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LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin (Deutsches Luftschiff Zeppelin 127; Registration: D-LZ 127) was a German-built and operated, passenger-carrying, hydrogen-filled rigid airship which operated commercially from 1928 to 1937. It entered service in 1928 and later offered the first commercial passenger transatlantic flight service in the world. It was named after the German airship pioneer Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who was a count (Graf) in the German nobility. The airship made 590 flights covering almost 1.7 million kilometres (over 1 million miles). It was designed to be operated by a crew of 36. The LZ 127 was the largest airship in the world at the time of its completion, and was only surpassed by the USS Akron in 1931. It was scrapped for military aircraft production in 1940.

LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin
Role Passenger/commercial airship
National origin Germany
Manufacturer Luftschiffbau Zeppelin
Designer Ludwig Dürr
First flight 18 September 1928
Introduction 11 October 1928
Retired 18 June 1937
Status Scrapped March 1940
Registration D-LZ 127
Owners and operators Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft (German Airship Travel Corporation); from 1935, Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei (German Zeppelin Transport Company)
Flights 590
Total hours 17,177
Total distance 1.7 million km (1.06 million miles)
General characteristics
Displacement: 105,000 m3 (3,700,000 cu ft)
Length: 236.6 m (776 ft)
Beam: 30.5 m (100 ft) (hull diameter)
Draft: 33.5 m (110 ft) (height)
Installed power: 550hp per engine
  • Five Maybach VL-2 V12 engines
  • four-bladed fixed-pitch, wooden propellers
  • 117 km/h (73 mph; 63 kn) (cruising)
  • 128 km/h (80 mph; 69 kn) (maximum)
Range: 10,000 km (6,200 mi) at 117 km/h (73 mph; 63 kn)
Complement: 36

Design and developmentEdit

Construction of the Graf Zeppelin in Friedrichshafen: the lower and middle gangways are highlighted green with main rings in red; two people are shown in yellow.

In 1917 the German LZ 104 (L 59) was the first airship to make an intercontinental flight, when it flew from Bulgaria to Khartoum in an unsuccessful attempt to deliver supplies to German forces there. In July 1919 the British R34 successfully flew from East Fortune in Scotland to New York City and back. The Treaty of Versailles, which brought an end to World War I, had placed restrictions on German aviation. When, in 1925, the Allies relaxed the restrictions on airships, the Zeppelin company's chairman Dr Hugo Eckener saw the chance to start an intercontinental air passenger service.[1] Eckener began a two-year campaign of lobbying the German Government for funds and permission to construct a new airship for Germany.[2] The resulting LZ-127 was built at the Zeppelin Company works (Luftschiffbau Zeppelin) in Friedrichshafen, on Lake Constance, Germany, between 1926 and 1928. Its design was slightly enlarged from that of the LZ-126, which the company had delivered as a war reparation to the US Navy in October 1924, and which was commissioned as the USS Los Angeles (ZR-3).[3] Construction of LZ-127 began with the aid of a government grant; the majority of the necessary 2 million Reichsmark (RM) in funding was raised by public subscription.[4] The LZ 127 was completed and launched in September 1928.

The Graf Zeppelin was 236.6 m (776 ft) long and had a total gas volume of 105,000 m3 (3,700,000 cu ft) of which 75,000 m3 (2,600,000 cu ft) was hydrogen carried in 17 "lift gas" cells (Traggaszelle) and 30,000 m3 (1,100,000 cu ft) was Blau gas in 12 "power gas" cells (Kraftgaszelle). The length was chosen as being the largest possible that would fit into the hangar it was built in.[5][6] It was the largest airship in the world at the time.[7] It was powered by five Maybach VL-2 12-cylinder 550 hp engines of 33.251 L (2,029.1 cu in) capacity, that could burn either Blau gas or petrol.[6][8] The use of Blau gas avoided the problem of weight loss as fuel was burned, requiring costly releases of lifting gas or capture of water from exhaust gas. Because Blau gas had the same density as air, burning it and replacing it with air had no net effect on buoyancy.[9][10] It was the only airship ever to experiment with using Blau gas in this way.[6] To adjust its buoyancy, the ship carried 8,000 kilograms (17,640 lb) of water as trim ballast, and another 2,390 kilograms (5,280 lb) of water as emergency ballast.[6]

The airship's top airspeed was 128 km/h (80 mph; 69 kn) at its maximum power of 1,980 kW (2,650 hp); its normal operational airspeed was 117 km/h (73 mph; 63 kn) at a power of 1,600 kW (2,150 hp). Some flights were made using only Blau gas carried in the dozen power gas cells, which enabled the airship to cruise for up to 100 hours. Using petrol alone it was able to cruise for 67 hours, and up to 118 hours using both. The Graf Zeppelin had a total lift capacity of 87,000 kg (192,000 lb) with a usable payload of 15,000 kg (33,000 lb) on a 10,000 km (6,200 mi; 5,400 nmi) flight. To handle it on the ground, the airship needed as many as 300 people to assist.[11]

Gondola layoutEdit

LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin gondola deck plan

The flight deck and operational spaces, common areas, passenger cabins, and public toilet facilities on the Graf Zeppelin were all contained in a single gondola structure built into the forward third of the airship's ventral surface. The forward operational spaces consisted of the flight deck, a navigation room with two large access hatches to allow the command crew to communicate with the navigators, radio room, galley, and a short passage to the main entrance-exit door space. An ascending ladder located in the map room allowed access to a keel corridor inside the hull. The map room also had two large windows, one on each side, which permitted navigators to shoot the horizon and sky with a sextant.

Behind the operational spaces were the main dining and sitting room with four large windows which connected via a long corridor to ten passenger cabins capable of sleeping 24, a pair of washrooms, and dual toilet facilities.[12] The passenger cabins were set by day with a sofa which converted to two beds, one above the other, at night. The crew's quarters were located inside the hull and were reached by a catwalk. The galley was equipped with a single electric oven with two compartments and hot plates on top for cooking. Heating was not provided on the Graf Zeppelin.[13][14][15]

Electrical and communications systemsEdit

Many people were needed to hold down the D-LZ127. The ram air turbine electric generator is just under the radio room window.

The main generating plant was inside the hull and consisted of two fuel-burning generators. Two small ram air turbines attached to the main gondola on swinging arms supplemented electrical power for the radio room, internal lighting, the galley, and acted as a reserve. Batteries allowed radio operation independent of airspeed.[16] The gondola also had a petrol generator for emergency power.

The Graf Zeppelin was outfitted with the most modern radio equipment then available.[16] A staff of three radio operators communicated with ground stations and ships, performed radio navigation,[16] received weather reports, and sent private telegrams for passengers. A one-kilowatt vacuum tube transmitter (about 140 watt antenna power) was used to send telegrams over the low frequency (500–3,000 m) bands.[16] A 70 watt antenna power emergency transmitter was available for both telegraph and radio telephone over 300–1,300 m wavelength bands which could be powered by either batteries or the generator.[16]

The main antenna consisted of two lead weighted 120-metre (390 ft)-long wires deployed by electric motor or hand crank. The emergency antenna was a 40-metre (130 ft) wire stretched from a ring on the airship hull.[16] Three high-quality, six-tube receivers served the wavelength ranges 120 to 1,200 m (medium frequency), 400 to 4,000 m (low frequency) and 3,000 to 25,000 m (overlapping low frequency and very low frequency).[16] The radio room also had a shortwave receiver for wavelengths 10 to 280 m (high frequency).[16]

A radio direction finder of the kind then used by large passenger ships employed a rotatable loop antenna to determine the airship's position from any two land radio stations or ship-based transmitters from ships with known positions.[16] During the airship's transatlantic flight to the United States in October 1928, the radio room sent 484 private telegrams and 160 press telegrams.[16]

Operational historyEdit

Zeppelin lapel pins 1928–37
1934 LZ 127 South America time table

The LZ 127 was christened Graf Zeppelin by Countess Brandenstein-Zeppelin on 8 July 1928, after her father Ferdinand, founder of the company and pioneer of the dirigible airship. It was the 90th anniversary of his birth.[17] The Zeppelin Company had originally planned to charter LZ 127 to a Spanish company to carry mail from Seville in Spain to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and a contract was signed just before the first flight of the airship with the intention to carry out test flights between Spain and Argentina in 1929.[18]

The Graf Zeppelin's operational career spanned almost nine years from its first flight in September 1928 until its last in June 1937. During that period, the airship was operated first by the Zeppelin Company's commercial flight arm, the Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft (German Airship Travel Corporation, DELAG) in conjunction with the Hamburg-American Line (HAPAG), and for the final two years by the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei GmbH (DZR), a company established by Hermann Göring in March 1935 to increase Nazi party influence over Zeppelin operations.[19] The DZR was jointly owned by the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (German Air Ministry), and Deutsche Lufthansa A.G., Germany's national airline at that time.[N 1]

From 1928 to 1932 the airship was used primarily for experimental and demonstration purposes to prepare the way for eventual regular commercial transatlantic passenger service. After making six domestic shakedown flights, the airship made its first long-distance journey in October 1928, crossing the Atlantic to the United States.[20] Later demonstration flights included a round-the-world tour in August 1929, a Europe-Pan American flight in 1930, a polar expedition in 1931, two round trips to the Middle East, and a variety of other flights around Europe. In 1932 the Graf Zeppelin began five years of regularly scheduled passenger, mail, and freight service between Germany and Brazil. These commercial operations were the airship's principal function during this period until it was withdrawn from active service on the day after the loss of the Hindenburg in May 1937 after having made 64 round trips to Brazil. During the return trip to Germany on its last South American flight for 1933, the Graf Zeppelin also stopped in Miami (NAS Miami, Opa-Locka), Akron (Goodyear-Zeppelin Company Airdock), and the "Century of Progress" world's fair in Chicago.[21]

Preparing to release a glider over Berlin

The Graf Zeppelin also flew to Spain, London, Berlin and Moscow. During one of the Berlin visits a glider was released from under its hull,[22] and on one of the Brazil trips British Pathé News filmed on board.[N 2] The airship captured the public imagination and was used extensively in advertising.[24] Germany issued a commemorative coin celebrating it.[25]

Flown German "First 1934 South America Flight" cover

Passengers paid premium fares to fly on the LZ 127 (1,500 RM from Germany to Rio de Janeiro in 1934, equal to US$590 then,[26] or $10,600 in 2016 [27]), but fees collected for high value freight and air mail provided much of the income needed to support the airship's commercial operations. On one transatlantic flight, the Graf Zeppelin carried 52,000 postcards and 50,000 covers, and by its last flight it had flown 48,080 kg (106,000 pounds) of mail overall. Since 1912 Zeppelins had been authorised by the German postal administration to postmark and sort mail on board, and Graf Zeppelin could deliver South America-bound post about a week faster than a ship.

During its operational career, the Graf Zeppelin flew almost 1.7 million km (1,053,391 miles), becoming the first aircraft in history to fly over a million miles, made 590 flights, 144 oceanic crossings (143 across the Atlantic, and one across the Pacific), carried 13,110 passengers and 106,700 kg (235,300 lb) of mail and freight,[28] and spent 17,177 hours aloft (the equivalent of 717 days, or nearly two years), without ever injuring a passenger or crewman. The flown cacheted and postmarked mail carried on its flights are still collected by stamp enthusiasts worldwide.[29]


First intercontinental flight (1928)Edit

Flown German ppc from the "First North American Flight"

In October 1928 the Graf Zeppelin made its first intercontinental trip, a 9,926 km (6,168 mi; 5,360 nmi), 111-hour crossing from Friedrichshafen to Lakehurst with Eckener in command. Ernst Lehmann, who was killed in the crash of the Hindenburg at Lakehurst eight and a half years later, served as first officer on the flight and US Navy Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Rosendahl, commander of the ZR-3 USS Los Angeles (ex-LZ 126), made the westward journey during which he also stood watch as a ship's officer.[30]

A portion of the damaged fabric covering removed from the Graf Zeppelin in October 1928, after its first transatlantic flight from Germany to NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey

The airship suffered potentially serious damage to its port tail fin on the third day of the flight when a large section of the linen covering was ripped loose while passing through a mid-ocean squall line at night about 2,400 km (1,500 mi; 1,300 nmi) east of Bermuda (35°N, 42°W).[31] With the engines stopped, the ship's riggers did their best to tie down the torn fabric to the framework and sew blankets to the ship's envelope while trying not to fall to the raging seas below. In the interest of safety, the riggers (including Eckener's son, Knut) retreated into the ship whenever it dropped to within a couple of hundred feet of the ocean's surface. This allowed the engines to be restarted to maintain lift.[32]

The Graf Zeppelin crossed the US coast at Cape Charles, Virginia, around 10 am on 15 October, passed over Washington, D.C., at 12:20 pm, Baltimore at 1 pm, Philadelphia at 2:40 pm, New York City at 4 pm, and landed at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station at 5:38 pm.[33] Eckener had repeated the success of his first Atlantic crossing when he delivered the LZ-126 to the US Navy in October 1924, and he was welcomed enthusiastically with a "ticker tape" parade in New York and an invitation to the White House to meet Calvin Coolidge, the US president.[34] After an almost two-week stay in the United States, during which time its damaged tail was repaired, the Graf Zeppelin left Lakehurst for Germany at 1:24 am on 29 October and arrived back in Friedrichshafen shortly before dawn on 1 November.[35] The painter Ludwig Dettmann was on board to make an artistic record of the flight.[36] Grace Marguerite Hay Drummond-Hay, the British journalist, flew on the outward leg; Clara Adams travelled on the Graf Zeppelin's return flight, the first female paying passenger to fly transatlantic.[37][38] A stowaway, Clarence Terhune, sneaked onto the ship at Lakehurst and hid in the mail room where he was discovered mid-voyage. He was put to work washing dishes and on arrival in Germany became well-known and received job offers.[39] On 6 November the airship flew to Berlin Staaken, where it was met by the German president, Paul von Hindenburg, who praised the achievements of the ship, and those who had designed, built, and flown it.[40]

Mediterranean flights (1929)Edit

Flown ppc carried by the Graf Zeppelin to Syria on the "Mittelmeerfahrt 1929"

In early 1929 the airship made two trips over the Mediterranean. On the first trip to the eastern Mediterranean in late March 1929, it carried 25 passengers and 16,000 letters to make four mail drops at Jaffa, Athens, Budapest and Vienna.[41] The airship flew over Palestine, Egypt and Athens before returning to Friedrichshafen after completing a journey of 8,000 km (5,000 mi; 4,300 nmi) in 81 hours.[42] The second Mediterranean cruise took place in late April, flying over France, Spain, Portugal and Tangier.[43] The airship returned to Friedrichshafen after flying north over Cannes and Lyons in a flight of 57 hours.[44]

Forced landing in France (1929)Edit

Cover autographed by Dr. Hugo Eckener flown on the troubled flight of May/August 1929

The Graf Zeppelin came close to being lost seven months after its maiden flight while attempting to make its second trip to the United States in May 1929. Shortly after dark on 16 May, the first night of the flight ("1. Amerikafahrt 1929"), the airship lost power in two of its five engines while over the Mediterranean off the southwest coast of Spain, forcing Eckener to abandon the trip and turn back towards Friedrichshafen. Flying against a stiff headwind up the Rhône Valley in France the next afternoon, two of the remaining three engines also failed, resulting in a loss of headway and the airship being pushed backwards toward the sea.[45][46]

With Eckener desperately looking for a suitable place to force-land the airship, the French Air Ministry allowed him to land at the Naval Airship Base at Cuers-Pierrefeu, about 16 km (9.9 mi; 8.6 nmi) from Toulon.[47] Although barely able to control the ship on its one remaining engine, Eckener made a successful emergency night landing at Cuers.[48] The Graf Zeppelin was kept in the hangar which had once housed the Dixmude (former German Navy LZ 114)[49] and later the LZ-121, Nordstern.[50] The engines were replaced with working ones sent by train from Friedrichshafen.[51]

After temporary repairs, the Graf Zeppelin returned to Friedrichshafen on 24 May. On 1 August 1929, the airship made another attempt to cross the Atlantic for Lakehurst, arriving on 4 August.[45]

Round-the-world flight (1929)Edit

Flown $3.55 US franked Weltrundfahrt 1929 Lakehurst to Lakehurst US Airmail cover

At the behest of American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, whose media empire was the major commercial backer of the project with four staffers among the flight's nine passengers, the Graf Zeppelin's "Round-the-World" (Weltrundfahrt 1929) flight in August 1929 officially began and ended at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey.[52] As with many of the airship's other flights, its expenses were offset by the carriage of souvenir mail to and/or from Lakehurst, Friedrichshafen, Tokyo, and Los Angeles. A US franked letter flown on the whole trip from Lakehurst to Lakehurst, for instance, required US$3.55 in postage or the equivalent of roughly $50 in 2019 dollars if based on the consumer price index. The $200,000[52] Hearst paid for exclusive media rights would currently be the equivalent of $3 million if adjusted on the same basis.[53]

As with the October 1928 flight to New York, Hearst correspondent Lady Grace Drummond-Hay was on board, making her the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by air.[54] Also representing Hearst were the correspondent Karl von Wiegand, the Australian explorer Hubert Wilkins, and the photographer and newsreel cameraman Robert Hartmann. The US government was represented by the naval airshipmen Lt. Commander Charles Rosendahl and Lieutenant Jack C. Richardson, who flew as official observers.[52][55] A semidocumentary film titled Farewell was released in 2009 which featured much of the newsreel footage of Drummond-Hay shot by Hartmann during the flight. The film was later aired on the BBC under the title Around The World by Zeppelin.[56]

The Graf Zeppelin flew back across the Atlantic to Friedrichshafen to refuel before continuing across Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and the vastness of Siberia to Tokyo (Kasumigaura Naval Air Station) on a 101-hour-49-minute nonstop leg covering 11,743 km (7,297 mi; 6,341 nmi).[55] Although the Soviet government had requested that the Graf Zeppelin overfly Moscow, Eckener declined because of the necessity "to take advantage of the tailwinds and remain on the straight airline without deviation or halt" necessary in order to reach Tokyo nonstop, a decision which resulted in considerable disappointment and annoyance on the part of the Soviets.[57] (To make amends, a year later the "Graf Zeppelin" made a special two-day round trip flight from Friedrichshafen to Moscow on 9–10 September 1930 landing briefly to collect souvenir mail at Moscow's October Field, where it was greeted by a crowd of 100,000 people.[58]) Crossing the inadequately mapped Stanovoy Mountains in Siberia forced the Graf Zeppelin to climb to 6,000 feet in order to clear the range through a high mountain canyon with barely 150 feet to spare.[59] After five days in Tokyo, the Graf Zeppelin continued across the Pacific to California crossing the coast at San Francisco's Golden Gate, before landing at Mines Field in Los Angeles thus completing the first ever nonstop flight of any kind across the Pacific Ocean, covering 9,634 km (5,986 mi; 5,202 nmi) in 79 hours and 54 minutes.[55][60]

Commemorative pin for the Round the World Flight

The takeoff from Los Angeles was difficult because of high temperatures. To lighten the airship, several crew were sent on to Lakehurst by aeroplane, and the minimum of fuel and food were carried. The ship barely cleared electricity cables at the edges of the field.[61] The 4,822 km (2,996 mi; 2,604 nmi), 51-hour-13-minute transcontinental flight across the United States took the Graf Zeppelin over 13 states and El Paso, Kansas City, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, before arriving back at Lakehurst from the west on the morning of 29 August, three weeks after it had departed to the east on 8 August. Flying time for the four Lakehurst to Lakehurst legs was 12 days, 12 hours, and 13 minutes while the entire circumnavigation (including stops) took 21 days, 5 hours, and 31 minutes and covered 33,234 km (20,651 mi; 17,945 nmi).[55] It was the fastest circumnavigation of the globe at the time.[62] On the final leg back to Germany, Eckener had to remain in the US so turned command over to Lehmann. A passenger was caught smoking, which was very strictly forbidden on the Graf Zeppelin. He was held in contempt by the other passengers; Lehmann had no means of punishing or confining him.[63]

Eckener became the tenth recipient and third aviator in 42 years to be awarded the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society, which was presented to him on 27 March 1930 before a crowd of 5,000 at the Washington Auditorium in Washington, DC "for his work in furthering the progress of airships, and to commemorate the first around-the-world flight of the Graf Zeppelin."[64] Before returning to Germany Eckener also met with President Herbert Hoover as well as the US Postmaster General whom he successfully lobbied for a special three stamp issue (C-13, 14 & 15) for use on mail to be carried on the Europe-PanAmerican Flight scheduled to leave Germany in mid-May.[65][66]

Europe-Pan American flight (1930)Edit

Graf Zeppelin flying over the Guanabara Bay, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 25 May 1930

On 26 April 1930 the Graf Zeppelin made a brief visit to England commanded by Lehmann; it flew low over the FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, dipping in salute to King George V, then briefly moored alongside the larger R100 at Cardington, before returning to Germany with Eckener in command.[67] In May the LZ 127 made its first visit to South America as part of a triangular flight between Spain, Brazil, and the United States. Providing passenger, express freight, and air mail service between Germany, Spain and South America was an early consideration in the design of LZ-127.[68] It was intended in 1928 to offer passage between Friedrichshafen, Germany, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for 1,500 RM ($356).[69] The 1930 flight originated in Friedrichshafen on 18 May and stopped in Seville before leaving Europe. The airship arrived in Brazil first at Recife (Pernambuco) docking at Campo do Jiquiá on 22 May, where it was greeted by a crowd of more than 15,000, then flew on to Rio de Janeiro. The airship then flew back north to Lakehurst, New Jersey, before heading east over the Atlantic on 2 June to return to Germany with another stop in Seville. This flight led to the establishment two years later of the Graf Zeppelin's regularly scheduled commercial passenger, mail, and freight service between Germany and Brazil from 1932 to May 1937.

$2.60 Europe-Pan American issue (C-15) April 24, 1930

As with so many of its major journeys, the Europe-Pan American flight was largely funded by souvenir mail franked with special stamps issued by Spain, Brazil, and the United States valid only for franking mail carried on one or more legs of the trip.[70] The US issued stamps in three denominations: 65¢ (C-13: 1,135,000 printed; approx 20,000 sold/distributed), $1.30 (C-14: 1,005,000; 30,000), and $2.60 (C-14: 1.070.000; 5,000) all three of which were issued on 19 April 1930.

With the US in the depths of the Great Depression, only about 7% of the very expensive stamps that had been produced had been distributed when the issue was withdrawn from sale on 30 June. The more than three million unsold stamps were destroyed by the US Post Office thus making the three Graf Zeppelin issues by far the USPOD's smallest of the 20th century. Despite the poor sales of these issues, the US Post Office Department paid the Zeppelin Company $100,000 for the carriage of US franked mail on the flight.[71]

Middle East flight (1931)Edit

Stereograph of LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin flying over Cairo on 10 April 1931.

The Graf Zeppelin had visited Palestine in April 1929 and the second flight to the Middle East took place in 1931 with a flight to Cairo, beginning on 9 April and where the airship landed less than two days later. After a brief stop, the Graf Zeppelin proceeded to Palestine before returning to Friedrichshafen on 13 April. The trip took 97 hours, covered 9,000 km (5,600 mi; 4,900 nmi) and crossed 14 countries on three continents.

Polar flight (1931)Edit

The idea of using airships to explore the Arctic had been a dream of Count Zeppelin 20 years earlier, but could not be realised due to the outbreak of World War I.[72][73] Roald Amundsen had taken a Dornier Wal flying boat to the Arctic in July 1925, and commented that an airship would have been a better vehicle for the journey.[74] Arctic exploration was one reason used to justify the building of Graf Zeppelin, and the restoration of Germany's right to build airships for commercial purposes.[75] Eckener had taken the Graf Zeppelin on a three-day trip to Norway and Spitsbergen in July 1930 in order to determine its performance in this region. This was followed by a three-day flight to Iceland. Both trips were completed without technical problems.

In July 1931 the Graf Zeppelin made a research trip to the Arctic (Polarfahrt 1931).[76] The initial idea was to rendezvous with the Nautilus (SS-73), the American submarine operated by the Australian polar explorer Hubert Wilkins, who was attempting a trip under the polar ice. This plan was abandoned when the submarine encountered recurring technical problems that led to her scuttling in a fjord at Bergen, Norway.[N 3]

USSR franked Polar Flight ppc delivered to the Malygin

Plans were then altered to make a rendezvous with a surface vessel to be funded by exchanging souvenir mail with the ship. Around fifty thousand cards and letters were collected from around the world weighing a total of about 300 kg (660 lb). The rendezvous vessel, the Soviet icebreaker Malygin, on which the Italian airshipman and polar explorer Umberto Nobile was a guest, carried another 120 kg (260 lb) of mail to exchange. The major costs of the expedition were met largely by sale of special postage stamps issued by both Germany (as overprints) and the Soviet Union to frank the mail carried on the flight.[78]

The polar flight took one week from 24–31 July 1931. The Graf Zeppelin travelled about 10,600 km (6,600 mi; 5,700 nmi) with the longest leg without refuelling being 8,600 km (5,300 mi; 4,600 nmi). The average speed was 88 km/h (55 mph; 48 kn).[N 4]

The goals of the polar flight were to test the Graf Zeppelin under Arctic conditions, and to make scientific and geographic research of large areas of the Arctic, including measurement of magnetic field changes, meteorological measurements (including weather balloon launches), and photographing large areas with a panoramic camera far faster than by ship or land.[76]

Century of Progress flight (1933)Edit

Century of Progress flown cover franked with C-18

While returning to Germany from Brazil in October 1933, the Graf Zeppelin stopped at Miami (NAS Opa Locka) and then in Akron, Ohio where it visited the Goodyear-Zeppelin Company's airdock before proceeding to the Century of Progress World's Fair in Chicago. After circling over the fair and landing for a 25-minute visit there, the Graf Zeppelin returned to Akron for two days, visited Canada, overflew the White House, then left for Friedrichshafen with an overnight stop in Seville.[79] The United States Post Office Department issued a special 50-cent airmail stamp (C-18) to commemorate the visit. Many of these stamps were used to frank souvenir mail carried on the Graf Zeppelin on its return flight to Germany. The visit was the fifth and final one that the LZ 127 made to the United States.

Deutschlandfahrt (1936)Edit

Deutschlandfahrt propaganda leaflet

In March 1936 the Graf Zeppelin and the newly launched dirigible LZ 129 Hindenburg were commandeered by the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda or Propagandaministerium), as vehicles for the delivery of Nazi propaganda.[80]

On 7 March 1936, German troops had entered and occupied the Rhineland, a region bordering the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France, which had been designated in the Treaty of Versailles in 1920 as a demilitarised zone to provide a buffer between Germany and those neighbouring countries. In order to justify its militarisation — which was a violation of the 1925 Locarno Pact[81] — a post hoc plebiscite was called by Hitler for 29 March to ask the German people to ratify the Rhineland's occupation, and to approve a single party list composed exclusively of Nazi candidates to sit in the new Reichstag.

The two airships were designated by the government as a key part of the process by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels who demanded that the Zeppelin Company make both available to fly in tandem around Germany over the four-day period prior to the vote, with a joint departure from Löwenthal on the morning of 26 March.[82] As millions of Germans watched from below, the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg flew over Germany for four days and three nights, dropping propaganda leaflets, playing martial music and slogans from large loudspeakers, and broadcasting political speeches from a makeshift radio studio on board the Hindenburg.[83]

Commercial operations and forced retirement (1932–1937)Edit

Zeppelin hangar in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

In its last five years of service Graf Zeppelin proved that an intercontinental commercial airship service was possible.[84] For those years it operated regular scheduled services between Germany and South America.[85] The Zeppelin Company built a large hangar in Rio de Janeiro, then Brazil's capital city, with a subsidy from the Brazilian government. Designed and assembled with parts brought from Germany, the hangar was used nine times: four by the Graf Zeppelin and five by the LZ-129 Hindenburg.

LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin over Rio de Janeiro

The Graf Zeppelin was too small and slow for the North Atlantic service,[85][86][87] yet because of the Blau gas fuel, was capable of carrying out the South Atlantic route.[88][N 5] The onset of the Great Depression led to a drastic reduction in the number of flights being made by the airship which, having logged almost 200 flights in 1930–31, made fewer than 60 in 1932.[90]

The Graf Zeppelin over Buenos Aires in 1934

On 25 April 1935 the airship had a rough forced landing short of the destination at Recife when it was caught in a sudden tropical downpour and the added weight of water caused it to sink. The lower rudder was lost, the outer envelope was ripped in several places, and a petrol tank was punctured by a palm tree. The damage was repaired when the ship returned to Friedrichshafen.[91][92]

In late 1935 the existing postal shuttle service between Bathurst, in the British African colony of the Gambia, and Recife in Brazil, had to be suspended so that the ships supporting the Dornier Wal flying boats could be serviced. The Graf Zeppelin was put into service as a replacement, carrying mail only. There was no landing facility at Bathurst, so mail was exchanged without landing. The first departure from Recife was on 15 November. On 24 November, while en route, the ship was advised of a developing insurrection in Brazil, and there was some doubt whether it would be possible to complete the journey. Recife was the only accessible port capable of refilling the ship with hydrogen. The ship delivered the mail it carried to Maceió, then waited for three days to see what would happen, a world record for an airship hold.[93] Order was restored. Graf Zeppelin returned to Germany from this duty on 10 December.[94]

The loss of the D-LZ 129 Hindenburg at Lakehurst on 6 May 1937 shattered public faith in the safety of hydrogen-filled airships, making the continuation of their commercial passenger operations unsustainable unless the Graf Zeppelin and the still under construction LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II could convert to non-flammable helium, the only alternative lifting gas for airships. Unlike the relatively inexpensive and easily available hydrogen, the vast majority of the world's available supplies of the much more costly, less buoyant helium (which is extracted from natural gas) were controlled by the United States. Since 1925, the export of helium had been tightly restricted by Congress, although there is no record that the German Government had ever applied for an export license for helium to use in its airships prior to the Hindenburg's crash and fire.[95]

Though it is much safer than hydrogen, the expense, lack of availability, and degradation in lifting performance that converting to helium would impose on the Graf Zeppelin made its continued operation no longer commercially viable. The day after the Hindenburg disaster, the nine-year-old LZ 127 was grounded and withdrawn from service on its arrival in Friedrichshafen after a flight from Brazil on 8 May 1937. Six weeks later, on 18 June, the airship was ferried to Frankfurt am Main on its 590th and final flight. In 1938, the LZ 127 was transferred from Hangar 1 at Frankfurt to the adjacent Hangar 2, so that the LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II could be housed in Hangar 1.

The Graf Zeppelin had already been decommissioned and retired after the Hindenburg disaster, when President Roosevelt approved and forwarded a Cabinet report to Congress that supported exporting enough helium to Germany to permit the launched Hindenburg class LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin II, which was designed to use either hydrogen or helium, to resume commercial transatlantic passenger service by 1939.[96] By early 1938, firm opposition by Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, one of the six statutory members of the National Munitions Control Board, to a German request to purchase up to 280,000 cubic metres (10,000,000 cu ft) of helium made that impossible.[97] At a White House press briefing on 11 May 1938, President Roosevelt's press secretary Stephen Early announced that the President could not approve the sale of helium to Germany. Eckener responded that it would be "the death sentence for commercial lighter-than-air craft."[97]

The Graf Zeppelin II made 30 test, promotional, propaganda and military surveillance flights around Europe between its launch in mid-September 1938 and its last flight on 20 August 1939, 10 days before the formal start of World War II in Europe, but never entered commercial passenger service. On 4 March 1940, German Air Minister Hermann Göring ordered both the original Graf Zeppelin (LZ 127) and the Graf Zeppelin II (LZ 130) to be scrapped, and their duralumin airframes to be melted down for reuse by the German military aircraft industry.[21][98]


Internal components and gas cell locations shown schematically, excluding passenger and engine gondolas. Key:
ACP = Auxiliary control post
red = AC = axial corridor running from main ring −2 to the front mooring hub
blue = LC = lower corridor running from main ring 20 to ring 211 ending at ladder to axial corridor
orange = WC = crew's toilet
beige = CQ = crew's quarters with tables, chairs and berths
beige = B = berths or cargo space
blue stripes = A = ventilation shaft
green stripes = CS = climbing shaft
brown stripes GE = exhaust gas shaft
brown box = O = oil tanks
yellow box = P = petrol tanks
light blue box = W = water tank
OP = Observation post on top of hull
pink cell = H2 = hydrogen gas cell
magenta cell = BG = Blau gas cell

Data from [99]

General characteristics

  • Crew: 36
  • Capacity: 20 pax / Typical disposable load 19,900 kg (43,900 lb)
  • Length: 236.6 m (776 ft 3 in)
  • Diameter: 30.5 m (100 ft 1 in) maximum
  • Fineness ratio: 7.25
  • Volume: 75,000 m3 (2,600,000 cu ft) hydrogen + 30,000 m3 (1,100,000 cu ft) Blau gas capacity
  • Number of gas cells: 16
  • Empty weight: 67,100 kg (147,930 lb)
  • Fuel capacity: 8,000 kg (18,000 lb) petrol + 30,000 m3 (1,100,000 cu ft) Blau gas
  • Useful lift: 87,000 kg (192,000 lb) typical gross lift
  • Powerplant: 5 × Maybach VL2 V-12 water-cooled reversible piston engines, 410 kW (550 hp) each
  • Propellers: 4-bladed propellers


  • Maximum speed: 128.16 km/h (79.63 mph, 69.20 kn)
  • Range: 10,000 km (6,200 mi, 5,400 nmi) at 117 km/h (73 mph; 63 kn)

See alsoEdit

Moving images of the Graf Zeppelin flying over the Netherlands in 1929



  1. ^ Total capital of the company was 9,550,000 Reichsmarks apportioned as follows: Luftshiffbau Zeppelin, 5,700,000; Deutsche Lufthansa for its own account, 400,000 RM; Deutsche Lufthansa in trust for the Air Ministry, 3,450,000 RM
  2. ^ "'Flying down to Rio' on board the giant liner of the skies, the Graf-Zeppelin."[23]
  3. ^ The scuttling was mandated by a US-UK treaty.[77]
  4. ^
    • Friedrichshafen–Berlin – 600 km (370 mi; 320 nmi) in 8 hours (75 km/h; 47 mph)
    • Berlin–Leningrad – 1,400 km (870 mi; 760 nmi) in 16 hours (87 km/h; 54 mph)
    • Leningrad–Kanin – 1,300 km (810 mi; 700 nmi) in 12 hours (108 km/h; 67 mph)
    • Kanin–Franz-Joseph-Land – 1,200 km (750 mi; 650 nmi) in 18 hours (67 km/h; 42 mph)
    • Franz-Joseph-Land–Nordland–Taimyr–Novaya Zemlya – 2,400 km (1,500 mi; 1,300 nmi) in 32 hours (75 km/h; 47 mph)
    • Novaya Zemlya–Leningrad – 2,300 km (1,400 mi; 1,200 nmi) in 25 hours (92 km/h; 57 mph)
    • Leningrad–Berlin – 1,400 km (870 mi; 760 nmi) in 13 hours (108 km/h; 67 mph)
    • Berlin–Friedrichshafen – 600 km (370 mi; 320 nmi) in 8 hours (75 km/h; 47 mph)
  5. ^ Typical Friedrichshafen–Rio de Janeiro journey times were under 100 hours, and under 110 on the return journey. The rougher and less predictable weather in the North Atlantic often caused diversions and delays; even though the distance was far shorter, average times were 96 hours westbound and 76 eastbound, with one westbound trip taking 111 hours.[89]


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  • Archbold, Rick (1994). Hindenburg : an illustrated history. Toronto, Canada: Penguin Books Canada. ISBN 978-0-670852-25-3.
  • Bauer, Manfred; Duggan, John (1998). LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin und das Ende der Verkehrsluftschiffahrt (First ed.). Friedrichshafen, Germany: Zeppelin-Museum. ISBN 978-3-926162-79-3.
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  • Curley, Walter (1970). The Graf Zeppelin's flights to South America 1930–1937. Cardinal Spellman Philatelic Museum.
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  • Foss, Richard (2014). Food in the air and space : the surprising history of food and drink in the skies. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-1442227286.
  • Geisenheyer, Max (1929). Mit 'Graf Zeppelin' Um Die Welt: Ein Bild-Buch. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Frankfurter Societäts-Druckerei. ISBN 978-1-44222-728-6.
  • Lehmann, Ernst (1937). Zeppelin: The Story of Lighter-than-air Craft. London, UK: Longmans, Green and Co. ISBN 978-1-78155-012-0.
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  • Robinson, Douglas H (1975). Giants in the sky : a history of the rigid airship. Seattle, Washington, US: University of Washington Press. ISBN 978-0-295-95249-9.
  • Swinfield, John (2013). Airship: Design, Development and Disaster. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 307. ISBN 978-1-84486-209-2.
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  • Vaeth, J Gordon (1958). Graf Zeppelin: The Adventures Of An Aerial Globetrotter. New York City, US: Harper & Brothers.
  • Ventry, Lord; Kolesnik, Eugene M (1982). Airship saga : the history of airships seen through the eyes of the men who designed, built, and flew them. Poole, UK: Blandford Press. ISBN 978-0-7137-1001-4.

Further readingEdit

  • Botting, Douglas. Dr. Eckener's Dream Machine: The Great Zeppelin and the Dawn of Air Travel. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2001. ISBN 0-8050-6458-3.
  • Duggan, John (2002). LZ 129 Hindenburg : the complete story. Ickenham, UK: Zeppelin Study Group. ISBN 0-9514114-8-9.
  • "Honors to Dr. Hugo Eckener: The First Airship Flight Around the World." National Geographic Magazine Vol. LVII, No. 6, June 1930, pp. 653–688.
  • Horton, Edward. The Age of the Airship. Glasgow: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1973. ISBN 0-283-97930-5.
  • Provan, John. LZ-127 "Graf Zeppelin": The story of an Airship, vol. 1 & vol. 2 (Amazon Kindle ebook). Pueblo, Colorado: Luftschiff Zeppelin Collection, 2011.

External linksEdit