Flight’s End

10 minute read
TIME

5000 Miles. The ZR-3 reached Lakehurst, N. J., without a mishap, after a flight of 5,060 miles from Friedrichshafen in South Germany. She broke every record of distance and speed for airships of any type, from any country. For the first time, mail and freight from Berlin reached Manhattan in less than five days: messages of goodwill, a tabloid edition of the VÖssische Zeitung, a sack of 1,000 toys for Wanamaker’s famed department store, a walking doll for Major Frank M. Kennedy’s little daughter.

Dr. Hugo Eckener might have been businesslike, might have sailed his craft without a pause to Lakehurst. Instead—with plenty of reserve fuel— he chose to dawdle genially over New York City. The great ship was first sighted about 7:50 in the morning; commuters on the ferryboats cheered loudly; and, as the ZR-3 sailed over Manhattan to the Bronx and back, hundreds of thousands of busy New Yorkers forgot office and factory and stared skyward until their necks ached. By a curious trick of vision, explainable by the ship’s tremendous length, the ZR-3 at one time seemed to graze the very top of the Woolworth Building, though in reality it hung never less than 3,000 feet above the city.

Progress. The world moves fast. One has almost forgotten that the Atlantic has already been conquered by the airship. Yet it was as early as July 2, 1919, that the British R-34 crossed the ocean to land at Mineola, L. I. The R-34 started from East Fortune Airdrome, Edinburgh, Scotland, covered the shortest route over the North Atlantic, took 108 hours to sail 3,200 miles. At times, she scarcely made 25 m.p.h.; 500 miles from shore her gas was almost gone; the motors had to be nursed; the famous call “Rush Help” startled and alarmed the world. Engine and other troubles marked the journey.

Five years later, the ZR-3—the product of 25 years of German experience—made a journey nearly twice as long, at an average speed of 60 m.p.h. Far from having no gas left on arrival, she could have gone another 3,000 miles. Bringing only 32 men, she could have just as easily carried 54 and 15 tons of freight. Except for a rent in a gas cell (and that rapidly repaired), she arrived in perfect condition.

Frantic measures to assure safety were necessary with the R-34. Until the last cable had been tied at the huge Roosevelt Field, anxiety was in every man’s mind. The ZR-3’s arrival at Lakehurst was calm, almost commonplace.

Monotony, Comfort. What did the U. S. observers on board think of their trip? They were Major Kennedy for the Army, Captain Steele, Commander Klein and Commander Kraus for the Navy. “Monotonous and comfortable!” said they. They were not seasick. There was no dirt or dust. They played cards. They listened to concerts by radio. They slept soundly. They ate mock-turtle soup and Hungarian goulash with fresh vegetables. They were very lonesome without a cigarette. They missed a little water for washing and they—upon arrival—did not like their wives and friends to see their unsightly three days’ growth of beard.

The German Airmen. Certainly the Germans selected their personnel with equal care. The President of the Zeppelin Co., Dr. Hugo Eckener, was himself in charge. One of the late Count Zeppelin’s* earliest coworkers, more than six feet tall, with a back as straight as that of a drill sergeant, the blonde goatee and mustache often affected by German Naval officers, a face denoting rigid determination and intellect, Dr. Eckener landed at Lakehurst with a calm that the most enthusiastic plaudits did not affect. His English is none too good; but he managed to convey pithy and valuable information to those who clustered about him. Like Commander Kraus, he made up for lost time by puffing immediately at a huge cigar. With him came Captain Ernest Lehmann, small, dapper, resourceful, with a 17-year record for piloting without the loss of a ship—considered by the Germans their lucky pilot, with whom nothing could go wrong. Also came Hans Fleming, Chief Pilot, straight, tall, seamanlike, determined to do his duty, to teach Americans taking over the ship everything he knew. Also came a blue-clad crew that looked very much like our gobs, with perhaps a touch more of stolidity.

What Next? The ZR-3 was ordered deflated, placed on skids, so that her weight might be taken up as the cells were exhausted of gas which is impure, unfit for further use; and some $11,600 worth of this gas was ordered released into the atmosphere. Several weeks will be spent in a rigid inspection of the ship and in technical study. The Shenandoah (TIME, Oct. 20) was ordered back from the Pacific coast and, because helium is so scarce, she will yield her precious supply of this gas to the ZR-3, which is to make a variety of exhibition and training trips.

The ZR-3 cannot be used for naval or military purposes according to the conditions laid down by the Reparations Committee. To turn her over for commercial exploitation will require an act of Congress. “Will the tremendously successful trip be a nine days wonder, to be soon forgotten—or will it be the precursor of commercial dirigibles to cover every ocean and every continent?”

Pro. A few arguments brought forward by dirigible enthusiasts:

A transatlantic schedule of 66 hours could be maintained in all weathers; New York, Havana, Panama, Valparaiso, Buenos-Aires means 22 days by sea, 4½ days by air.

A business man could go up the elevator of a mooring mast in Manhattan at 9 o’clock in the evening, have a leisurely bath and shave on reaching Chicago in the early morning, do business and return at night to Manhattan without losing a working hour and with perfect comfort.

The use of helium and heavier, non-inflammable fuel for the engines removes all danger of fire.

With larger and faster ships, all weather becomes fair weather.

The use of the ballast-recovery process will bring loss of helium to a negligible quantity.

Courage and capital and vision are alone essential to the establishment of a series of transoceanic dirigible lines with which no steamship companies could compete.

Con. The “arguments” of dirigible enthusiasts were met by dirigible non-enthusiasts and “steamship men” in this wise:

A dirigible must always remain expensive; to make the gas cells tight, gold beater’s skin must be used, made of the blind gut of oxen; and a herd of 50,000 is needed to supply the material for one airship; a dirig-ible hangar must be a monstrous affair, big enough to house a cathe-dral.

The materials of an airship deteriorate rapidly. What will happen to the outer covering and the delicate inner cells when the ships are used in all weather and left attached to mooring masts?

Granted that a ship twice as big as the ZR-3 can be built for $1.00 per cu. ft., costing, therefore, bettween four and five million dollars, it will be comparable in price with a steamer and yet have a passenger capacity of only 200.

Even if a dirigible can beat the steamship in speed, it is so much more subject to the influence of head winds, that travelers may prefer the somewhat slower speed, but greater regularity and hotel-like comfort, of a Cunarder.

What traveler likes to forego smoking for even three days?

It it not too unpleasant to climb through the top of the ZR-3’s passenger cabin to the “cat-walk” running through the bottom of the hull— which provides only an 8-inch footing and 2-foot rail room at the top— for a walk that must be solitary and executed with great caution?

The great rigid dirigibles do not roll or pitch as much as the smaller “Blimps” or nonrigid airships, but they develop a peculiar squirming, twisting motion and they always give a sensation of violent strain, with the hull quite plainly laboring under the force of the wind.

Helium is said to cost $40 per 1,000 cu. ft. In reality, it costs the Government very nearly $160 per 1,000 cu. ft.; and, since only 1% of helium is present in the most richly endowed sources of natural gas, it must always be expensive. In the Atlantic crossing, the ZR3 used up 30% of its hydrogen. Even with recovery of the gases in the exhaust to compensate for loss of weight by fuel, thus dispensing with the “valving” of gas to meet changes in weight, there will always be a large expenditure of helium.

A single flash of lightning may destroy a dirigible, helium or hydrogen filled. The ZR-3 was delayed again and again by adverse weather conditions and it cannot land in fog. Is it possible to maintain schedules in the face of such conditions?

Politics. Perhaps the ZR-3 will be the last dirigible to be built at Friedrichshafen. According to the Treaty of Versailles, the hangars and factories there were to be razed. It was only by the six months’ insistence of U. S. Ambassador (to France) Herrick that the Council of Ambassadors of the League permitted the ZR-3 to be built for the U. S. Navy. At a dinner given last week in Washington, Secretary of the Navy Wilbur said: “We wish the ship to be a symbol of peace and friendship between the two nations represented here.” According to the Secretary, Los Angeles is to be the name of the ZR-3—with memories of Christmas eve and peace-on-earth. But a reactionary Berlin paper writes: “The ZR-3 shows what Germany can do and will do in the way of revenge. Let France tremble!” And there was a touch of the old German swagger in Dr. Eckener’s remark on landing: “Gentlemen, a new world’s record, 5,060 miles of continuous flight.” Filled with helium, the ZR-3 is perfectly adaptable for warfare. Small wonder the French are impatiently awaiting the day when U. S. enthusiasm subsides and they may insist on the destruction of the Friedrichshafen plant.

At Akron. But whether the Germans are allowed to build further or not, the U. S. has taken up the great work in earnest. The Goodyear-Zeppelin Co. (TIME, Nov. 12, 1923) is a combination of the great Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and the Zeppelin interests. No cash consideration, but a 25% interest in all rigid ships built, compensates the Zeppelin Co. Their best designers are coming over to Akron, Ohio, and will immediately set to work designing a 5,000,000 cu. ft. ship to carry 200 passengers and reach a speed of 90 m.p.h. at least. The Goodyear-Zeppelin Co. may operate ships or not; but, at any rate, the work of further development will go on; and German experience is here joined to U. S. energy and resources.

*In September, Epinard finished second to Wise Counsellor in a six-furlong (¾ mi.) race at Belmont Park (TIME, Sept. 8); this month, he ran second to Ladkin over a mile course at the Aqueduct (L. I.) race course (TIME, Oct. 6) and second to Sarazen in a 1¼mile race at Latonia, Ky. (TiME, Oct. 20).

*Count Ferdinand Zeppelin retired from the German Army with the rank of General after the Franco-Prussian War, devoted himself to the construction of rigid dirigibles. His first one consisted of an aluminum framework with 16 bags and attained a speed of 18 m. p. h. It was tested in 1900 and flew 3½ miles before it was wrecked. Disaster and fire destroyed his second and third attempts, but his experiments culminated in the Zeppelin airship of 1909 for which—at the age of 71—he received the Order of the Black Eagle. He died in 1917.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com