LZ-130: The Last Zeppelin Missions


By the summer of 1938 it was clear the Americans were not going to sell helium at any price. Waiting no longer, hydrogen inflation of the cells began on the 20th of August. W. E. Dörr wrote, “…it became now necessary to again use hydrogen which has always been the lifting agent throughout the 37 years of the development of Zeppelin airships. Of course sufficient safety measures have been taken to avoid that, under certain circumstances, the special electro-static conditions could develop again, which possibly had been the cause for the loss of the airship Hindenburg.” Bauer and Duggan also mentioned,  “The responsibility for allowing a hydrogen-filled airship to fly in spite of the Hindenburg disaster was based on the fact that up to that time a trouble-free operation had been possible for many years using this gas.”

The unpublished reason is now obvious: men bearing the scars from burns suffered in the LZ-129’s fire would never have boarded a new Zeppelin regardless what gas it used if they were not firmly convinced the investigation had pinpointed the accident’s cause.

The change back to hydrogen would have allowed the airship to make a profit with passengers and freight once again, but the literature is not very specific about how many cabins were re-installed in that short time. W. E. Dörr wrote, “Actually, it became necessary to modify various details after it had been decided to fill the airship with hydrogen instead of helium.” Bauer and Duggan barely detailed the modifications, “As a result of the change from helium to hydrogen as a lifting gas, the enhanced carrying capacity enabled an increase in the number of passengers and also in the amenities for passengers, e.g. a Bluthner concert piano was installed. “

As Popular Science had optimistically reported in its April 1938 issue, “In the great sheds at Friedrichsaften, on the Swiss — German border, another giant, the LZ-130, is being groomed for its initial tests. A few weeks hence, it’s four 1200 hp diesel engines roar into action and the pointed nose of the great 800 – foot dirigible will turn to the west for the 2 1/2 day transatlantic crossing to Lakehurst. As the new dirigible plows through the sky on a westward trip, it will leave behind 500 workmen busily engaged in the construction of a still larger ship, the biggest Zeppelin on ever built.” Hopes were high on the 14th of September as crowds gathered around the stand built under LZ-130’s command car.

In a ceremony (photo) Dr. Hugo Eckener officially named the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin as drapes were pulled back to reveal the large red letters. (An American newsreel documented the event, through the rollout and liftoff into the mist. This footage is included in our intro and in the DVD “The Flying Carriers.”Within a short time Eckener went aboard as Captain for this first test flight. Senior officers Bauer, von Schiller and Sammt joined 29 crew members, German Air Ministry officials and Dr. Dürr, for a total of 74 people.  A
cheer went up with the lifting ship as it rose, followed by its engines firing up at 100 meters. Heading west, he was quickly obscured in the misty morning.

Edging the Alps, Graf reached München and thrilled crowds by circling the city at only 150 meters. Likewise over Ausburg, Nürnberg and Ulm, Graf received a rousing welcome by thousands of well-wishers. Flying for about ten hours and covering some 925 km Graf vented hydrogen for a smooth touchdown at Löwental. Walked to the mast, he was docked before 1800 hours. Dr. Eckener would gush, “…a complete success, performance and speed matched the expectations which were held for the new gondolas and propellers. All the machinery and many pieces of equipment, instruments and measuring apparatus of all types functioned without a problem. The chief impression gained of the ship was that in general there was an extraordinary absence of noise and vibration in flight.”

It was late in the season. However, the successful test flight should have quelled all fears and lead to scheduling the long delayed re-crossing the Atlantic demo flight, even if only L-Z employees and German Government officials were going to be aboard for it.

Fashionably dressed “passengers” were photographed in typical boarding and berthing poses, looking forward to the days when real fare-paying passengers would once again bring hard currency into the company’s coffers. The return-to-flight publicity photos included the more gentile accommodation ladder.

Just three days later Graf undertook an endurance flight with 85 persons aboard. Circling Frankfurt, then Berlin, Graf returned via the Black Forest and hung around Friedrichshafen waiting for the fog to clear at Löwental, finally landing there after 26 hours aloft. With this flawless flight covering 2,338 km there was clearly no technical obstacle to passengers again enjoying safe, speedy luxury transatlantic travel. 

Flight #3 began the morning of 22 September, during the so-called Sudeten crisis, and headed north, pausing to circle München before crossing the border and appearing over Vienna. “The happy Viennese people were inspired by this newest and largest German airship…” but might have been less so, had they known Graf was carrying 20 RLM technicians performing radio surveillance along the Czechoslovak border. (General Udet had arranged for a Me-109 fighter escort up to the Neusiedler See.) That test ended safely after eleven hours and 1215 km.

The fourth flight was commanded by old Graf skipper Hans Von Schiller and carefully reached 2000 meters altitude without valving any gas, returning after seven hours and 764 km. Exhaust water recovery was improving. There had been 80 souls on board, which obviously also continued testing of the improved washroom and toilet facilities (photo).

Flight #5 began on September 28th and also stayed aloft for about eleven hours to cover about 1042 km.  A number of senior officers were on board but in command was Albert Sammt (photo) who’d just been confirmed as Captain by the supervisors of the DZR.  The flight did not have much luck with some radio experiments; the more than ten miles of aluminum girderwork made reception if the sought-after frequencies quite impossible. Some way of getting the receiver or its antenna well away from the hull would have to be engineered. This flight was the first time the water recovery systems worked as hoped.  A testament to the well planned and executed design (as well as perfect conditions) the airship was able to, after valving 600 cubic meters of hydrogen at weigh-off, take off and land without wasting any gas at all. Some 3.5 tons of water ballast had been recovered.

The sixth flight was going to tell the tale: RLM was again aboard, this time with the specific goal of testing electrostatic loading. Heading north via Pfozheim and then Köln, a depression from the northwest brought in isolated thunderstorms to dodge. Then, after flying parallel to the front, Sammt turned the ship and flew right into the storm. Lightning flashed on both sides and, in spite of the enormous atmospheric field strength, Professor Dieckmann and his team could find nothing in the way of possible ignition sources inside the ship. The bonded structure, protected by a bronzed covering itself electrically indistinguishable from the girderwork, was completely safe from nature’s most powerful electrical phenomenon.  As the weather cleared the ship reached Bremen, but at his altitude and with his quiet engines only a few people there knew to look up for his lights. Landing after 26 hours was easily accomplished with a luxurious nine tons of recovered water.

After a month of working off minor issues, on Halloween the Graf lifted off from Löwenthal and passed low over Friedrichshafen to the cheers of workers, their families and well-wishers for the final time. Almost fifteen years earlier, watching what was thought to be the last Zeppelin, LZ-126, depart for America, must have been a heart-wrenching experience. Now Graf was off to his operating base in Frankfurt, never to return. One wonders how many in that crowd held out some hope, while how many others realized LZ-130 really would be the last Zeppelin they would ever see overhead.

More speed trials were undertaken during the night flight over the German Bight as fuel consumption was monitored. After 25 hours and 2100 km, LZ-130 arrived at his new home base to be safely docked in the Frankfurt twin-shed complex (photo). As ship and crew adjusted to their new home, problems with one engine and its water recovery system encountered during the delivery flight would lead to its removal for overhaul. In less than two weeks, on the 14th of November, the long awaited Certificate of Airworthiness was received. Graf was thereby judged fit for service and added to the German aviation list. 

Germans well off enough to own a car could travel along another marvel of the Reich, the autobahn. A partially complete section ran right by Luftshiffhafen Rhein-Main, and although the planned five-hangar complex was not to be completed, lucky motorists might witness a hangar evolution with the huge airship.

    There was but one proviso about this flying wonder of the Reich risen from the ashes:

LZ-130 could not be used to carry fare-paying passengers.

Publicity photographs of affluent-looking passengers notwithstanding, clearly the Nazi Government’s mind was made up: whatever gold-backed currency might have been earned over operating cost, another accident, from whatever cause, would constitute and intolerable embarrassment. The literature does not record any official protests—indeed, few risked imprisonment to stand up to the Nazis about anything so “trivial.”

Since the insiders knew the lifting gas did not ignite the fabric of LZ-129, and that the fabric of LZ-130 was all but impossible to ignite besides, one can only imagine the frustration of the Zeppelin men. Their reasoned arguments for resumption of passenger service were blown off.

 Here was an enormous investment in this pinnacle of the rigid airship art (photo montage: the command bridge), the culmination of experience-taught lessons and the finest workmanship in the world, under the thumb of an idiot who would throw him away! Undoubtedly grumbling continued quietly until the very day Hermann Göring  himself went aboard Graf to ridicule the dirigible, gushing, “Na, this thing’s for the birds! One match and the whole contraption will go up in flames!” Meyer reported that on that fateful day, “In vain the zeppeliners gave their detailed commentary to convince him of the possible future significance of airships.”

In the meantime the passenger ship seemed to have no way to earn his keep as the 1938 transatlantic season was slipping away.  A mission suddenly appeared from the folks that got the Nazis in the airship business back in 1934: The Propaganda Ministry.  Hitler had managed to bully Italy, France and the UK into ceding the Sudetenland away from Czechoslovakia. A vote would be held to prove to the world the majority of Sudeten Germans approved in the change of governing bodies. Every means to assure a “ja” vote would be employed. So on the second of December LZ-130 was over Reichenberg playing their anthem, the “Egerländer March,” from his loudspeakers while a spokesman blared “Yes to the Führer on 4h December.” As Hitler rode in the streets below, small swastika flags were dropped from Graf to be slowed by small parachutes. Orders were to cover as much of the “liberated Sudetenland” as possible, so in addition to a mail drop of some 633 kg over Reichenberg airfield, leaflets inscribed with “Yes to the Führer” were rained down until bad weather dictated a course change. Ascending to clear the mountains, Graf encountered snow showers, and icing between 1200 and 2000 meters. The radio antenna had to be disconnected least it be lost to ice weight. Finally descending, ice flung from props punched holes in the outer cover and even caused bullet-like damage to a girder. More rain and electrical disturbances were encountered before the ship was again safely docked at Frankfurt after 31 hours aloft, covering some 3000 km.

While there was a lull in operations over the holidays, the winter weather did not keep Graf in her shed. Snow and hail were encountered on the flight of 13 January, which continued the “radio experiments” under the RLM’s Dr. Ernst Breuning as its main mission. Testing continued not only in tweaking the equipment – cabin heating had failed on the previous flight, and the echo altimeter was not working – but innovations as well. To decrease the number of men needed to ground-manage the tail, a new stern windlass was tested.

The Graf was then hangared for months, and the modifications to support the new primary mission were undertaken. The literature explains that the Zeppelin museum was relieved of its “Spähkorb” but there are no published photos of this particular “spy basket.”  Bauer & Duggan show the standard WWI photo while Meyer uses what appears to be a newsprint photo credited to Verlag Pestalozzi (top montage). An actual spy car recovered from a downed Zeppelin was on display at the Imperial War Museum (bottom photo) when the producer visited, and since these 3 have obvious differences, the appearance of the one used with LZ-130 is pure speculation. There are also no photos of the installation, but clearly a long cable drum and powerful winch were fitted midship with hull-snugging provision for the car.

When the Graf emerged on the 13th of April it set the pace for all future flights: electronic surveillance. (Photo: the standard radio installation in the”funkkabine.”) With the regular crew forbidden to enter the passenger compartments, we shall never know what exactly was going on inside. However getting outside the hull’s scattering properties was now possible thanks to that old innovation from the Great War. During the first night the spy car was lowered 200 meters loaded with sandbags to verify its stability. The car occupant would be using what the Americans were about to test when Macon went down: a UHF radio, eliminating the intermittent telephone line in the tow cable.  The first occupants reported the car stable and calm, but it proved to be so awkward to egress that the last technician disembarking accidentally hooked his parachute handle on the bridle and got pulled out of the ship, smacked the basket tail, and suffered slight injury upon hitting the ground.  The Graf returned to Frankfurt, having been aloft 30 hours.

The 11th flight beginning 13 June was almost as long, 28 hours, and tested the spy basket in Germany’s northern areas. The next few flights in July found Graf visiting selected German cities for special occasion “Flying Days,” hoped to be at least every Sunday. Breuning later recalled, “To camouflage our actual activity, we had the air ministry foster a series of weekend aviation meets in the summer of 1939.” Weather wasn’t particularly co-operative and schedules were adjusted, but the ship was actually first landed in the small city square of Meiningen. Mail was carried and exchanged on most every flight, small Nazi flags were dropped by parachutes.

With the airship keeping up a schedule of public appearances, he was repeatedly in close proximity to thousands of people. These encounters alone would be proof the Zeppelin men were confident they understood what had ignited the LZ-129’s fabric, since a similar accident over these huge crowds would have been an intolerable embarrassment for the Third Reich. 

Though it was not recorded as such anywhere, the purpose of the 16th flight, beginning 12 July, was electronic eavesdropping. Deploying the now-called “measuring basket” the Graf flew the night over the North Sea, the mission of some 3320 km lasting some 45 hours. Likewise a “flying Day” visit to Görlitz consisted mainly of listening on the Polish border, though the ship touched down and was held there long enough to exchange mail. The literature suggests the next few flights were more propaganda than eavesdropping, the Graf touching down in the cities of Bielefeld-Münster and Kassel, exchanging mail and making live radio broadcasts from on board.

The 24th flight was LZ-130’s longest distance, greatest duration, and most controversial. Meyer wrote, “Twenty-four measurement consoles were built into the broad transverse dining room of the new ship, with equipment to monitor wavelengths over a broad frequency spectrum. Oscillographs were added to record the observed data. Several dozen Luftwaffe signalmen in mufti had the assistance of UHF technicians and whatever linguistic interpreters any given route required.” The Graf was flown north and passed Cuxhaven as he entered the North Sea. Carefully staying in international waters Graf ran parallel to the UK coast all the way to Scapa Flow. Doubling back, the ship made repeated passes north and south along the English-Scottish border.

The literature does not agree on the details, various arguments made for and against the veracity of some sightings, the nature of the British response, and even the usefulness of the intelligence gathered. While the reception committee may have been less robust fighters than Spitfires, the fact the airshipmen had quickly winched up the spy basket is verified in a photo taken by the English aircraft. (In the photo seen here, taken from a Luftwaffe airplane, the tiny “Spähkorb” is seen as the small bump below the keel. The large antenna also added for surveillance is retracted and not discernible in this photo.)

The report that the British air attaché demanded to inspect the ship upon its return to Berlin – and that the equipment was hastily removed before he could get aboard – has been challenged as unreliable. And, it was all for naught anyway. Meyer wrote, “As Breuning later indicated, however, the LZ 130 surveillance along the English coast was doomed to failure by interference from another Luftwaffe signals activity concurrently in operation… As fate would have it, however, it was precisely in the 10-12 meter bands that these other transmissions produced massive interference for the receivers aboard the LZ 130. Accordingly, the airship monitors avoided those wavelengths, and the British radar secrets remained undetected.”  The false position reports given by the airship were plainly ridiculous, and had caused some levity for the English radar operators. Since the huge airship’s miles of aluminum and bronzed fabric gave them the largest return ever, they knew precisely where the Germans were.

Photos: LZ-130 over Frankfurt; over Nuremburg; over Reichenberg, during the Sudetenlandfahrt. What the literature has missed altogether is this: the hydrogen-filled rigid had been operating for a year, flying scores of people running electrical equipment tens of thousands of miles, in a wide range of weather conditions. Graf had been repeatedly landed in unimproved areas, without mechanical facilities, with tens of thousands of ordinary people flocking around seemingly without fear or concern. 

The intractable Nazi bureaucracy was not about to lose face by reversing itself and reinstating passenger flights, however. A lot of enemies had been made with the huge but useless hard-currency outlay which failed to get helium, making it all too easy to ignore the German accident investigation’s results and the refitted airship’s perfect safety record.  The zeppelin men knew the truth; in fact, Captain Pruss himself made LZ-130’s next flight.

Less antenna and basket, the Graf left Frankfurt on August 5th and proceeded to Würzburg to land in a soggy field in heavy rain, so as not to disappoint a crowd of 10,000 people waiting.  Following some speeches some rousing music was played as he lifted off again. The next week a flight to Eger (with the ever present radio equipment) found the nearly silent giant floating above 100,000 people at a big motorcycle race. Then, landing in the Sudetenland and held for welcomes and speeches, Graf was the centerpiece of an aviation program attended by tens of thousands of well-wishers brought in from Bohemia and Moravia. Summer sun heated the hydrogen in the stationary airship. The local fire brigade made the handler’s job easier by letting the airshipmen fill up with a few tons of water ballast on two of these local visits, so little hydrogen was wasted.

Lifting off from Frankfurt the afternoon of Sunday, 20 August 1939, Graf would do another “flying day” celebration. Escorted by airplanes, LZ-130 touched down at Essen-Mülheim to the cheers of some 200,000 spectators. Following the mail transfer and some welcome speeches by local officials, Graf lifted aloft on its 30th flight, again without any handling equipment or improved facilities. Following an uneventful landing and docking at homebase Frankfurt,  he would be readied for the next flying day celebration, scheduled for the 26th with a landing at Königsberg. There were so many requests for city visits, the Graf was booked up well into 1940.

The Nazi bureaucracy had other ideas, and had in fact issued “stop work” orders on LZ-131 just as his first ring had been completed. On the 26th the Graf was undocked – but instead of flying to East Prussia as planned, he was turned around and re-docked to the west in Dock One. When the doors slammed, the era of the rigid airship had come to an end, “not with a bang, but with a whimper.” In two days the ship would be drained of all its synthetic diesel fuel and lubricating oil. Graf was staked and suspended from his hangar. Just hours before Hitler’s Wehrmacht overran the Polish border, valves were opened and more than 180,000 cubic meters of the gas still blamed (by a disappointing number of people) for the demise of the rigid airship exited the ship’s vent hoods and escaped through the shed’s roof vents.

Read on to The Rigid’s Final Days


Read on to ZRCV: The Giant That Almost Was


Read on to ZRS: The Major Motion Picture

Purchase the DVD The Flying Carriers

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