AvGeek – Airships: Blimps on the horizon

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Long before the arrival of first and business classes in the airline industry, at the dawn of air travel, the airship was the epitome of luxury air travel

Words Aninda Sardar
 

Have you guys heard of Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-AG? No, no, not Lufthansa. The one I’m talking about started operations about 43 years before Germany’s national carrier even existed. Frankly, it’s unlikely that you’d know about this company unless you’re a dyed in the wool aviation enthusiast for these chaps were the world’s first ever commercial airline, having started operations in 1910! That’s just about seven years after the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first powered flight in a man-made aircraft that was heavier than air. So what were the good folks at Deutsche Luftschiffarhts-AG using to transport people? The airship, of course, or, zeppelins as they were popularly known after Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin who had founded the company.

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Airship construction

These rigid airships were constructed by stretching the envelope (the huge balloon like fabric structure) around a rigid internal framework instead of using gases to fill them up as you would in a normal balloon. The resultant blimp (and I use the term loosely here) would then be filled with a gas that was lighter than air, like Hydrogen, to help them fly. A cabin like structure attached to the base of the blimp would be where passengers would travel. In effect you could get away by calling the whole gig a modified balloon fitted with auxiliary motors that would propel them forward.
 

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The airship boom

However, if you were to assume that these might have been uncomfortable and cramped, like modern day economy class cabins, you couldn’t be further from the truth. The airship, or zeppelin, was in fact a totally luxurious way to travel. The number of passengers each one could carry was limited and fees were frightfully expensive. Yet, Zeppelin’s company had conducted over 1,500 flights ferrying more than 10,000 paying passengers by the middle of 1914. Perhaps  it was the novelty of air travel that it was as popular as it had become even in those early days. Unfortunately, the boom went bust when World War I broke out and airships were put to military use. By 1918, Armistice had been declared and the Treaty of Versailles, which the Germans signed in spite of not having lost the war, put severe restrictions on Germany’s aircraft industry and the country was banned from building large airships that were capable of travelling long distances. It wasn’t until 1926 that such restrictions were lifted, paving the way for what we now know as the Golden Age of the airship. 
 

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The airship and luxury

The 1930s was when the airship truly came to represent the kind of luxury that we would be familiar with today. And then, there was the Hindenburg, the largest airship that had been built till then and christened after Germany’s Iron Chancellor Paul von Hindenburg. Along with the slightly smaller Graf Zeppelin, the Hindenburg was capable of trans-Atlantic flight. A massive deal in those days. The Hindenburg’s final flight was on May 6, 1937 when a freak accident resulted in the entire ship going down in a blazing inferno as it tried to land in New Jersey. Thirty six people in total died in the accident even though 62 of the 97 on board survived.

The gigantic craft was four times the size of a modern Boeing 747 and while there’s enough and more written about its external dimensions and its construction, what was striking about the whole shindig were the sheer amount of luxury that people travelled in. Remember, those were the days when a standard passenger aircraft was usually fitted with wicker chairs bolted to the floor of the fuselage. 
 

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The Hindenburg’s interiors were designed by Fritz August Breuhaus, renowned for his design of Pullman coaches and the interiors of luxury ocean liners. Inside its fabric hull was a dining room with two-seater and three-seater dining tables arranged as if you were in a posh café or restaurant and in spite of being inside the hull of the ship you still had windows on the side so that you could enjoy your view of the Atlantic for the 43 hours that it would take for this massive thing to cross the ocean. Chairs were made of tubular aluminium to save weight and the walls were plastered with silk…yes, you read that right…silk wallpaper with murals. 

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Not far from the dining room was the Hindenburg Lounge, distinguished by a different upholstery but the same tubular aluminium chairs. The lounge initially featured a grand piano as well but it was later removed and was in fact not on board on the airship’s final flight. The mural for the lounge, again printed on silk wallpaper, was the route map of the Graf Zeppelin. And for those in need of forty winks, sandwiched between the dining room and the lounge were a bunch of cubicle cabins with twin bunks. In addition to this, below this deck was a bar and a smoking room (smoking being a common pursuit of all gents at the time) that was separated from the rest of the ship by an airlock. There was even a writing room for bored souls.  And here I was, feeling excited about a concealed bar in the business class of an A380. Silly me.

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