the] cup atop the mooring mast.” (Photo, at Lakehurst, the ship is walked towards the mast. Foreground, the conjunction of mooring circle and hangar docking rails, the ultimate evolution of ground handling.) Mooring officer Charles “Shorty” Mills is seen in the newsreels, megaphone in hand, the crew using “crutches” for the final push up into the cup.

knoxC.V.S. Knox (photo) and crew perfected servicing even when gusty winds swung the ship on the mooring-out circle. A host of adapters – metric to standard, 220v to 110v, different sizes of compressed air fittings – were obtained or created by the Lakehurst team. Knox authored an article for Air Services magazine describing the art of pumping in the tonnage of diesel fuel oil while simultaneously adding a corresponding volume of hydrogen to prevent straining the flying-weight structure. During one five hour servicing, 8,666 gallons of “Essoheat” were pumped into the keel tanks as 1,100,000 cubic feet of hydrogen, supplied from the Bayway hydrogenation plant via railroad tank cars, was plumbed into the cells. The Germans favored ballasting, gassing and fueling via bow connections in the centered tripod mast.

veedol Gas cell purity checks were paramount, but not just for fire safety. Gas cells showing more than 2 percent impurity would be dumped and refilled because the only optional weight was fare-paying passengers and lucrative freight. With the big ship swinging on the circle, barrels of lube oil had to be hand-pumped from a platform lowered from the keel.  “Veedol for the Hindenburg” bragged the barrels. (Photo – extreme right, Emil Hoff is wearing his stylish hat, directing his Veedol crew.) 

Passengers had been given a booklet, “Zeppelin Travel Made Easy” to answer frequently answered questions. On board electricity, for example, was 220 volt. Brandt wrote, “In the middle of the ship there is an electricity station supplied by its own generators. It produces sufficient power to feed the equivalent of a small town.” 

None of the surviving American observer’s reports or later authors suggest they visited the LZ-129’s generator room. This is the only known photo of the electrical plant, understandably similar the the ZRS generator room and quite unlike the British practice of electrical generation being part of the engine cars.

Like Goodyear-Zeppelin engineer Harold Dick, who was aboard every trip, Navy officers had access to the interior centerline passageway and could observe (photo, L to R) chief engineer’s office, electrical central, and the radio room.

May 11th’s 0328 departure continued what became a regular rotation of transatlantic passage, each with one, two or three US Navy officers aboard to observe, report, and share crew’s duties – and triobunks. Newsreels milked the second visit showing the Hindenburg as a plaything of the wind, crews struggling to walk her to the mast and the gentile passengers having to jump onto a wheeled stair cart. Yet interest in the routine landings of the rich and famous thereafter waned. Rosendahl and Watson, seen in this photo with Captain Lehmann, would each make a trip. Fulton and Mills would also make a trip each. During John M. Thornton’s liaison, over lunch at Hugo Eckener’s table, he was introduced to Miss Helena Marie Leisy. Enamored, Thornton announced their engagement the next month. (The couple was married that September.)

knoxKnox’s trip came in July, as he borrowed a second camera to make sure he recorded every detail. With a nod to the US ship’s suspected weak tail design, Knox’s report noted, “There seems to be no restrictions on using full rudder and elevator throw in order to effectively control the ship. Harsh rudder and elevator angles as stated above are used when necessary.” Most observers marveled at the master “sky sailors” riding storms’ rotation for ground speeds approaching 90 mph. The seventh arrival’s newsreels touted ZEP SETS SPEED RECORD. Yet it was speed with economy of operation Another observer pointed out to an interviewer, “Eating up less than $300 worth of crude oil, they propel across the Atlantic fifty passengers at $400 each and 26,000 pounds of freight at $1 a pound. A very tidy sum of money to receive for an average of little more than two day’s work!”

(Rough!) Duty Roster

V. B. Flaherty         G. Fulton            F. H. Gilmer          J. Greenslade             C.V.S. Knox          G. H. Mills        S. Peck               J. D. Reppy      

W.F. Reichelderfer   C. E. Rosendahl     F.C. Sacshe           R. Tyler        

  D. J. Weintraub     G.V. Whittle         J.M. Thornton          W. P. Zimmermann           G.D. Zurmuehlen           J.B. Anderson       S.M. Bailey          E.F. Cohrane              H.C. Fischer      J.L. Kenworthy     A. MacIntyre      B. May       G. H. Lewis               H.E. Shoemaker                                            

 (Reserve Officers)  H. G. Dick   A. Heinen  J.A. Bottner  K.L. Fickes  K. L. Lang

tylerThe season was winding down as Lieutenant Raymond Tyler (photo) stepped aboard for the airship’s 44th flight on September 30th.  Newsmen hadn’t noticed that passengers, expecting to arrive via connecting flights, had to be bused when all airplanes were grounded. The Hindenburg rose safely into the fog right on time. Tyler’s report to BuAer included portions of the ship’s log. Returning on flight #45, no one would have guessed he would have been the last liaison to fly the Atlantic as an observer. Tyler was not, however, the last US Navy officer to fly on a Zeppelin.

ashlyOn October 9th, Standard Oil sponsored what came to be called the “Millionaire’s Flight” as seventy-two of the richest and most powerful men in the United States were introduced to the luxury (and the bar) of Zeppelin travel.  Lady Sylvia Ashley (photo), recent bride of avid traveler Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.  enjoyed the company of her Scottie dog – and  Nelson Rockefeller, Chase Manhattan’s Winthrop Aldrich, and utility magnate Thomas McCarter. Goodyear president Paul Litchfield was logically talking up Zeppelin travel.

Remote broadcast was ever the radio rage, and on board was announcer John B. Kennedy. The photo shows Rosendahl addressing the radio audience; seated behind him is Dr. Hugo Eckener, and on Eckener’s right, then Chief of Naval Operations W.H. Standley. 

All dined on Rhine salmon and downed a 1934 Piesporer Goldtropfchen while aboard Hindenburg for this ultra-luxury cruise.

Eddie Rickenbacker noted the trip in his autobiography. “In 1936 I spent several hours on board the new German dirigible. Hindenburg, as a guest of its captain [sic], Hugo Eckener.  I was tremendously impressed. We flew quietly and comfortably all over New England and part of the Middle West. The ship had a salon, a dining room and roomettes for the passengers.” (Photo: Rickenbacker with Ernst Udet – German ace who piloted the hook-on experiments with LZ-129. Rickenbacker, writing in the mid 1960s, predicted atomic power would be harnessed to move passenger dirigibles at 150 mph.)

20150626_113408No one forgot the local “hosts” for this party. Seen disembarking (left to right) was BuAer Chief RADM A.B. Cook, Ass’t Sec of State R. Walton Moore, CNO RADM W.H. Standley, then-CDR Rosendahl commanding the Lakehurst Air Station, and RADM R.S. Pye, Ass’t CNO.  RADM Cook, who’d recently relieved RADM King as Chief of Bu Aer, had undertaken the ZRCV question while awaiting the results of the Durand Committee investigation.

wa200605a20_00-copy(Eddie Rickenbacker reportedly had to be helped off the airship.) Selected guests were given souvenir glass ashtrays that enclosed a sample of diesel oil.  It was a safety statement no airplane could make: you could not ignite the fuel with a lit cigarette any more than the hydrogen gas cells above could pass ignition downward to the keel’s fuel tanks – or the passengers’ compartments.

The US Navy would go on to spoil its otherwise perfect record handling its German visitors, playing a tragically key role in the first US landing of the 1937 season. It is a popular misconception that botched landing marked the end of the rigid airship. It did, however, mark the end of the US Navy’s flight operations with the DELAG.  Furthermore, following the ship’s fiery destruction at Lakehurst, word got out of Navy men’s heroic acts following the crash. Herman Goring cabled the SECNAV, “The unreserved help of the American Airmen coming to the rescue of their German comrades is beautiful proof of the spirit which links the airmen of all nations.”

If any camaraderie was left between airshipmen across the Atlantic, however, it came to a halt two weeks into 1942. The K-3, one of only three “modern” blimps delivered before Pearl Harbor, stumbled upon the remains of the tanker Noress, torpedoed by the U-123 on 13 JAN 42 off Long Island. K-3 radioed to make rescue for the survivors, the first of many such actions generally forgotten in the war histories.

Peck, Watson, Zimmermann, Tyler, Mills, Rosendahl, Knox—many men who’d stood watch on LZ-129 – went on to senior positions in the wartime LTA anti-submarine effort.

Following the war some former Zeppelin men sought to build a new passenger rigid and found sympathy, if not money, in some Americans. Many proposals later, Knox passed away in 1970. George H. Mills and Garland Fulton died on the same October day in 1975; Rosendahl lived until 1977. 

As American helium resources are drawn down and world markets turn overseas for the rare gas, proponents suggest new cargo airships now coming on line will be able to switch back to inexpensive hydrogen simply by employing non-flammable structural materials. However, it’s quite unlikely anything like the US Navy and DELAG’s mutually beneficial co-op unique to 1936 will ever be duplicated.

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