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Around the world on a Dream Machine
August 8, 2006 7:21 AM   Subscribe

Around the world on a Dream Machine — 77 years ago, the giant German airship LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin left Lakehurst, NJ on an aerial world tour sponsored by American media mogul William Randolph Hearst. The airship's gondola carried 20 passengers in high-tech style, including: U.S. Navy observer Charles Rosendahl; English pilot, Zeppelin frequent flyer, and Hearst reporter Lady Grace Drummond-Hay; and Japanese naval aviator Ryunosuke Kusaka. The 41 crewmen were captained by Dr. Hugo Eckener, Zeppelin champion and the world's best airship pilot. The hydrogen-filled LZ-127 flew over the Atlantic to Germany, Siberia, Japan, over the Pacific to California, across the United States, and back to Lakehurst. The 20,500 mile, 21-day flight—with 12 flying days at ~80 mph top speed—defined airship travel's golden age. [More inside]
posted by cenoxo (24 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
In her working lifetime, the Graf Zeppelin safely flew thousands of passengers over a million miles in 590 trips to far-flung destinations like South America, the Arctic, the Middle East, and even Chicago. Decommissioned after the infamous crash of the LZ-129 Hindenburg in 1937, the LZ-127 and all remaining Zeppelins (the last one built was the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin II) were scrapped in 1940 to add their duraluminum^ to Germany's war effort. With the advent of faster, cheaper, long-range airplanes after World War II, the era of grand passenger airships was over in less than 25 years. [Douglas Botting's 2001 book, Dr. Eckener's Dream Machine : the Great Zeppelin and the Dawn of Air Travel contains a detailed account of the Graf Zeppelin's 1929 world flight.]
posted by cenoxo at 7:22 AM on August 8, 2006 [1 favorite]


Too bad that recent ventures into Zeppelins (here in Germany) went bankrupt. I would love to travel in one of these huge things - silent, slowly and comfy - so very different from modern jets ...
posted by homodigitalis at 7:28 AM on August 8, 2006


How about your very own Sky Yacht?
posted by Pastabagel at 7:39 AM on August 8, 2006


I would spend six years in Turkish prison to be able to be introduced as the world's best airship pilot. Excellent post.
posted by Divine_Wino at 8:03 AM on August 8, 2006


I would love to travel in one of these huge things - silent, slowly and comfy - so very different from modern jets ...

They're not much good if you just want to get there quickly, but I would think the same people who go on cruise ships would be a perfect market for airships, and the routes could be much more interesting than a cruise ship's water, more water, a port, more water, more water. In an airship, you could go slowly over cities, towns, forests, plains, rivers, deserts, water, more water, a port, more water, more water.
posted by pracowity at 8:42 AM on August 8, 2006


A really good book about the experiences is 'Dr. Eckener's Dream Machine'. I highly recommend it, a real page turner that I couldn't get enough of.
It seems that Dr. Eckener was nicknamed 'Storm King' because of his talent for maneuvering the giant airship through hurricane force winds. Yes, hurricane force winds. He had developed his technique so well that he used the tail end of a typhoon to arrive in Japan sooner than expected on his around the world trip.
Imagine taking something the size of a contemporary ocean liner and maneuvering it through an ascending mountain pass with just yards to spare. . . then popping out at the end to see the Pacific Ocean spread out before you. . .
posted by mk1gti at 10:09 AM on August 8, 2006


That must have been amazing.
I didn't see any mention of crusing altitude, but google suggests between 1000-1500ft.
posted by madajb at 12:16 PM on August 8, 2006


pracowity

That was the really neat thing about the airships is they could slowly cruise along just a hundred feet or so off the ground, so quietly that many people out in the countryside weren't even aware they were there until they were directly overhead.

In the book about Eckener the around the world trip took place over much of Siberia which is an area that because of lack of roads, permafrost, marshes, etc. will be inaccessible to almost any kind of transport. Even a helicopter would have to lower someone to the surface because many areas are to marshy or overgrown to land but the airship could just come to a standstill and maintain station as long as it needed.

From time to time I look up in the sky and imagine what it would be like to watch an aerial ocean liner come into view, pass overhead and sail quietly away.

In addition, the cruise options offered (journey to wildest Africa, the Amazon in South America, the desolute reaches of Siberia, cross over the North Pole or South Pole in comfort, etc. practically sell themselves.
posted by mk1gti at 12:31 PM on August 8, 2006


More on sailing an airship through a mountain pass.

Later that same day the ship approached the dangerous Stanovoi mountain range whose peaks were recorded as reaching 6,500 feet. The Graf located a pass through the range at the 5,000 foot level. During the difficult flight through the pass both sides of the narrow defile were as close as 250 feet on either side, and at one point the airship was forced to climb to 6,000 with still barley 150 feet beneath the keel! Finally, the range was cleared and the Sea of Okhotsk appeared before them and eventually the Pacific Ocean. They began the transverse flight down the east coast of Siberia.
posted by mk1gti at 12:33 PM on August 8, 2006


they could slowly cruise along just a hundred feet or so off the ground, so quietly that many people out in the countryside weren't even aware they were there

Something sure as hell changed between them and blimps. They'd show up for college football games sometime, and were always as loud as a loud thing. It was like having two low flying aircraft right overhead at low altitude, All. Fucking. Day. Which is exactly what it was, engine/prop-wise.

[singing]The dream machine, is burning over our head.
Oh the humanity, now they're all dead...[/singing]

posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:35 PM on August 8, 2006


madajb said: I didn't see any mention of crusing altitude, but google suggests between 1000-1500ft.

That seems about right. The Graf Zeppelin was almost 800 feet long: use this as a measure and check the photos in the destinations link posted above. [The free Screen Calipers 1 utility is a great little tool for this.]

With good weather and a skilled pilot, the LZ-127's altitude could be measured in inches.
posted by cenoxo at 2:40 PM on August 8, 2006


When I was a kid, my dad told me about hearing a noise as he came out of the cow barn with the last can of the morning milking, looking up, and...there it was, the Graf Zeppelin.

Years later, I told him about hearing a noise as I came out of First Texas Savings on Congress Avenue in Austin, looking up, and...there it was, the special NASA 747 with the Space Shuttle on its back.
posted by pax digita at 2:42 PM on August 8, 2006


mk1gti said: ...I look up in the sky and imagine what it would be like to watch an aerial ocean liner come into view, pass overhead and sail quietly away.

One boy's account: Out of the Blue. Beats an armada of clouds—almost.
posted by cenoxo at 2:49 PM on August 8, 2006


Something sure as hell changed between them and blimps. They'd show up for college football games sometime, and were always as loud as a loud thing. It was like having two low flying aircraft right overhead at low altitude, All. Fucking. Day. Which is exactly what it was, engine/prop-wise.

-- ROU_Xenophobe--

I think the important thing here is that an aircraft coming towards you is going to be fairly quiet until it is directly overhead or moving away from you.

Now if the Graf Zeppelin was directly over a football stadium at the height of the Goodyear blimps, moving back and forth over the stadium, then I think it might be a bit noisy. I also think many people would find it very hard concentrating on a football game with an object three times the size of a 747 jumbo jet directly over their heads too, regardless of noise levels.

In reading about passengers on airships in the past, they said they could hear people down below talking as they sailed overhead. If you look at the Graf Zeppelin and probably the Hindenberg the engines were placed far enough away from the passenger areas to reduce noise quite a bit. My guess is that when they were over cities they would reduce engine speed to a minimal amount so they could slowly sail over the city giving the crowds a good look as well as passengers aboard a chance to admire the view around them.
posted by mk1gti at 2:53 PM on August 8, 2006


I think the important thing here is that an aircraft coming towards you is going to be fairly quiet until it is directly overhead or moving away from you.

Probably; if it was circling the stadium it would have been pointing its propwash at my house a mile or so away about half the time.

But it was really, astonishingly noisy. I mean, that one blimp flying around a mile or more away was substantially louder than being at an airshow with multiple WW2 warbirds flying around. Quieter than an F-16 on full afterburner at 500 feet, though, I'll give it that much.

It was the SeaWorld blimp the few times this happened, not one of the Goodyears, if that matters.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:03 PM on August 8, 2006


I think I might know why this was happening, back then they probably had constant pitch props, now they have varable pitch props.

What this means is that in slow speed situations where they need a lot of torque and power they would arrange the pitch on the propeller to get a bigger, noisier bite of air.

Any aviators out there who could back up this thought?
posted by mk1gti at 3:16 PM on August 8, 2006


Pax Digita said:...my dad told me about...the Graf Zeppelin. ...I told him about...the special NASA 747 with the Space Shuttle on its back.

Who says you can't have both at the same time? In the book When Giants Roamed the Sky: Karl Arnstein and the Rise of Airships from Zeppelin to Goodyear, you can find the following 1950's concept (with caption below):

Even before the Soviet satellite Sputnik opened the eyes of the world to space travel, Goodyear Aircraft Corporation developed an ambitious proposal for a reusable, manned space vehicle. This artist's concept depicts the nearly 200-foot (60 m) high Air Dock filled with Goodyear "Meteor, Jr." rockets undergoing assembly and a large ridgid airship occupying the remainder of the hangar. (Lockheed Martin)
Just toss in a rocket belt, and you're all set.
posted by cenoxo at 3:59 PM on August 8, 2006


Quiet?
Man, if I had one of these I’d blast “Whole Lotta Love” out of huge downward pointing speakers ALL the time.
(although that’s not a very Gernsbackian sorta tune, given the feel of the thread)
I remember seeing something about a new airship (not the one from here) that was gas filed, but heavier than air, yet could VTOL. (can’t find the damn thing).
posted by Smedleyman at 4:09 PM on August 8, 2006


Man, if I had one of these I’d blast “Whole Lotta Love” out of huge downward pointing speakers ALL the time.

I think that "PEANUT BUTTER JELLY TIME" would be more annoying.

That, or combine with a telescopic camera. KENT. THIS IS JESUS, KENT.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:43 PM on August 8, 2006


mk1gti is on to something with regard to engine noise, i think. I recall reading somewhere or other that the number one job-related disability for blimp pilots is hearing loss.

The zeps were vastly large and that probably ameliorated the engine nose somewhat, but the engines themselves were huge twelve-cylinder jobs that were notoriously persnickety - each engine had it's own crew and they would skinny back and forth along exposed catwalks to tend the beasts as the ships flew.

Also, the very large passenger zeps were descendants of wartime craft called 'height climbers' designed to cruise above the maximum ceiling of allied attack craft such as Camels and Se5s and the like - I believe these ships were oxygen equipped and intended to go as high as 30k or 40k. However, in most cases I think the cruising height of the craft in peacetime service was 1500 to 3000 feet.

Rosendahl, cited in the FPP here, was one of the survivors of the Shenandoah wreck in Ohio. The fore half of the wrecked dirigible, carrying the naval aviator and two other crewmen, is reported to have acheived an uncontrolled elevation of about 10,000 feet, after shedding the control gondola and engines at 3,000 feet when the ship was torn in two by a spring storm.
posted by mwhybark at 8:22 PM on August 8, 2006


According to this link, perhaps the highest altitude achieved was 24,000 feet (accidentally) by a german crew returning from a bombing mission trying to avoid being attacked. Most of the crew was disabled due to oxygen deprivation.
From what I remember reading about the height climbers, their crews wore arctic weather gear even in the middle of summer and carried oxygen for high altitude operations.
One of the methods they used for zeroing in on targets was to lower a gondola out of the airship below the cloud layer while the zeppelin remained above to help with identifying targets for bombing.

What a lonely and hazardous job . . .
posted by mk1gti at 9:31 PM on August 8, 2006


Note this front 3/4 view (square air intake forward, with pusher prop aft), back view, and cutaway of the Graf Zeppelin's five Maybach 570hp, 12-cylinder engines. The streamlined nacelle reduced drag and directed sound away from the passenger gondola. Although the human figures are a little too big on the front cover of the November 1929 Popular Mechanics, imagine what it was like going out on engine watch at cruising altitude.

Here is a bit of info and poor photo (better illustration) of a WWI Zeppelin's observation gondola. There's a chilling scene in Howard Hughes' 1930 film Hell's Angels where a dangling gondola (carrying the bombardier) is cut away in a fruitless attempt to outclimb British fighter planes.
posted by cenoxo at 10:57 PM on August 8, 2006


"... What this means is that in slow speed situations where they need a lot of torque and power they would arrange the pitch on the propeller to get a bigger, noisier bite of air.

Any aviators out there who could back up this thought? ..."
posted by mk1gti at 6:16 PM EST on August 8


Generally, a variable pitch propeller setup would operate just opposite to the method mk1gti has outlined; at low speed, a variable pitch propeller would be adjusted for a fine pitch, allowing the propeller to match greatest engine torque to low relative airspeed. Here's a one page ground school summary tutorial of the issues involved, for the armchair pilots that are interested. At cruising altitude and speed, the propeller pitch is increased substantially, allowing the propeller to "screw" through the air further with each revolution. lowering drag, and increasing aircraft speed. It is this ability to increase pitch over the maximum settings required for low speed, high torque take-off configuration, that allow variable pitch propellers to achieve performance advantages over fixed pitch propellers. But propellers must be carefully matched to both engine characteristics and airframe loads; a propeller that is a good choice for one situation, may be deadly if mounted on a similar engine type, but a different airframe style.

What contributes most to propeller generated noise is compressibility of air. As propeller tip speeds approach a significant fraction of Mach speed, a number of dynamic forces interact to produce turbulent flow at the propeller tips. Beyond a tip speed of about 250 meters/second at sea level, a greater and greater portion of a powerplant's output will go into driving these losses, rather than producing thrust, and the noise thus generated will increase nearly exponentially. A loud prop is a fast prop, and a fast prop is a prop in trouble. At high power and speed settings, a propeller can encounter dynamic forces that can easily cause structural failure, and is much more subject to loss of aerodynamic loading due to slight changes of aircraft pitch, or wind attack angles. This is usually what has happened if a bystander hears very loud operation of a propeller driven craft; the propellers were set for maximum power operation, but lost full airflow (usually related to change of aircraft pitch or heading to relative wind) and the propeller tips either went supersonic or at least cavitated the airstream. This is dangerous, but not uncommon with lighter than air ships like blimps, which at low speed and low altitude have almost no maneuvering capability, and require nearly maximum engine output to maintain control; thus any small change of aircraft attitude or change in ground level winds puts them in a bad situation with respect to engine power. It is also the main reason why this list of zeppelins shows so many lost in landings and low altitude maneuvers.

Zeppelins and blimps are always at greatest danger near the ground, where air movement is greatly affected by ground obstructions such as tree lines, and large buildings. And for the same reasons, they are extremely difficult to control in turbulence situations encountered aloft. The breakup aloft of the Shenandoah, the wreck of the Macon, the wreck of the Akron, and most wrecks of the post WW 1 constructed Zeppelins were situations in which turbulence, either at altitude or near the ground, overcame control inputs.

Zeppelins and blimps are relegated to the fringes of aviation for good reason; they are dangerous aircraft to launch and recover, and aloft, they are frail things with limited, slow response to control inputs, and a narrow margin of safety in all but perfect weather. Absolutely the opposite, in every performance metric, of the safest system of transportation ever constructed, the modern jetliner. In fact, it's been said that the greatest contribution to flight that lighter than air ships have made, is to teach us what not to do in building aircraft. If you want to enjoy a long career in aviation, do not go aloft regularly in lighter than air craft.
posted by paulsc at 2:33 AM on August 9, 2006


imagine what it was like going out on engine watch at cruising altitude.

posted by cenoxo at 10:57 PM PST on August 8 [+] [!]

I read in the book listed above that on the first transatlantic crossing to the U.S. the Graf Zeppelin ran into a severe storm that tore away some of the fabric on the rudder section.
The only way to fix it was to have crew go outside the zeppelin, walk and crawl to the tail section and use glue to secure the flapping section back into place.
Because Eckener's son was the best qualified for the job, he went out in a major storm with the zeppelin being tossed around (near vertically at one point).

Here's an account from the worst storm they encountered from South America to Lakehurst.

Hurtling along at 90 miles per hour on the back of a following wind, Eckener ran the Graf down the line of this black storm wall, looking for a point where he could break through to the west. But the wall extended for some 1,150 miles across fifteen degrees of latitude. Since there was no way around it, Eckener steered straight into it. He was never to forget what happened next.

The airship was thrust upwards so violently that we felt as if we were being forced to our knees. Immediately the bow plunged downward so fast that it felt as if the gondola floor was being jerked out from under our feet. At the same time the ship trembled in every part, and we wondered if the framework could stand the tremendous stress. As soon as she started pitching I set the telegraphs at half speed to decrease the forces acting on the ship; but the situation was still critical. In a raging turmoil of conflicting air masses we were driven up and down, back and forth.

Afterwards Eckener said "This was the wickedest squall I have ever experienced (by this time he'd been through several, hence his nickname 'storm king') and I don't believe their could be a worse one. But you can see how the ship came through. We can fly into any kind of weather with complete confidence." from Dr. Eckener's Dream Machine.
posted by mk1gti at 6:50 AM on August 9, 2006


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