Monday, November 1, 2010

28 October-1 November 1928: First Flight of the "Graf Zeppelin" from America to Germany

These days, as we take the ready availability of trans-Atlantic air travel for granted but agonize over extra charges for luggage, it's worth recalling the distant origins of that commerce.   In October 1928, the “Graf Zeppelin” (LZ 127) made the first intercontinental passenger airship flight. This postcard is one of the historical artifacts of that event.

It was the seventh voyage for the largest airship in the world:  776 feet long, with a volume of 3.7 million cubic feet.  The maiden flight took place on 18 September.  Transatlantic trips between the home base at Friedrichshafen, Germany, and the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, NJ lasted about four and a half days.

Both legs of this voyage were marked by some drama.  On the way to America, from 11 to 15 October, the ship was nearly lost in a storm and suffered damage.  The return trip, which lasted from 28 October until the morning of 1 November, was noteworthy not only because it broke the record for fastest long-distance flight, but also because it included a nineteen-year-old stowaway from New Jersey who became something of an instant celebrity.

By contrast, the fame of Commander of the "Graf Zeppelin" was enduring. It was none other than Hugo Eckener (1868-1954), the Manager of the Zeppelin enterprise, who had taken over following the death of the ship’s namesake, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in 1917 (“Graf” just means Count, as in the name of the pocket battleship, "Graf Spee").  Eckener also piloted the LZ 127 on the first (and only) round-the-world flight by an airship in 1929 (sponsored by William Randloph Hearst), and the pioneering polar research flight two years later.  Fêted as a national hero under the Weimar Republic, Eckener was an opponent of the Nazis and even planned to run against Hitler for President in 1932.  After coming to power in 1933, they steadily reduced his role in the firm and public life.  After the war, he worked as a journalist and politician for the cause of international reconciliation. (Briefly condemned by the French for alleged collaboration with the Nazis, he was soon rehabilitated.)

Eckener's birthplace (today, a restaurant) in Flensburg, Germany
What few Americans (aside from devotees of aviation history) know is that it was in our country, while serving as an observer with the Union forces during the Civil War, that the Count began his aeronautical career. That much seems reasonably certain, attested to in an interview that the inventor gave toward the end of his life, in 1915.  The details, however, have always been fuzzy or in dispute.

I grew up learning that he had made his first balloon ascension in 1863 from the distinctive round tower at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, a site that I passed by every week, in my parents’ car, when I was a child.  Much later, I learned that the story was more complicated: perhaps less dramatic than we had been led to believe, but more intriguing as a case of historical myth-making. Rhoda R. Gilman did the painstaking and masterful detective work in an article for Minnesota History 45 years ago. Here’s the connection to today’s post: It was a Saint Paul newspaper article prompted by the maiden voyage of the “Graf Zeppelin” to the United States in October 1928 that apparently gave birth to the Fort Snelling story. Depending on the version at issue, either the ascent took place there or in Saint Paul. Either the balloon was free or tethered. Either the Count borrowed a balloon or had one made. The accounts even disagree on the nature of his mission in the area. As best we can tell, however, he simply joined the civilian residents of Saint Paul in taking advantage of the presence of a traveling balloonist (another German count, to be sure) for a brief joyride.

As Gilman puts it:
The vision of him as a paying passenger in a tethered balloon a few hundred feet over Seventh and Jackson Streets is a tame one. It lacks the drama of a daring young military attaché soaring off the Round Tower beneath an experimental gas bag. Nor does it have the dramatic overtones suggested by a German count ‘barnstorming’ under an assumed name. Yet for all that, the incident may have had large consequences for the history of aeronautics. As to whether or not it did, Zeppelin himself is the only possible witness. His own words [in the 1915 interview; JW] were: ‘While I was above Saint Paul I had my first idea of aerial navigation strongly impressed upon me and it was there that the first idea of my Zeppelins came to me.’


Fort Snelling would remain a site of great historic interest regardless of the Count's precise affiliation with it.   It was a key outpost on the northwestern frontier:   in the words of the Minnesota Historical Society, for several decades,  "the hub of the Upper Mississippi and the meeting place of diverse cultures." At times, that interaction was peaceful, but the fort was a site of vicious repression in the ignoble Dakota War in 1862.  Dred Scott married and raised a family while living at Fort Snelling as the slave of a military surgeon, and it was his residence there and in other free territories that moved him to sue for his liberty in the infamous court case.  All the while, the Fort trained soldiers for America's wars, from the conflict on the frontier through World War II.  Threatened by highway development in the 1950s, the once-isolated early nineteenth-century Fort became a National Landmark, and part of a National Historic Register District.  However, the modern Upper Post still in active use through World War II was allowed to deteriorate until, in 2006, it earned a spot on the National Trust's "11 Most Endangered Places."  But all that is part of another story


As for the cost of sending that postcard by Zeppelin: 53 cents was a great deal of money at that time: one cent, as one can see, was the cost of mailing a standard domestic postcard.  Adjusted for inflation, the mailing expense was the equivalent of $ 6.64 in today's dollars (measured by the Consumer Price Index), or $ 21.60, measured by the earning power of an unskilled worker).

Update July 2011:
The 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War—and of the Union Army Balloon Corps—has prompted renewed interest in the Zeppelin story.  Here, speaking, to USA Today, National Air and Space Museum Curator Tom Crouch tells the story matter-of-factly and correctly.
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