When Blimps Ruled the Air
A dirigible balloon is a lighter-than-air floating airship, also known as a blimp. Balloons filled with hot air large enough to carry humans have been around since the 1600s. However, no blimp has ever been as large as the “zeppelins” that were built in the early 1900s. Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont built 18 of the powered balloons before turning his attention to fixed-wing aircraft.
In the 1920s and 30s, the Nazis set out to build the largest ever airships, and they were known as zeppelins. The two biggest zeppelins ever built were the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg. Emblazoned with the Nazi symbol on their tails, zeppelins flew across the Atlantic, impressing the world. These zeppelins remain the largest flying machines ever created, far bigger than today’s commercial aircraft.
To get an idea of their size, zeppelins were nearly as big as the Titanic. The Hindenburg was 245 meters long. During the 1930s, zeppelins were making regular trips between Frankfurt, Germany and Recife. They later flew to Rio de Janeiro and New Jersey in the US. The trip from Frankfurt to Recife took 68 hours.
While blimps are still flying today, none reach the scale of the early zeppelins. All that remains today of their massive scale is the world’s only remaining original zeppelin hangar in Santa Cruz, about 100 km from Rio de Janeiro.
“It is impossible to grasp the scale of this piece of living history until you are inside,” said Antônio Lopes, a sergeant in the Brazilian Air Force, which now uses the Santa Cruz airfield. “In its day, this was the biggest airplane hangar in the world, 58 meters tall and the length of three football pitches. I’ve worked here for 36 years, and I still find it fascinating.”
Built to house the Graf zeppelin and the Hindenburg, the immense Santa Cruz structure dwarfs the fixed-wing military aircraft that are its current occupants. The hangar was made in Oberhausen, Germany, then shipped in parts across the Atlantic, freighted to the site on a railway built for it by British engineers, and then reassembled.
Brazil was chosen for the first commercial transatlantic airship flights in history because the weather was less of a challenge than routes to the US. The Brazilian public were also considered enthusiastic because they had given a warm welcome to the Graf zeppelin during its groundbreaking circumnavigation of the globe in 1929.
The scheduled zeppelin service for passengers and mail launched in 1931 from Frankfurt to Recife. By today’s standards, the three-day journey would have been tortuously slow, but the 60 mph cruising speed was far faster than any ocean-going vessel of the time.
Passengers traveled in considerable luxury in the zeppelin gondola, which had beds for every passenger, a dining room, a grand piano, and a glass-walled viewing area that allowed passengers to gaze down from less than 1,000 meters at the land and seascapes. The zeppelins were powered by 4 Mercedes-Benz diesel engines and carried about 75 passengers and 50 crew.
The service to Rio lasted just six months and nine trips until May 1937, when the perils of flying about 200,000 cubic meters of flammable hydrogen were made clear in the Hindenburg disaster. Thirty-six people were killed as the Hindenburg zeppelin went down in a ball of flames during a botched landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey.
Until then, the zeppelins had been seen as a symbol of the future. Older Rio residents still recall the thrill of watching the vast transports move slowly over Copacabana beach. José dos Santos was just nine years old at the time and got closer than most because his brother worked at the hangar. He said the zeppelins were so big they looked like “monsters” and appeared “drunk” as they descended.
Only the rich could afford the transatlantic passage on the zeppelins, but José snuck on board for a look at the elegant cabin, making him one of the last people still alive to have set foot on the original zeppelins. Today, Santos, 89, works as a shopkeeper at the hangar. Although modern F-5 jets roar along the runway these days, he is more animated by reminiscences of the zeppelins.
The airship business, which had already been curtailed by the Hindenburg disaster, was ended by war. Blimps were decommissioned because they were too vulnerable and slow. The Frankfurt hangar was dismantled. With the demolition of zeppelin hangars in the US and Recife, this leaves Santa Cruz with the only physical connection to that bygone age of air travel.
The original Zeppelin company still exists and recently resumed small-scale operations with tourist airship flights. Today the airships are filled with helium, a nonflammable gas, instead of hydrogen.
The Santa Cruz zeppelin hangar still carries a sense of grandeur. For some, it even has romance. This weekend, 800 couples are due to be married here in a joint ceremony. Commander of the base, Carlos Roberto Ronconi, was asked whether he would have been willing to fly in a zeppelin. The veteran F-5 pilot shakes his head and laughs, “Oh no. It was much too dangerous.”
[Research for this article comes from The Guardian. Photo credits: Jonathan Watts]