Zeppelin - Friedrichshafen

Friedrichshafen – The Cradle of Aviation

Martina Roters
4 pictures
10 minutes

Build on the water – take off into the air! Why of all places was aviation history written at Lake Constance…

July 2, 1919 – a historic date. Exactly 100 years ago, the first transatlantic crossing was made in an airship! It would even have been the first transatlantic crossing by a hair’s breadth, if not … But let’s start at the beginning.

When you think of airships, you think of zeppelins – and of course their builder Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. As a young man, after an audience with Abraham Lincoln, he took part in the Secession War as a German observer. There, he experienced the military use of captive balloons and made his first balloon flight in 1863. Since then, he was driven by the idea that the lack of controllability had to be remedied somehow.

Zeppelin precursors

The Hungarian aviation pioneer David Schwarz, a wealthy timber merchant, had been involved in the construction of a rigid ship with an outer hull made of what was then a new, lightweight material, aluminium.

The maiden flight of its construction with a nacelle and a Daimler engine planned for 1896 had to be postponed because the hydrogen gas supplied did not have the required quality for buoyancy. It could only be delivered 3 months later; tragically, he died of a haemorrhage the day the news of the delivery reached him. It was due to his energetic widow Melanie Schwarz that the ship was able to take off from Berlin Tempelhof on November 3, 1897. It reached a height of 400 meters, but then crash-landed.

Money problems and headwinds

His later chief designer Ludwig Dürr explained in a sound interview:

The Count wanted to have a hall for his ship that was always adjusted to the direction of the wind. He therefore built it floating on the lake, which was anchored at its tip. So they could always adjust the hall in the direction of the wind. Another reason why the Count chose Lake Constance was that the large area of water cost nothing. The hall was finished in the spring of 1899. And the assembly of the hull was started immediately.

Ludwig Dürr, Chief Designer

Although in the promising first year of the 20th century the first Zeppelin successfully ascended in Friedrichshafen, the count remained “the dumbest of all Southern Germans” in the eyes of Emperor Wilhelm II. But the people were increasingly enthusiastic about the “cigars” in the sky, even though Count Zeppelin – due to a series of accidents with airships – was still called a “fool of Lake Constance”.

An accident brought the turning point

In order to receive government money, the Zeppelin had to prove its suitability: through a 24-hour journey. On August 4, 1908, Zeppelin took off with his 4th airship, the LZ4, for a journey from Friedrichshafen via Basel, Strasbourg, Mainz, and back to Friedrichshafen.

On the morning of 5 August the ship was over Stuttgart-Echterdingen. Initially acclaimed by the population as a sensation. But then it was said that the Zeppelin had landed. Immediately crowds of people flocked to the landing site, a meadow. What had happened? There had been an engine failure! Then a thunderstorm came with strong gusts of wind, the zeppelin broke loose, collided with trees and went up in flames.

There were no deaths to mourn, but it would have been the deathblow for the project if it had not been spontaneously fired on the spot, probably by the flaming speech of a stranger, that people would have started donating money to build a new zeppelin. Count Zeppelin seized the opportunity, melted down the aluminium of the outer skin and sold it as spoons and bowls for the legendary “Zeppelin Donation of the German People”.

Birth of the Zeppelin Stones

The first “Zeppelin stone” was also erected at the site of the accident (over the years, many more Zeppelin stones were built at places marked by Zeppelin events). It was a memorial stone with a portrait of the count. The inscription reflects the national enthusiasm at that time:

Ferdinand Count of Zeppelin / wikimedia commons (Bild Unterschrift)
By Christmas Eve, the Zeppelin donation had yielded six million marks, an enormous sum by the standards of the time. By way of comparison, the Emperor had subsidized Zeppelin’s project with a total of 6,000 Marks.


The money enabled Zeppelin to establish Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH and the Zeppelin Foundation. In 1913, he founded the Zeppelin Wohlfahrt, which gave Friedrichshafen its own district: the Zeppelin village. 76 houses were built here, with fruit and vegetable gardens and suitable for keeping small cattle. For the workforce was growing and growing. 

After the army bought the first zeppelins, they were used in the First World War for reconnaissance and later also for bombing. Since the airships were magnificent targets for the increasingly better aircraft, they had to climb higher and higher to hide above the cloud cover.

This restricted the view downwards; some military targets were missed, but civilian facilities such as schools and hospitals were hit, which earned the zeppelins the name “Babykillers” in the English press. 

Later, they experimented with spy baskets in which a crew member was lowered in a small gondola on an almost kilometre-long steel cable and could direct the airship by field telephone. Or it was only launched on moonlit nights.

Militarily, the balance was not very positive: About two thirds of the 88 zeppelins produced during the war were lost, half of them shot down, the rest involved accidents. The fact that they were, however, used for a very long time was certainly also due to the psychological effect of the “baby killers”. The bombing of the airships had deprived the British of their collective idea of the invulnerability of their island.

The first transatlantic crossing by airship – no Zeppelin (well, how you take it)

On 23.9.1916 a zeppelin of the R-class – also called super zeppelins – was on its way to the bombing of London. The English air defence landed a hit in one of the gas cells and the zeppelin had to make an emergency landing in Wigborough/Essex. The crew set the airship on fire (after knocking on various farmhouses to warn the inhabitants of the explosion). 

Although the airship burned out completely, the soot-blackened metal skeleton revealed enough. The British government commissioned the company “Beardmore Inchinnan Airship factory” to rebuild it: So the sister ships R33 and R34 were built just one mile from Glasgow Airport.

The R34 had the nickname “Tiny”, which of course was typical British humour, because the ship was 196 meters long (that’s the length of not quite three A380s!) and the fuselage had a diameter of 24 meters. It was completed in 1919 – after the end of the war. So it should make itself useful elsewhere – with an Atlantic crossing!

The maiden voyage went well, but at a later test in March, after minor problems in the air due to mistakes of the ground crew during landing, the propellers and the structure were damaged. The repair delayed the transatlantic start and the title “very first non-stop transatlantic crossing” went to pilots John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown in one plane: They flew in a modified Vickers Vimy from Newfoundland to Scotland on June 14, 1919 and reached their destination safely in just over 16 hours despite near crashes and other major problems, including power generator failure (no gyro compass, no heating…).

Two weeks later the R34 set off from East Fortune near Edinburgh for its journey to New York under the direction of Major George Herbert Scott: With 27 men crew, three official passengers, a stowaway passenger and a cat (The stowaway passenger, an original crew member who had to stand back in favour of an American observer, had smuggled the crew mascot on board as well.) 

After 108 hours and 12 minutes, they reached their destination and were greeted with howling sirens and a cheering crowd. For the return journey they only needed 75 hours thanks to favourable winds.

Bypassing the world! Zeppelins around the world

The first Zeppelin built in Friedrichshafen was supposed to travel to America: In 1925 Zeppelin’s successor Hugo Eckener (the count had died in 1917) personally drove the LZ 126 to Lakehurst near New York. In a radio recording he called it “a fairytale ride with sparkling magic”. There the “Angel of Peace” (O-tone President Coolidge) was handed over as reparation payment to the Americans, who then took it into their fleet as “USS Los Angeles”.

The popular Eckener – who was even traded a time as an imperial presidential candidate, managed to collect 2.3 million marks, which was then sufficient with own funds (0.8 million) and imperial subsidy (1.1 million) to build the LZ 127 “Graf Zeppelin”. With it he started the 1929 world trip, via Northern Siberia, Japan, to Los Angeles and back to Friedrichshafen.

From 1928 DELAG (Deutsche Luftschiffahrts AG), the world’s first airline, sold tickets for its North America line, and two years later the South America line to Rio de Janeiro was established.

With the “Graf Zeppelin” there was also an Arctic and a Palestine trip.

The catastrophe

The LZ 130 Hindenburg, “Queen of the skies”, started in 1930, was supposed to get a helium filling – but the incombustible gas could only be obtained from the Americans and they had already imposed an embargo against Germany for fear that the ship could be used for military purposes. A direct intervention of Eckener at the president was of no use.

The Hindenburg sailed ten times to Lakehurst (NY) and seven times to Rio, always fully booked.

On May 6, 1937, when the ship landed in Lakehurst, a fatal accident occurred in which the ship went up in flames. From 97 persons on board 35 died – by burning or jumping off from too large a height. The emotional live radio report anchored the catastrophe in the memory of the world public.

German and American investigative commissions did not come to an unequivocal conclusion. It was presumably an electrical discharge in the post-storm air, possibly caused by the wet landing ropes that had been thrown off, which ignited escaping hydrogen gas (perhaps due to the tearing of a tension wire).

Since Eckener could never get helium to fill the zeppelins, the catastrophe meant the end for passenger airships. The LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin also went out of service two months after the catastrophe.

You can learn more about the disaster of the Hindenburg in this video:

Count Zeppelin’s Farsightedness

The count had not only supported the founding of companies in Friedrichshafen by important suppliers for his airship. On the one hand there was Zahnradfabrik GmbH, which was founded together with the Swiss engineer Max Maag, who had developed a process for the production of gears of previously unattained precision. 

There were also Maybach Motorenwerke, which reliably supplied the enormously powerful engines for driving the zeppelins. Zeppelin had also understood how much development potential there was in aviation. 

In 1913 he made it possible for his colleague Claude Dornier to visit the Fifth International Aviation Exhibition in Paris and promoted his ideas for flying boats. At the same time, he also developed large land planes.

The Resurrection of the Zeppelin!

Today not only numerous Zeppelin and Eckener streets are witnesses of the aviation success story. Also in the sky you can sometimes see a Zeppelin NT. NT stands for New Technology. Because they are semi-rigid airships. Not as big as their ancestors, only 12 passengers, with a cruising speed of 70 km/h and of course helium-filled. 

Some serve research purposes, others fly tourists, e.g. over Paris. One of them invites you to board in Friedrichshafen – the cradle of aviation. Seasonally also somewhere else.

So how about it?

by Martina Roters

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