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Monday, August 07, 2006

The Graf Zeppelin Flies Around The World, August 8, 2006

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Today in 1929, the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin began it's most daring trip: a circumnavigation of the globe. This journey marked the high point of the age of lighter-than-air craft, a time when most aviation pioneers imagined a future filled with dirigibles carrying passengers all over the globe.

Lighter-than-air craft were first built in the late 18th century. These early devices were not very different from the hot air balloons we see in our skies today. It was not until the end of the 19th century that the first dirigible prototypes appeared. Dirigibles have a rigid frame that is not dependent upon gas pressure to maintain shape. It was quickly seen that these giant ships had the potential to carry passengers and cargo to the farthest reaches of the Earth.

When the Graf Zeppelin first flew in September, 1928, she was the largest airship ever built. Her overall length was 776 feet and she held over 3 million cubic feet of hydrogen gas. She crossed the Atlantic only a month after her launch and later went on to tour Europe and parts of the Middle East. Because of these successful journeys, Dr. Hugo Eckener, the CEO of the Zeppelin company, proposed a flight around the world.

The flight began on August 8th, 1929 in Lakehurst, New Jersey at sponsor William Randolph Hearst's request. She flew from there to Germany, then across the emptiness of Siberia to Tokyo. She flew across the Pacific non-stop, the first aircraft to ever do so, after which she landed in San Francisco. The next stop was Chicago and then back to Lakehurst. The entire trip lasted a little over 21 days and the Graf Zeppelin covered 19,500 miles, 30,800 counting the trip to and from Germany, the Zeppelin's home.

Having established herself as a safe and reliable form of transportation, the Graf Zeppelin was soon put into service carrying passengers across the Atlantic on a regular basis. As the 1930's wore on, advances in fixed-wing aircraft technology meant that dirigibles had more and more competition in the long-haul cargo and passenger business.

The end of the dirigible as a means of public transportation came as a result of two major, well-publicized accidents. The first was the R-101, a British airship that crashed in France on her maiden voyage in 1930. The second, and more famous, accident was that of the Hindenburg, which caught fire and burned at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937, the very place where the Graf Zeppelin's famous journey began nearly a decade before. A doubting public spelled doom for the industry; the Second World War guaranteed it.

Dirigibles and other lighter-than-air craft were used during World War Two in various roles, including long over-water flights in search of submarines. By the end of the 1940's, heavier-than-air planes were able to stay aloft longer and were much, much faster than their older cousins. Eventually, even the world's militaries closed the door on the dirigible.

The past twenty years has seen a renewal of interest in lighter-than-air vehicles for use as heavy-lift cargo carriers, research platforms and as stratopheric satellites to be used in place of more expensive orbital packages. While the glory days of the Zeppelins may be behind us, their descendants may one day fill the skies.

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