Tim Blagg

Blagg: Placing stamp on air travel

Back in 1929, a giant airship, the Graf Zeppelin, slowly left its mooring at Lakehurst, N.J., and moved east, flying over New York City, its five engines roaring and headed out over the Atlantic.

Twenty-one days later, the airship was back in New Jersey, having circled the world and traveled some 31,000 miles without a mishap. Its 40 crew members and 20 passengers had traveled in comfort and quiet, enjoying the view from its open windows while dining on gourmet food served on china plates and fine wine in crystal glasses.

Compare that experience with that of Charles Lindbergh, who only two years earlier had risked his life flying in considerable discomfort from Long Island to Paris in a specially constructed single-engine aircraft.

It’s no wonder that rigid airships were considered the future of air travel.

And, while several pilots and crew had been killed trying to cross the Atlantic, the safety record of Zeppelins was long and solid.

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had begun building airships back in 1893. By 1910, Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-AG (DELAG), was using Zeppelins to become the world’s first airline carrying paying passengers on regularly scheduled flights. By mid-1914, just before the outbreak of World War I, DELAG had carried more than 10,000 passengers on over 1,500 flights without a fatality.

In the meantime, airplanes were barely beyond the Wright brothers’ stage of development.

When the war began, both the German army and navy immediately placed orders for military models. While the navy used theirs for scouting ahead of the fleet, the army made plans to begin the world’s first organized aerial bombing of civilians.

This “blitz” attack on Britain killed more than 500 people over several years.

After the war, Zeppelin built an airship for the United States Navy (it became USS Los Angeles) and then went back into commercial work, building the Graf Zeppelin in 1928. It was 776 feet long and was filled with both hydrogen and “blau gas.” The hydrogen provided the lift for the airship, while the blau gas, which is similar to propane and is approximately the same density as air, provided fuel for the engines.

Since burning it as fuel didn’t change the weight of the airship, there was no need to compensate for its loss, as there would have been for gasoline or diesel fuel.

Graf Zeppelin could cruise at 75 mph for about 100 hours. It had 10 cabins which could handle a total of 24 passengers, a dining room, and a sitting room with large windows.

Because the airship’s engines were so far away, there was no vibration and only a slight background noise.

During its career, the Graf Zeppelin flew more than a million miles, made 590 flights, 144 oceanic crossings (143 across the Atlantic, one across the Pacific), carried 13,110 passengers, and spent 717 days aloft — all without a single injury.

Its round the world cruise was partially subsidized by the sale of postage covers and special stamps ... and that leads to a local connection.

Local stamp collector and enthusiast Harry Stafursky has been working energetically to set up a special meeting of the Franklin Stamp Club for Monday, June 2, at 7 p.m. at the south end of the Millhouse in Greenfield. There will be a display of Zeppelin-related stamps and a general aeronautical theme at the meeting, which Stafursky hopes will help bring in new members for the club — or at least casual visitors who are interested in this subject.

While passengers paid premium fares to fly on zeppelin, it made much of its money from freight and air mail — it could carry 52,000 postcards and 50,000 letters on each flight.

Stafursky kindly loaned me two priceless books about Zeppelins, which he got from their owner, Jim Bellany. They’re in German, and they detail the career of Count von Zeppelin, his airships, and the famous circumnavigation.

When most people think of rigid airships, they think of the Hindenburg and its tragic, fiery end at the mooring mast in Lakehurst in 1937. And many don’t realize that the dirigible’s smaller, less rigid cousins, the blimps, served this country well during WWII, when they safely escorted hundreds of ships through U-boat-infested waters.

Today’s commercial blimps are a familiar sight in the skies over sporting events, but they are small fries in the world of lighter-than-air aircraft. It would take 38 Goodyear blimps to equal the carrying capacity of one Graf Zeppelin.

It’s a fascinating subject, and if you’d like a glimpse into that long forgotten world, drop in at the Millhouse on June 2.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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