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Hindenburg class
Hindenburg at NAS Lakehurst
Role Passenger airship
National origin Germany
Manufacturer Luftschiffbau Zeppelin
Designed by Ludwig Dürr
First flight March 4, 1936 (LZ 129)

September 14, 1938 (LZ 130)

Retired 1937 (LZ 129)

1939 (LZ 130)

Status Destroyed by fire (LZ 129); Scrapped (LZ 130))
Primary user Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei
Number built 2

The two Hindenburg-class airships were passenger carrying rigid airships built in Germany in the 1930s. They were the last such aircraft ever built, and in terms of their length and volume, the largest aircraft ever to fly. During the 1930s, airships like the Hindenburg class were considered by many the future of air travel, and the lead ship of the class, LZ 129 Hindenburg, established a regular transatlantic service. The destruction of this same ship in a spectacular and highly-publicized accident was to prove the death knell for these expectations. The second ship, LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin was never operated on a regular passenger service, and was ignominiously scrapped in 1940 at the order of Hermann Göring.

Design and development

The Hindenburg class were built to an all-duralumin design. The man who headed the design team was Doctor Ludwig Dürr, who had headed the design of all Zeppelins except LZ-1 (on which he was a crew member), under the overall direction of Hugo Eckener, the head of the company. They were 245 m (804 ft) long and 41 m (135 ft) in diameter, longer than three Boeing 747s placed end-to-end, longer than four current Goodyear Blimps end-to-end, and only 24 m (79 ft) shorter than the Titanic. The design originally called for cabins for 50 passengers and a crew complement of 40.

Construction of the first ship, LZ 129, later named Hindenburg, began in 1931, but was suddenly stopped when the Zeppelin Company went bankrupt. This led Eckener to make a deal with the Nazi Party. He needed money to build the airship, but in return he was forced to display the swastikas on the tail fins. Construction then resumed in 1935. The keel of the second ship, LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin was laid on June 23, 1936, and the cells were inflated with hydrogen on August 15, 1938. As the second Zeppelin to carry the name Graf Zeppelin (after the LZ 127), she is often referred to as Graf Zeppelin II.

A fire-damaged 23-centimetre (9.1 in) duralumin cross brace from the frame of the Hindenburg salvaged in May 1937 from the crash site at NAS Lakehurst, NJ

Blue: Pentagon, Washington D.C.
Grey: Empire State Building, New York

The duralumin frame was covered by cotton cloth varnished with iron oxide and cellulose acetate butyrate impregnated with aluminium powder. The aluminium was added to reflect both ultraviolet, which damaged the fabric, and infrared light, which caused heating of the gas. This was an innovation with the LZ 126 which was operated by the US Navy from 1924 on. Following the destruction of Hindenburg, the doping compound for the outer fabric covering of Graf Zeppelin was changed, bronze and graphite were added to prevent flammability and also improved the outer covering's electrical conductivity.

The rigid structure was held together by many large rings up to the size of a Ferris wheel, 15 of which were gas cell boundaries which formed bulkheads. These bulkheads were braced by steel wires which connected up into the axial catwalk. The longitudinal duralumin girders connected all the rings together and formed "panels," or "gores." The 16 gas cells were made of cotton and a gas tight material. On Graf Zeppelin, the cells were lightened and one was made of lightweight silk instead of cotton.

Hydrogen was vented out through valves on the top of the ship. These valves could be controlled both manually and automatically. An axial catwalk was added across the center of the ship to provide access to the gas valves. A keel catwalk provided access to the crew quarters and the engines. Along side the keel were water ballast and fuel tanks. The tail fins of the airship were over 100 feet (30 m) in length, and were held together with a cross-like structure. The lower tail fin also had an auxiliary control room in case the controls in the gondola malfunctioned.

Hindenburg was powered by four reversible 890 kW (1,200 hp) Daimler-Benz diesel engines which gave the airship a maximum speed of 135 km/h (84 mph). The engine pods were completely redesigned for Graf Zeppelin, using diesel engines powering tractor propellers (the aft port engine was the only one to have a three bladed prop). The engines had a water recovery system which captured the exhaust of the engines to minimize weight lost during flight.

To reduce drag, the passenger rooms were contained entirely within the hull, rather than in the gondola as on the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin and consisted of two decks. The upper deck, "A", contained the passenger quarters, public areas, a dining room, a lounge, and a writing room. The lower deck, "B", contained washrooms, a mess hall for the crew, and a smoking lounge. Long slanted windows ran the length of both decks. The passenger decks were redesigned for Graf Zeppelin; the restaurant was moved to the middle of the quarters and the promenade windows were half a panel lower.

Lift gas

Hindenburg was originally intended to be filled with helium, a gas which is heavier than hydrogen but which is not flammable. Most of the world's supply of helium comes from underground fields in the United States, but the United States had imposed a military embargo on helium against Germany. Eckener expected this ban to be lifted, and to save costs of the Helium, the design was modified to have double gas cells (an inner hydrogen cell protected by an outer helium cell).[1] The ban remained, leading the engineers to modify the design of the airship to use only hydrogen as the lift gas, despite the fact that hydrogen, unlike helium, is extremely flammable.[2] It contained 200,000 m³ (7,000,000 ft³) of gas in 16 bags or cells, with a useful lift of 1.099 MN (247,100 pounds).

The Germans had extensive experience with hydrogen as a lifting gas. Hydrogen-related fire accidents had never occurred on civilian Zeppelins, so the switch from helium to hydrogen did not cause much alarm. Hydrogen also gave the craft about 8% more lift capacity. Following the Hindenburg disaster, however, Eckener vowed never to use hydrogen in a passenger airship again. Instead, he planned to use helium for the second ship and went to Washington, D.C. to lobby to obtain it. He visited President Roosevelt himself, who promised to supply the helium, but only for peaceful purposes. After the annexation of Austria in March 1938, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes refused to supply the gas, and the Graf Zeppelin was ultimately inflated with hydrogen.

Operational history

LZ 129 Hindenburg

Hindenburg made her first flight on 4 March 1936, but before commencing her intended role as a passenger liner, was put to use for propaganda purposes by the Nazi government. Together with LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, she spent four days dropping leaflets, playing music, and making radio broadcasts in the lead up to the March 29 plebiscite mandating Hitler's Chancellorship and remilitarization of the Rhineland.

Commercial services commenced on 31 March 1936 with the first of seven round trips to Rio de Janeiro that Hindenburg was to make during her first passenger season. Together with ten round trips to New York, Hindenburg covered 308,323 km (191,583 miles) that year with 2,798 passengers and 160 tons of freight and mail.

Following refurbishment during the winter, Hindenburg set out on her first flight to North America for the 1937 season (she had already made one return trip to South America in 1937) on 3 May, bound for New York. This flight would end in tragedy, however, with Hindenburg being utterly consumed by fire as she prepared to dock at NAS Lakehurst in New Jersey.

LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin

By the time the Graf Zeppelin was completed, it was obvious that the ship would never serve its intended purpose as a passenger liner; the lack of a supply of inert helium was one cause. The ship was christened and made her first flight on September 14, 1938, making a circuit from Friedrichshafen to München, Augsburg, Ulm, and back. The total distance covered was 925 km (575 miles). The Graf Zeppelin made a total of thirty flights, mainly spy missions for the Luftwaffe.

The End of the Airships

The bow of LZ 130 in the Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

In April 1940, Hermann Göring issued the order to scrap both Graf Zeppelin and the unfinished framework of LZ 131, since the metal was needed for other aircraft. By April 27, work crews had finished cutting up the airships. On May 6, the enormous airship hangars in Frankfurt were leveled by explosives, three years to the day after the destruction of the Hindenburg.

Specifications (LZ 130)

General characteristics

  • Crew: ca. 40
  • Capacity: ca. 50 passengers (designed 40 for LZ 130, but never used)
  • Length: 244 m (803 ft 10 in)
  • Diameter: 41.2 m (135 ft 0 in)
  • Volume: 200,000 m³ (7,100,000 ft³)
  • Useful lift: 10,000 kg (22,046 lb)
  • Powerplant: 4 × Daimler-Benz DB 602 16-cylinder diesel, 735 kW (985 hp) each


  • Maximum speed: 131 km/h (81 mph)

See also


  1. ^ Moondance Films, Hindenburg Disaster: Probable Cause (2001), also known as Revealed... The Hindenburg Mystery (2002)
  2. ^ Botting 2001, pp. 249–251.
  • Sammt, Albert. 1988. Mein Leben für den Zeppelin, Verlag Pestalozzi Kinderdorf Wahlwies 1988, ISBN 3-921583-02-0 - pages 167-168 extract covering LZ 130's spying trip from 2 to 4 August 1939, (German) (pdf)

External links

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