The so-called “millionaire’s flight” at the end of the 1936 season had helped reinforce confidence the Zeppelin investment was worthwhile. Harold Dick reported “…as a result of the Hindenburg’s success and the renewed interest in carrying passengers by airship, The International Zeppelin Transport Company was revived and renamed the American Zeppelin Transport Incorporated, with Edward P. Farley, chairman of the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company, as president and Willy von Meister, in America as Dr. Eckener’s personal representative, as vice-president. Several prominent industrialists were on the board of directors, including President Litchfield of Goodyear Tire and Rubber, Edward A. Deeds, chairman of National Cash Register Company, and Charles F. Kettering, vice-president of General Motors. (Photo: At Lakehurst, F. W. “Willy” Von Meister (left), Vice President, and Edward P. Farley, President, of the American Zeppelin Transportation Company, pose with CDR C. E. Rosendahl, then C.O. of the Station.) Dr. Eckener was the only officer who was a foreigner. He was serving on the board by invitation so that his wide experience would be available to the American counterpart of the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei.”
Dick observed, the “confident, even arrogant, attitude of everyone connected with both the Reederei and the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin… they were now enjoying a dazzling success in maintaining an accident-free service, with enormous amounts of favorable publicity, not only in the newspapers of the world but in the excited testimony of delighted passengers.” Finally, some eight years after Graf’s stunning round-the-word flight launched the International Zeppelin Transport Company, seven years after the British “Empire of the Air” collapsed with the stock market and R-101, and in spite of the worsening Great Depression, long-range, high-speed luxury passenger travel was finally coming of age. Harold Dick observed, “Governments and big business were considering, even accepting, the proposition that the era of transatlantic air travel had arrived, and that the ideal vehicle was the big rigid airship.”
Returning to Germany where LZ-129 was undergoing its seasonal rework, Harold Dick reported seeing gas cells 3, 11 and 16 being removed for inspection. A host of passenger complaints – including inadequate plumbing arrangements – were addressed at that time. As Dick observed, “…ten more cabins were added in bay 11 along the keel abaft the regular passenger quarters. The new cabins would accommodate twenty-two more people (nine were two-berth cabins, while the tenth cabin accommodated four people and was intended for occupancy by a family with children.) The new cabins had an outside view via the long row of 48-inch-wide windows along the bottom of the ship.” The new cabins were similar to the LZ-130’s, shown in this photo. Some Hindenburg passengers missing the windowed cabins would now lay in their bunks and watch the world go by as they had in the Graf.
The skilled tradesmen, moved from the manufacturing facility at Friedrichshafen to the operating hangar for this work, would thereby allow finally assembly of the LZ-130 to continue on schedule. All the Hindenburg’s engines had been removed for tweaking at the Daimler works at Untertürkheim. Harold Dick also had noted the creation of a new propeller manufacturing process that employed thin laminations pressure-impregnated with chemicals that yielded a harder, flutter-proof three-bladed prop of thinner profile with greater efficiency. Attached to a steel hub, they looked like they were ground adjustable. These were not ready until after the first test flights of the LZ-130, however, so the two twin blade props bolted to the drive hub would continue to motivate Hindenburg in 1937.
Dick continued, “Confident that in the Hindenburg they had produced an outstanding type of airship, the Germans planned to institute an accelerated building program that would add at least two more similar passenger airships to the Reederei’s fleet… the LZ-130 was taking shape in the building hangar in Friedrichshafen… As soon as possible she would be transferred out to the hangar at Löwenthal to permit construction to commence on the LZ-131. With an added 59-foot bay, and lift to carry one hundred passengers, this ship, with a length of 862 feet, would be too long to fit in the 820-foot Friedrichshafen construction shed. The answer was to lengthen the shed to 917 feet. It was proposed to start work on one end of the hangar, while simultaneously the erection of the LZ-131 would commence on the other end of the hangar with the frames just forward of the fins, and erection would progress toward the bow. By the time the hangar reconstruction was complete, the forward structure of the LZ-131 would be finished and the main frames for supporting the fins would be ready for erection. LZ-131 would then be ready to fly in July of 1938.
“At the same time, a sister ship, the LZ-132, would be under construction at the Löwenthal hangar, which already measured 885 feet in length. A ring building shed would have to be erected at Löwenthal, while the ring building shed at Friedrichshafen was to be lengthened from 492 feet to 885 feet.” (Photo: The Friedrichshafen main shed lengthening shown here was actually delayed until the following year.)
Harold Dick also reported on likewise ambitious plans for the main passenger hub. “A corresponding development would have to take place at the overseas operating base at Frankfurt, where a single large hangar 902 feet long, 170 feet wide, and 167 feet high had been completed in May 1936 for the Hindenburg. A second hangar of the same dimensions was to be built and finished by May 1938 for the LZ-130, at a 30-degree angle to the first one. A third hangar was planned, a revolving “docking shed” located at the point of intersection of the center lines of the two fixed hangars. Turned parallel with the prevailing wind, the docking shed would permit airships to enter or depart regardless of wind direction. Capable of lining up with either fixed shed, the docking hangar could convey the airship from one shed to the other regardless of weather conditions.” Author James Shock used this graphic to illustrate the ambitious plan.
Unlike the American way of gaining experience in rigid airships, which demanded a periodic rotation back to the surface vessel Navy as the only possible path to promotion, the DELAG had a solid training program. Harold Dick reported, “Captain Lehmann, as director, was to stay ashore administering personnel and operations. Hans von Schiller, formerly commanding the Graf Zeppelin was to be Captain of the LZ-130, while Sammt, Milce, and Eichler would be watch officers. Pruss would continue in command of the Hindenburg with Heinrich Bauer, Ziegler, and Zabel. Milce, Eichler, Ziegler, and Zabel were all new men, ship’s officers from the HAPAG (the Hamburg Amerika shipping line) who came to the Luftshiffbau Zeppelin of the Reederei to start flying in 1935. They they had all flown about 5000 hours by the end of 1936 and knew their jobs thoroughly, it was generally considered that they were young in experience, and the burden of responsibility would fall on the oldtimers – Pruss, Von Shiller, Sammt. Meanwhile the old Graf was to be retired from passenger service, according to the plan, continuing to fly as a school ship. Anton Wittemann was to be the commanding officer, with Hans Ladwig as watch officer. Making short training flights, it was thought she would require only one watch of old hands.”
Spring came as the DELAG worked out the best movements for the two airships in service. The increased tempo included the bigger ship’s first scheduled trip down to Buenos Aries the third week of July, passengers previously having to make that leg from Rio by uncomfortable airplane. As in ’36 the Graf would be favored for the more gentle South American runs. Like many other previous passengers, LCDR Knox received a mailing containing the colorful schedule and brochures. Noted was the free baggage limit increased to 66 pounds.
Fresh from overhaul, Hindenburg was rolled out and made a local flight on March 11, 1937, to test the new aircraft hook-on bar. WWI ace General Ernst Udet took up their skyhook-equipped Focke-Wulf Stieglitz but had considerably difficulty getting a solid hook, the airplane bouncing off several times. There seemed to be too much turbulence at the location, main ring 140, and both the hook and the trapeze were chewed up in the process. Clearly more work would have to be done after Hindenburg took off for Rio on Tuesday, March 16.
While there was no US Naval observer aboard, the literature does not report any major developments on this routine passenger run. Back in the German hangar on the 28th, work continued on the trapeze bar to allow an airplane to hook-on in flight.
The next series of hook-on experiments did not seem to benefit from reworking both airplane and trapeze. Flying locally, Udet again encountered gusts, this time leading to the prop striking the bar. Following an emergency landing and prop replacement, the same thing happened in the afternoon. Obviously some major re-design was called for, so last-minute mail pick-up and early arrival of customs officials would not be part of the next passenger flight.
Across the Atlantic, BuAer Chief RADM A. B. Cook was continuing the previously successful USN officer-liaison plan. At Lakehurst, the last man to make the trip in 1936 was then scheduled to be the first in ’37. R.F. Tyler had also been installed as mooring officer, and his bags were packed for the trip to Germany.
C. V. S. Knox was readying his team to possibly best their previous turnaround record, this time with an entire rail tanker full of “Essoheat” and the corresponding hydrogen tank cars. Sadly, the Americans would provide the final, fatal step in an otherwise unrelated accident chain leading to a tragedy that would forever alter the evolution of LTA.
Read on to Hindenburg “Explosion”
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