Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Before the Beginning…

by Patrick Russell and Dennis Kromm


LZ 128 artist conception SIDE 

The LZ 129 Hindenburg as we know it wasn’t even a gleam in Hugo Eckener’s eye when Major H. R. Harmon, the military attaché at the United States Embassy in London, wrote a report, dated January 31, 1929 and enclosed an article from The Observer newspaper of January 20th describing the new airship that was being designed by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin in Friedrichshafen, Germany. At that point, the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin was only five months into its illustrious career, but was already pointing the way to a bright future for the passenger Zeppelin.

Not a great deal of information exists about this airship, known only by its works number, LZ 128. Some contemporary press reports mentioned that it would boast a passenger capacity of 120 and showed artist’s conceptions that included a wildly speculative hull design with a topside lounge. None of this, however, is borne out in the information that currently exists about the LZ 128.

In fact, the LZ 128 was to have essentially been  a refined version of her sister ship. Lifted by hydrogen and powered by ten Maybach VL-2 engines in five tandem gondolas for a total of approximately 5600 HP, it was slated to be about the same length as the Graf Zeppelin (236.6 meters, or 776 ft), only fatter. Whereas the volume of the Graf Zeppelin (105,000 cubic meters, or 3.7 million cubic feet) was dictated by the dimensions of the shed in which it was built, the LZ 128 would be assembled in Luftschiffbau Zeppelin’s brand new construction shed, which would measure 250 meters long (820 feet), 50 meters (164 feet) wide and 46 meters (151 feet) high. This would allow for the construction of much larger airships, and the LZ 128 was to have had a volume of 155,000 cubic meters, or 5.5 million cubic feet – a third again the volume of the Graf Zeppelin. It was also projected to carry 10 tons of freight.

LZ 127 and LZ 128 profile comparison(diagram courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)


LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin Crowds gather to watch the landing of the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin in 1930

Early reports indicated that the LZ 128 would have accommodations for 25 passengers contained in an external combination control/passenger gondola much like that of the Graf Zeppelin. However, it is unclear whether this was ever part of the actual design, or whether the plans changed later in the process. Available information suggests that the LZ 128 was probably intended to have a passenger deck (or decks) contained up inside the ship’s hull, as would later be found on the LZ 129 Hindenburg.

One of the very few visual resources we have to go on is a paper model of the LZ 128 which was produced by the Otto Maier Verlag in Ravensburg, circa 1933. Given the date, it is reasonable to assume that the model was based on the most recent designs for the LZ 128 prior to the halting of its construction.


LZ 128 artist conception

The tandem engine gondolas are in evidence, with both tractor and pusher propellers mounted on each. A row of observation windows can be seen aft of the control car, in a very similar arrangement to that which would later grace the hull of the LZ 129 Hindenburg.  Though it is possible that the model could be a combination of the final version of the LZ 128 design and early elements of the LZ 129, it is probably safe to assume that what we are seeing here is the furthest point of development which the LZ 128 reached before the project was scrapped.

Another key piece of visual evidence is a diagram of what appears to be a preliminary design for the passenger rooms of the LZ 128, taken from a 1929 book on German architect Fritz August Breuhaus, who would later design the passenger accommodations for the Hindenburg.

LZ 128 passenger deck layout

Similar in layout to Breuhaus’ eventual design for the Hindenburg, the central area contains 12 double-occupancy cabins, with a dining hall on one side and a lounge area on the other. Each side has a promenade deck with a row of large observation windows. The lounge is divided into three areas: a central lounge flanked by a reading and writing room (“Schreib u. Lese Z.”) and a game room (“Spielzimmer”). The dining room has seating for 26 (allowing perhaps for the ship’s commander to join the guests at dinner.) Just inboard of the dining room (“Speiseraum”) is a row of lavatories (W.C.) on one side of the lateral hallway, with a serving pantry (“Anrichte”), steward’s room and shower bath (“Brause Bad”) on the other side of the the hall. There is also a small onboard store (“Laden”) in the center of the lateral hallway.

Just forward of the serving pantry appears to be a staircase down (“Treppe”). Given early reports of external passenger accommodations, this raises the question of whether the idea was to build a control/passenger gondola with two levels, with the passenger area on an upper deck above the rest of the gondola, or whether the Breuhaus design was for an interior passenger area.

To  consider this more closely, let’s look at a diagram of the gondola on the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin:

 (diagram courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

As you can see, the Graf Zeppelin had a gondola that was considerably narrower than what we see in the LZ 128 passenger deck diagram – just wide enough for the passenger cabins and a combination dining room/lounge. The Graf also had an access door to the forward areas of the gondola, including the radio room (“Funkraum”), the navigation room (“Navig.- Raum”), the bridge (“Steuerraum”) and the kitchen (“Kuche”).

Not only is the proposed passenger area for the LZ 128 considerably wider than the Graf Zeppelin’s gondola, but it also contains no other apparent access to the rest of the ship, and there is no kitchen shown. The staircase appears to be the only way in or out of the LZ 128’s passenger deck.

This would seem to suggest one of two things. One possibility is, as previously noted, that the LZ 128 may have originally been intended to have a larger gondola with a broad upper deck for the passengers. This, however, would seem to have created some aerodynamic issues unless the outer part of the upper deck were to be considerably more streamlined than what the available diagram indicates.

One piece of evidence which may provide some degree of support for this idea is a photo of a model of the LZ 128 that was designed for wind-tunnel tests.

LZ 128 wind tunnel model
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

The gondola in this model is extended aft, and has what appears to be a two-level section at the forward end. It does appear to be a variation on the Graf Zeppelin’s control car, though it is difficult to tell from a wind-tunnel model exactly what the intended design was.

Graf Zeppelin control car











The elongated gondola of the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin

The more likely possibility is that the Breuhaus passenger deck diagram was drawn up sometime later in the design process, and that Luftschiffbau Zeppelin was considering the possibility of moving the passenger decks up into the LZ 128’s hull rather than containing it within the gondola. It is entirely possible that this might have been the case, given advances that the British had been making in rigid airship design.

In late 1929, England launched two new rigid airships. The R-100 made her first flight on December 16, 1929, and the R-101 had flown for the first time two months earlier, on October 14, 1929. Both airships used hydrogen as their lifting gas, but each incorporated new design features – including passenger decks built up into their hulls, rather than in an external gondola.

R-100-MontrealThe R-100 at the mast in Montreal in August of 1930. The double row of windows for the passenger decks can be seen as a half-circle arrangement just below the lettering on the side of the hull. Note also the tandem engine cars, similar to those intended for the LZ 128.


r101_mastThe R-101 at the mast in Cardington. The observation windows for her passenger deck can be seen as two black stripes on her lower hull, just above the control car.

In April of 1930, Dr. Eckener traveled to Cardington, Bedfordshire to meet with Lord Thomson, the head of the British Air Ministry, and to inspect the two new British airships. Eckener was to have taken a flight on the R-100, however the ship’s starboard was damaged in a handling accident shortly beforehand and the flight was canceled. The other new British airship, the R-101, was currently undergoing major renovations and was hung up in its shed at the time. However, Eckener did get a good look at the new ships while he was in Cardington, and innovations such as the internal passenger decks would not have gone unnoticed, assuming that Eckener and Luftschiffbau Zeppelin were not already privy to the new British airships’ design features.

Regardless of when or how the decision to incorporate an internal passenger area into the LZ 128 was made, it seems that as the LZ 128 project progressed throughout 1930 the ship that was beginning to take shape on the drawing board began to look less like its sister ship, the Graf Zeppelin, and more like the airship that would ultimately replace it on the drawing board, the LZ 129 Hindenburg.

By mid-summer of 1930, Luftshiffbau Zeppelin began preparations for construction, and by the end of September production of rings for the LZ 128’s framework had begun. Meanwhile, Dr. Eckener was paving the way for a new international airship service in anticipation of the LZ 128’s completion. A meeting was scheduled for early October between Eckener and Dr. Jerome Hunsaker of the International Zeppelin Transport Company. Hunsaker had been responsible for the design of the US Navy’s nonrigid airships in WWI, and had then gone on to take a position as the head of the Design Division of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics. Airship historian Prof. Henry Cord Meyer once called Hunsaker “America’s first and oldest airship expert.”

The International Zeppelin Transport Company had been founded on March 25, 1930 with the express purpose of facilitating regular transatlantic airship service. The organizations that had initially signed on included Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, Goodyear-Zeppelin in Akron, OH; National City Bank; the United Aircraft and Transportation Corporation; the Union Carbide Company; and the Aluminum Company of America. The plan was for airships to be built both by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin and Goodyear-Zeppelin, in their respective countries, for use on a passenger airship line to be run between Europe and the northeastern United States. The IZT was looking at the possibility of building the European airship port in Seville, Spain and the American port somewhere south of Baltimore (as Dr. Eckener felt that weather conditions would rule out operating out of a terminal anywhere north of Baltimore.)

As Luftschiffbau Zeppelin was the only IZT company with an actual passenger airship in production – Goodyear-Zeppelin was in the midst of building the ZRS-4 for the US Navy, and its passenger airship concepts were still on the drawing boards – much depended upon the LZ 128 and its ability to prove itself as a regular and reliable form of transit across the North Atlantic. Dr. Eckener and Dr. Hunsaker, therefore would meet so that Hunsaker could update the other IZT principles on the progress made on the LZ 128 thus far.

Then, on October 4, 1930, came the terrible news that Britain’s R-101, on its maiden overseas flight to India, had crashed and burned with heavy loss of life in northern France. The ship had been forced down in bad weather and caught fire shortly after impact. The resulting hydrogen fire completely destroyed the R-101, and 48 of the 54 people aboard were killed, including Air Minister Lord Thomson. Suddenly, the prospect of inaugurating transatlantic passenger airship service with a hydrogen airship seemed far less appealing.

R-101 wreck The wreckage of the R-101, near Beauvais, France, October 1930

Work continued, however, on the LZ 128, and the meeting between Dr. Eckener and Dr. Hunsaker took place as planned. It turned out that Hunsaker was far from impressed by the LZ 128 and the planning that had gone into her.

In his report to the International Zeppelin Transport Company, dated October 13, 1930, Dr. Hunsaker wrote in deeply critical terms about the LZ 128 project:

”As regards the performance, size, etc. of the airships for trans-Atlantic work, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin had evidently given the matter little or no consideration (…). (This) hydrogen ship (…) was designed for trans-Atlantic service either to North or South America without regard to traffic or other considerations. It was frankly a tramp airship good “anywhere” which Dr. Eckener thought should be our first Atlantic ship to be run experimentally to train crews, establish operating schedules, etc. He would run it, perhaps, on mail and express only, both to North and South America.”

“It developed that Dr. Eckener’s idea was to have International Zeppelin Transport Corporation build an American terminal at once (in 1930) and then he would operate his hydrogen ship between this terminal and Germany (Friedrichshafen) in 1931 for the information and benefit of IZT and a German company that would later provide a German terminal (not at Friedrichshafen) and further German helium airships. Then the hydrogen airship could be diverted to another service. I explained that such a program might not be consistent with the purpose and programme of IZT, i.e. to report upon and make a decision as to inaugurating a North Atlantic service using helium airships.”

“I was sure our group would never agree to build a terminal for the use of a hydrogen airship. I also pointed out that Goodyear-Zeppelin could not afford to wait a couple of years while his hydrogen airship operated as a tramp on special voyages with the danger of disaster always present.”

As quoted in John Duggan’s “LZ 129 Hindenburg: The Complete Story”,
Zeppelin Study Group, Ickenham, 2002

Clearly, the LZ 128 project was at odds with what had previously been discussed and apparently agreed upon by Dr. Eckener and the IZT stakeholders. The Americans had been using helium exclusively for their airships since the fiery crash of the US Army’s Italian-built semi-rigid ship Roma in 1922, and IZT wasn’t about to kick off its transatlantic passenger service using a hydrogen airship, let alone one that wasn’t specifically designed for the rough weather conditions common to the the North Atlantic.

Dr. Hunsaker also wrote of Eckener probing the possibility of buying American helium. Foreign sales of the gas being banned by law at the time, Hunsaker volunteered IZT aid with this. On November 4, Dr. Eckener publicly announced that LZ 128 would be redesigned to fly on helium, and made the first references to hydrogen “anti-ballast” cells contained within larger cells of helium to provide for economical valving. No mention, however, was made of any formal attempts to secure American helium.

On December 29, just short of three months after Eckener’s meeting with Hunsaker, an internal Luftschiffbau Zeppelin memo, entitled “Projekt LZ 129," mentioned the new works number LZ 129 for the first time and solicited technical opinions for the project. Clearly, it had been determined that LZ 128 could not effectively be reworked for helium and that a fresh start was necessary. The LZ 128 was officially announced at annual board meeting of DELAG (the company that handled flight operations for the Graf Zeppelin) on June 15, 1931, but it was a mere formality. LZ 128 would not be completed and its construction never progressed beyond the first few rings.

Interestingly, “Projekt LZ 129” would incorporate two things from the ill-fated R-101. Like the British ship, LZ 129’s passenger rooms which, like those for LZ 128, would be designed by Fritz Breuhaus, would be contained entirely within the ship’s hull. More chillingly, at the end of 1930 Luftschiffbau Zeppelin purchased 5,000 kg of duralumin from the wreck of the R-101 and reprocessed it into girders for its new Zeppelin.

For those seeking omens, no worse one could be imagined for the airship that would one day take the name Hindenburg.


LZ 128 artist conception TOP



Special thanks to Art Paulson for generously providing copies of the Breuhaus diagram of the LZ 128’s passenger decks as well as a copy of Wolfgang Meighörner’s  2002 article, “LZ 128 - Eine Sackgasse auf dem Weg vom Versuchsschiff zum Luxusliner der Lüfte,” (LZ 128 – A Dead End on the Road from Experimental Ship to Luxury Liner of the Skies)

Dr. Meighörner’s article was published as part of a more extensive publication that accompanied the Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen’s 2002 exhibition, “Luftschiffe Die Nie Gebaut Wurden” (Airships That Were Never Built) and provided invaluable information for this article.

Also of great help was the late John Duggan’s exceptional reference book, “LZ 129 Hindenburg, The Complete Story,” published also in 2002 by the Zeppelin Study Group in Ickenham, Middlesex, England.