Balloon Repair Station

To Rio and back – Hindenburg’s first Trans-Atlantic Flight

5 hindenburg title pageRummaging through the loft I came across a collection of old and very rusty copies of Newnes Practical Mechanics that I rescued many years ago from another loft! I do from time to time have a look through the odd issue to both chuckle and marvel at how far we have come in a very short time and search out the odd and unusual. Now some of these go back a jolly long way. Quite by chance the first one I picked up contained a description of the Hindenburg’s first Trans-Atlantic Flight which left Friedrichshafen on March 31st 1936 and arrived 100 hours and 40 minutes later in Rio de Janeiro on April 4th. After a couple of days, sightseeing and attending galas no doubt, the airship returned to Germany on April 10th taking 103 hours 52 minutes despite suffering engine problems. The nine-day flight had covered 12,756 miles (20,529 km) in 203 hours and 32 minutes of flight. Quite a remarkable achievement seeing’s she only had about 140 hours of flying since her maiden flight on March 4th 1936 before her departure including a 74 hour flight in the company of the Graf Zeppelin, a propaganda flight round Germany 2 hindenburg in hangardropping pro-Hitler election leaflets. She went on to operate a regular Trans Atlantic service to Lakehurst in America and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Tragically on arrival at Lakehurst on May 6th 1937, almost certainly due to an electrical discharge igniting escaping hydrogen, she caught fire and burned resulting in the deaths of 13 of the 36 passengers, and 22 of the crew of 61, along with one member of the civilian landing party (Allen Hagaman) bringing to to an abrupt end the era of the airship. This article then is a copy of the one that appeared in the June 1936 issue of Practical Mechanics by the end of which time the Hindenburg had made three trips to Lakehurst and a further trip to Rio.

Newnes Practical Mechanics June 1936

The Hindenburg’s Trans-Atlantic Flight by our Special Correspondent
On the First Trans-Oceanic Flight of the New Giant Airship, L.Z.129, “Hindenberg”, our special correspondent Telegraphed by Wireless his Daily Log on Board the Vessel while Crossing the Atlantic.

The day had broken when the Hindenburg started on her first Atlantic crossing. We rose easily from the aerodrome at Friedrichshafen and soon after passing Cologne, we reached Holland and made for Tilburg and Rotterdam. Here we encountered fog, and for about an hour we could not see the face of the earth. In the Channel the echo-sounder shrieked raucously. After lunch we entered the smoking saloon which can be 8 smoking room hindenburgentered at any time, but left only by special permission of the Steward, who sailed ten years on the Resolute. It is his personal responsibility that no one leaves the smoking room with a burning cigar or cigarette. An electric lighter is at hand. Matches and other lighters are prohibited on board the Hindenburg.

Oblivious to the Elements
As darkness overtook us the lights were suddenly switched on. Over the much feared Bay of Biscay we were met by rain swirls and the head wind whistled in the fuselage. The searchlight sprang to life and by its aid we could see the restless waves below. But in the bright and decorated lounge , we were oblivious to any threatenings from air or water. From time to time, however, we were made aware of outside turmoil by the thin shrieking of steamship sirens as we passed over battling vessels. The wind rose to an alarming degree and around us a storm raged, yet Hindenburg forged ahead without deflection from the true course, nor did she pitch or roll. Indeed, she seemed oblivious to the anger of the elements, yet in the searchlight’s path we sometimes caught glimpses of vessels being tossed about like corks and smothered time and again in a welter of green water and foam.

The Sleeping Cabins
These are very much like a first-class sleeping compartments on a Continental express, with soft and wide beds. There is a dressing-table and washing bowl, with hot and cold water, all made of a celluloid like substance. The “bell” which brings the steward when pressed, does not ring, but flashes on a signal light. Morning brought a surprise! The searchlights during in the night had picked up a powerful vessel in its beam. L.Z.129 signalled by lamp semaphore asking who this great vessel might be, and received in reply, Rodney. She was a British warship and before we left her behind she sent us good wishes for our journey.

4 lehmann bauer knutThings went normally until the afternoon when I was invited by Captain Pruss to visit the “bridge,” that is the navigator’s gondola. Looking out from here we noticed that many a ship changed her course in order to get a view of the Hindenburg from a different angle. In the forepart of this gondola stood an officer carefully searching the horizon through powerful field-glasses. Behind him stood the wheelsman with his eyes on the compass finger, his movements controlling the ventricle rudders. At the back, another man handled the horizontal rudders and near to him was the instrument board by which the water ballast is regulated, and drawn off from various tanks. On the back wall of the gondola is a second ballast board controlled by a single wheel so that in cases of emergency, rapid action can be taken.

Cruising Speed
3 ernst lehmann knut eckenerAnother instrument demonstrated to me was the deflection meter which consists of a telescope directed downwards on a millimeter face. With this any sideway deflection of the vessel is immediately perceived. Still another, and for the layman , most remarkable piece of apparatus shows, when dialled, the velocity of rotations of the various engines, and at the same time actual cruising speed. At nine o’clock the Canary Islands came in sight – long tongues of land; starred with coloured lights. Soon Las Palmas lay behind shimmering in the clear night – and this was the last impressionable sight we had of land before we passed on into the dark heart of the South Atlantic night. The next morning I awoke in tropical heat. The sun shone brilliantly through the the windows and as one looked down on to the waters below, it appeared as if one could see right into the depths and observe the strange creatures living there. We flew at a height of about nine hundred feet above the water’s surface, and, leaning out of the windows, a warm stream of air caressed our faces.

9 hindenburg dining roomAt half past ten we passed Porto Praia in the Cape Verde Islands. The vista was overwhelming, the colouring magnificent seen from above. The ship’s Commander, I learned, was hoping for some rain, as we had lost quite a lot of ballast and were accordingly rising too much, for if we came to a region of considerable lower pressure we could lose gas. Therefore rain was desired in order to fill the ballast tanks. On the upper part of the of the airship’s structure there is a special channel of about 650 ft long in which is collected the rain which falls on the envelope, and by which it drains into the ballast tanks. As if it is realised that Trans-Oceanic Air Flight will in future appeal as much for its comfort as for its speed, everything on board the Hindenburg is planned and executed to this end. The maximum of comfort is provided for passengers in the limited space available and as an example of thoroughness I would cite the fact that from the writing-room there is a pneumatic post which delivers letters to the central delivery bureau, and so the passengers have their letters posted without bother by sending them direct from their desks without further worry. All the quarters are electrically heated, and as is essential where weight is a 1 hindenburg passenger loungeconsideration , even the windows are of a specially invented material called “Flexiglass,” and the walls are lined with a special light and durable cloth called “Zeppelin cloth.” The only exception is in the smoking room. Considerations of safety from fire are here the most important factors and so the walls are lined with leather and the floor consists of wood chemically impregnated and made fireproof. During the voyage across the Southern Atlantic the Hindenburg behaved remarkably well. As we were travelling along towards South America we were caught in a very severe storm which tested the airship very considerably. There was a turmoil of cloud and wind, but with the engines speeded up, the Hindenburg rose easily and never for a moment deviated from her true course.

Then came the morning when the whisper that we were approaching the new World passed round, and in the early light, the passengers crowded to the windows to with telescopes and field glasses. Soon a definite line became visible in the distance which grew bolder as we advanced rapidly. The airship dipped as if it were bowing to the Western Continent and, running smoothly, we passed over the coast, and over Recife with its white churches and cloisters, to the Pernambuco Aerodrome which Hindenburg passed round twice and from the navigation gondola dropped a heavy sack of mail. Recife behind us we, began the journey down the coast to Rio. At 10 a.m. the beautiful town of Maceio came into view on the banks of the San Francisco river. Rio – the end of our outward journey! I was glad instinct had awakened me in time to get the first glimpse. In the pearl morning light we glided over the still dormant city. We could see police galloping up as many brown figures dashed towards the landing place. We were manoeuvring to land. Gently we dipped to earth and as the gondola glided just over the ground Dr Eckener’s son and Capt. Lehmann sprang out to direct the landing crew, who were already hauling the on the hawsers which they made fast to winches.

The Return Flight
A brilliant sun spread over the Atlantic as the Hindenburg nosed her way out to sea on her return journey. Crossing the Brazilian coast the heat rose to tropical pitch and despite the well-arranged ventilation the, the lack of of suitable air-streams resulted in stifling cabins. Captain Lehmann explained to me that through air draft is one of the problems of air travel yet to be solved. The streams of air come from different angles, and only through experience and experiment can the right position for the ventilators in the interior of the ship be discovered. Next morning after breakfast we passed over the stony desert island of Fernando de Noronha with its terrible prison and wireless station, and towards the noon, we crossed the equator once more.

7 view from navigation roomThis afternoon our good ship tried her hand at hunting – after clouds. The officers in the navigation gondola sought the horizon for rain and at last a mountainous bank of cloud showed up in the distance. Course was altered to come up with this bank and the water channels on the envelope were opened to collect rain for the ballast tanks in order to make up for the loss of weight through burning up of the oil fuel. The weather continued very hot and we were jubilant when in the evening the captain decided to rise five thousand feet into cooler air. This journey we were to avoid the Canary Islands and run direct for the African coast. Along the African coast a southerly wind was blowing and this would be advantageous. Nevertheless, before we got there the wind had turned into the eastern quarter. Actually it was four o’clock when we came up to the African coast. I turned out the lights in the observation promenade and looked out. What a sight! The West Sahara was which we quickly approached, glowed a metallic yellow in the moonshine and from the plain twinkled reflections as from thousands of diamonds. The searchlights sought out each yard of the waste and then the head of the airship dipped and we went down to find a more favourable wind. This brought us to within seven hundred feet of the ground surface and we sped past negro villages where occasionally a figure waved or gesticulated into the silence of the great desert. A remarkable vision appeared ahead – what seemed to be a long avenue of trees. Trees in the middle of the desert. As we came nearer , the avenue turned out to be a long drawn out camel caravan.

We descended still lower and our searchlights began to pick up patches of marsh land, and clumps of bushes from which, now and again, some frightened animal dashed out. A huge shimmering mirror reflecting back the ship’s lights resolved itself into a waterhole where numerous animals were drinking. What kind of animals could not be distinguished, but the noise of our engines and the glare of the searchlights stampeded them and they all dashed off before we got too close. When I next left the cabin it was clear daylight. Behind us I saw houses and mosques. We reached Rabat then Casablanca, and so on to Larache, the largest garrison town in Spanish Africa. Night came on and soon we came in sight of of the brilliantly lighted Rock of Gibraltar at the foot of which the lights of the township were reflected on the vessels at rest in the harbour.

10 lehmann navigationtableI found later that things were not all as they should be. Captain Lehmann was obviously worried. It appeared that we could not venture through the storm-ridden Bay of Biscay owing to motor trouble, and were steering a course for Genoa with a view to passing up over the Swiss Alps. Should weather be unfavourable, we would avoid climbing the Alps and pass eastward of them. Naturally we we hoped the weather would be advantageous, for a flight over the great mountains would be glorious.

During the night I awoke several times worried by a noise which seemed unusual. The wind howled about the vessel and above it, inside the ship there was a sound which appeared to be different from anything I had heard before. In the morning I learned that a motor had given out and another was troublesome.

Captain Lehmann was anxious. With two engines only we were all right, given good weather, but storms might be difficult to deal with. I asked the Captain what he intended to do and he told me that in the circumstances they had wirelessed the French authorities for permission to pass up the Rhone Valley across France. With two engines only functioning correctly it was too great a risk to try crossing the Alps. About noon we came to the mouth of the Rhone, and then learnt that permission had been obtained to cross French territory. We pushed on, lamely but safe. No one doubted the ability of the Hindenburg to get home. In fact, but for the slightly different hum inside the vessel’s conditions appeared as normal, and there was nothing to cause any excitement. As to speed, perhaps we had slackened off a bit but it was hardly noticeable. In brilliant sunlight we were able to enjoy the view of this pleasant land of the Rhone Valley as we went northwards, accompanied by French military aeroplanes, which we learned were not there for our protection but rather to see that we did not deviate from the course set for us, which was a seven miles wide corridor.

There was no further trouble and we passed the frontier without having offended. Lake Constance now appeared a gleaming mass far ahead. With great eagerness we all pressed to the windows to watch. Crowds were gathering everywhere. The weather was fine as Friedrichshafen appeared on the map below us. Soon we saw it was black with people. We were to be given a real welcome home. Circling over the town, Hindenburg turned her head into wind, her engines were stopped and the towing ropes thrown out, and in a minute or so a hundred and fifty soldiers were hauling the vessel to the mooring mast. Then her tail was brought round and within forty minutes we were ready to land. How happy we were! Yet it was rather reluctantly that we descended to solid earth. It had been magnificent while it lasted and so sound that only now did we learn of the seriousness of the engine trouble, though I am told that apart from meeting very bad storms the airship could continue on one engine. The strain of the double journey had told on a couple of the motors and bearings had burned out.

6 hindenburg page1So ends this insight into the first crossing of the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro by the Hindenburg. Written back in 1936 it seems unbelievable that just over a year later the giant airship would explode as it came into land at Lakehurst and couple of years later World War II would break out. The Nazi Party were already, to all intents and purpose, in control and the Swastika was deemed distasteful. The Americans were close to having flying boats that could have crossed the ocean faster and cheaper so the great airship was already out-dated. Its doubtful if we will ever see their like again but back in 1936 it was still part of that huge hopeful dream. Sadly the writer remains a mystery but no doubt it was one of the syndicated journalists. From the way it is written they were probably British.

Three officers are mentioned in the article, Captain Pruss, Captain Lehmann and Dr Hugo Eckener’s son, Watch Officer Knut Eckener. Captain Pruss was the Commanding Officer of the Hindenburg when it exploded at Lakehurst and although seriously burnt he survived. Always a firm believer in the potential of airship, after the war he continued to try and revive interest in the commercial use of the airship but to no avail and he died following an operation in 1960. Captain Ernst Lehmann suffered serious burns in the Lakehurst tragedy and died the following day. He had been onboard as an observer and was widely regarded as one of the most experienced and skilled airship pilots in the world having flown airships during the First World War and commanded the passenger carrying airships Sachsen and Graf Zeppelin amongst others. He had also been the Vice-President of the Goodyear Zeppelin Corporation and at the time of his death was the Director of the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei, the airline setup by Hermann Goering. Knut Eckener, son of Hugo Eckener who was widely regarded as the father of the Zeppelin, was himself a very accomplished airshipman and died on the 11th January 1968 in Constance, Germany aged 66.

Other reports of the crossing are scarce but the engine problem was reputedly down to failure of gudgeon pins on the little ends. This is where the conrod connects to the piston.

The Graf Zeppelin 2, LZ130, sister ship to the Hindenburg, did fly after the Lakehurst disaster on 14 September 1938 and just prior to the outbreak of war was fitted out with electronic gear to spy on the defences of Russia and Britain including the radar network that was being developed. It was reported inland over Scotland in August 1939 and Spitfires were sent out to intercept her. When war did break out it was returned to the shed at Frankfurt and broken up along with the original Graf Zeppelin in the spring of 1940.

HMS Rodney, the ship hailed by the Hindenburg, was the sister ship to HMS Nelson. Launched in 1925 and commissioned in 1927 she played a huge part in the sinking of the Bismark and the Normandy landings. She was always part of the Home Fleet and served in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Because of her frequent machinery problems and her very war-weary condition, plus the fact that she had not been upgraded to the extent of her sister ship HMS Nelson, or had an overhaul since 1942, in December 1944 she became the flagship of the Home Fleet in Scapa Flow. She was finally scrapped, on 26 March 1948 at Inverkeithing in Scotland.

The group picture looking forward in paragraph ‘The Sleeping Cabins’ is Ernst Lehmann centre, to his immediate right is Bauer and with his back to the camera Knut Eckener. The picture in ‘Cruising Speed’ is Ernst Lehmann in the foreground with Knut Eckener leaning across the navigation table and below Knut’s arm is the telescope of the deflection meter.

Many thanks to Dan Grossman for some of the pictures and the background information. Brilliant website at