OCTOBER 15, 1928: The first transatlantic passenger flight was completed on this day in 1928 after Germany’s Graf Zeppelin arrived in the U.S.
The 111-hour crossing from Friedrichshafen to Lakehurst, New Jersey marked the beginning of the nine-year airship era, which ended with the Hindenburg disaster.
Ominously, the 6,168-mile journey almost ended in disaster when it encountered a powerful storm, which ripped a large amount of fabric from the airframe.
Also, the first mate was Captain Ernst Lehmann, who would go on to pilot the ill-fated Hinderberg’s last trip.
Yet, despite only escaping its close brush with death after brave crewmen covered the hole with blankets, the Graf Zeppelin was viewed as a welcome revolution in travel.
A British Pathé newsreel filmed the crew – including pilot Dr being cheered by thousands during a ticker-tape parade down New York’s Canyon of Heroes.
The only British passenger, Lady Drummond-Hay, was also pictured posing with the crew.
The return flight went without a hitch, taking just under 72 hours after hitting its top speed of 85mph and being helped by strong tail winds.
Its success was followed by a scheduled airship route between Germany and the U.S. at a time when fixed-wing aeroplanes were not yet seen as a reliable form of transport.
The Graf Zeppelin LZ 127 - named after Count, or in German, Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the airship pioneer – enhanced the reputation with a series of achievements.
It generated huge publicity with its August 1929 round-the-world flight, traveling some 20,651 miles on a journey that started and ended in Lakehurst.
The Graf also stopped at Friedrichshafen, Tokyo, Los Angeles – and spent a total of two days, 12 hours and 13 minutes in the air.
It earned millions of dollars from the exclusive media rights bought by U.S. publisher William Randolph Hearst and sending specially franked mail across the globe.
People even paid the equivalent of $45 in today’s money to send a letter to and from Lakehurst.
The Graf also made a groundbreaking flight to the North Pole in July 1931.
Although, by this time the Great Depression was wreaking havoc on the global economy and luxury travel was hit hard.
The fact that only 25 passengers could fly on a Zeppelin made it hard to make ends meet.
However, it was the May 1937 Hindenburg disaster that irrevocably shattered public faith in hydrogen-filled airships.
The flammable gas exploded just as the Hindenburg was landing at Lakehurst, killing 35 people.
In the aftermath, German operators tried to substitute cheap hydrogen with expensive helium, a lifting gas that was inflammable.
But the U.S. which controlled the world’s production of the gas, refused to grant an export licence.
Also, the design of fixed-wing aeroplanes had become so technologically advanced by then that a future even with helium seemed unlikely.
The finally death knell came when Nazi minister Herman Goering ordered the remainder of Germany’s zeppelins to be melted down to make military aircraft.