Zeppelins Return to the Air
Once, long ago, Zeppelin Airships were considered the “future of aviation.” Proponents envisioned fleets of zeppelins carrying passengers across the Atlantic, and throughout Europe and the United States.
Indeed, regular passenger service began in the mid-thirties. A Zeppelin could cross the Atlantic in two and a half days. At the time, the fastest steamships required five days, and most took seven to ten days. Airships could carry as many as 100 people!
The Empire State Building had a zeppelin mooring platform. There were plans for flights from Europe to dock at the Empire State Building, allowing passengers to disembark in the heart of New York City. However, the updrafts and winds around the city made the approach too hazardous, and the plans were abandoned.
Dreams of commercial Zeppelin traffic came to an abrupt end in May, 1937, when the Hindenburg caught fire and crashed while landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Although the majority of the 97 passengers and crew members survived, the terrifying images caught on film turned the public against airship travel.
Of course, had the Zeppelin been filled with helium, rather than explosive hydrogen, the ship would never have caught fire.
The Hindenburg was not the only large airship to crash, however. The US Navy built several large patrol ships. The USS Akron (stationed in New Jersey) and the USS Macon (stationed in California), each carried crews of more than 75 men, and were even capable of carrying and launching small Sparrowhawk biplane fighters, making them early-day “aircraft carriers.”
Unfortunately, high winds and heavy weather made operating airships very hazardous. Despite being filled with helium, rather than hydrogen, the Akron crashed in 1933, and the Macon in 1935. Both ships were brought down by storms.
Today, airships are used mostly for advertising purposes. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber company operates three in the United States, and there are several smaller airships operating in Europe.
In 2008, a California company called AirShip Ventures began operating a sight-seeing Zeppelin in the San Francisco Bay area. Its first ship, the Eureka, carries two crew members and twelve passengers in wide, comfortable seats. At 246 feet long, it is the largest airship operating in the world today. (The Hindenburg, for comparison, was 803 feet long.)
The Eureka was built by a German venture called Zeppelin NT, which is also constructing several new airships for the Goodyear company.
The airship is headquartered at Moffett Field, near the enormous hangar that housed the Navy airship USS Makon 75 years earlier!
AirShip Ventures offers sight-seeing flights over Silicon Valley, Monterey, and San Francisco.
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