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First flight of airship Hindenburg in 1936

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First flight of airship Hindenburg in 1936
A photo of the Hindenburg on its maiden voyage used on postcards. Photo:Wikimedia Commons
15:28 CET+01:00
No-one on board the Hindenburg for its first flight in 1936 could have imagined the tragedy that would befall the airship just a year after that maiden voyage.

At around 3pm on March 4th, 55 crewmen and 30 passengers were aboard the Hindenburg as it was moored in Friedrichshafen, Bavaria, on the shores of Lake Constance.

"Any number of engineers and dock workers were aboard," as well as designer and technical director Ludwig Dürr, Barbara Waibel of the Zeppelin Airship Works Archive said.

Dürr "wanted to see how his latest ship handled", she explained.

Zeppelins LZ127 "Graf Zeppelin" and LZ129 "Hindenburg" above the Berlin cathedral in 1937. Photo: DPA

The flight lasted a total of three hours and six minutes, covering 180 kilometres and allowing the crew to test the ship's rudders, turning circle, speed and sonar system at a height of around 700 metres.

"The exact route isn't recorded in the flight report, but they mostly criss-crossed above the Bodensee [the German name for Lake Constance]," Waibel said.

Only a few precious images of that first tentative test flight remain.

"You can see in the pictures that a real cloud of smoke is released when the ship sets off," Waibel noted.

"That was dust from the hangar, because the ship had been under construction for such a long time."

The shell of the airship Hindenburg under construction at the Zeppelin works in Friedrichshafen. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Years in the making

Planning for the Hindenburg, alias Zeppelin LZ129, had been going on since 1930, and it was to be the crowning glory of German airship technology.

To this day it remains the record-holder as the largest air-going vehicle that has ever been built by mankind, at 245 metres long with a diameter of 41.2 metres, Waibel said.

A comfortably-appointed dining room aboard the Hindenburg featuring a world map on the wall. Photo: Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia Commons

As well as being an engineering marvel, it was a luxury liner, with a lounge featuring well-stuffed armchairs and a huge black piano, a smoking room with drawings of the ship, and even a writing room.

What's in a name

But between 1930 and the ship's first flight in 1936, a darkness had fallen over Germany that was reflected in the choice of its name.

Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg had been one of the top German commanders in the First World War.

Despite the defeat of 1918, the aging former general became the object of hero-worship in the inter-war Weimar Republic, eventually becoming Reich President in 1925.

Paul von Hindenburg. Photo: Staatsbilbliothek zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz/Wikimedia Commons

It was Hindenburg who, at the urging of conservative forces who believed they could control the upstart Nazi leader, named Hitler to the Chancellorship in 1933.

The field marshal was a symbol of past German glory and of the courage of the army, which many believed had been defeated by a "stab in the back" from cowardly politicians and Jews on the home front rather than in the field.

It was the perfect propagandistic name for a vessel that was to carry the flag of Hitler's resurgent Germany through the skies across the world.

Tragedy strikes

But fate had other plans for LZ129, and it was just a year later that the final catastrophe struck at Lakehurst, New Jersey.

In just a year, the Hindenburg had travelled 337,129 kilometres between Germany and the Americas.

It had carried 7,305 passengers, 9,758 kilos of freight and 8,869 kilos of post on eight round trips to South America and eleven to North America.

The airship Hindenburg in the skies over New York. Photo: DPA

But as it arrived in Lakehurst on the evening of May 6th 1937, fire broke out in the tail of the ship, and within seconds the entire vessel burned up as its hydrogen gasbags were consumed.

The toll stood at 36 people dead, including 13 passengers, 22 crew and a ground crew worker.

A new era?

After the Hindenburg catastrophe, 60 years passed before airships returned to the skies over the Bodensee – and they became a much rarer sight worldwide.

But in September 1997 the first Zeppelin NT (New Technology) made a maiden flight for 45 minutes over Friedrichshafen.

"The airship era at that time was an unbelievable technical achievement," said Thomas Brandt of the German Zeppelin Transport Company (DZR) in Friedrichshafen.

"We are proud that today, 80 years later, we can offer regular passenger flight service as a unique experience."

A modern Zeppelin NT airship is stowed in its hangar in March 2015. Photo: DPA

Unlike its distant ancestor, the latest Zeppelin model needs just 8,000 cubic metres of gas to lift off – far less than the 200,000 pumped into the Hindenburg.

That gas, too is different. Rather than highly flammable hydrogen, helium is now used to provide the lighter-than-air buoyancy needed to lift the airship's load off the ground.

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