CW Hawes is one of the most faithful 8 Sentence Sunday on Dieselpunks partecipants. I may even have met him on the thread… though I really don’t remember. I think to him as one of my dieselpunk friends, and that’s what matters to me.
He’s written a series of dieselpunk novels set in the 1920s, The Lady Dru Mysteries, inspired by a real reporter of the era. In all of these novels – as well as in all of CW’s stories set in the Twenties – there are dirigibles. Airships. These giants of the air that no longer exist.
CW’s Twitter feed often host links to articles about airships, and I always read them. And boy, did I become fascinated with these ladies of the sky. So I asked CW whether he could be interested in a guest post about the subject and he was kind enough to accept.
Here’s the article he offered. Tell me if you don’t wish to go on a journy on one fo these airships!
To Fly Like a Bird
Human beings have dreamed of flying ever since they first saw birds on the wing. It wasn’t until the 19th century that powered flight became a possibility when in 1852 Henri Gifford flew a steam-powered dirigible 27 km (16 3/4 miles). Fifty-seven years later the world’s first airline was founded. The DELAG, in the days before World War I, transported over 34,000 passengers, 172,535 km, on 1588 commercial flights, with no fatalities, using rigid dirigibles designed by Count Zeppelin and Ludwig Dürr.
Early flight was a luxury few could afford, but for those who could it was an experience rivaling the best that ocean liners and railroads offered.
Here are two pictures of the passenger areas on early DELAG zeppelins, where a steward served refreshments during the flight:
The heyday of luxurious air travel took place in the 1920s and 1930s aboard the airships Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg and Pan Am’s flying boats. Even though the flying boats offered a luxurious flying experience unavailable on commercial flights today, the ride itself could not compare with that of a rigid airship. To fly on an airship was tantamount to flying on a cloud.
What exactly is an airship or dirigible? There are three types. The familiar blimp is a non-rigid airship. Gas pressure is what gives and keeps the blimps shape. Semi-rigid’s have a keel, which gives permanent shape to the length of the ship, while gas pressure keeps the shape in the width.
Blimps and semi-rigids (like the Zeppelin NTs) are small vessels compared to the great rigid airships of the past.
A rigid dirigible has a framework which makes its shape permanent. Over the framework is the skin, a doped fabric, which makes the ship aerodynamic. Within the framework are the gas cells, which provide aerostatics lift. Also housed within the envelope or hull, were the crew’s quarters and cargo containers. Later airships like the R100, R101, Hindenburg, and Graf Zeppelin II, also saw the passenger area located within the hull.
The great rigid airships were operated like a ship, not an airplane. And certainly the passenger quarters were like those of an ocean liner. In someways, an airship is the opposite of a submarine. A submarine uses water and air to dive below the surface of the ocean. An airship uses gas and ballast (usually water) to rise into the sky and come back down.
On the Hindenburg, a trip from Frankfort to Lakehurst, New Jersey took two and a half days. Faster than any other form of travel then available. The Frankfort to Rio de Janeiro flight took three and a half days. The return trip from North America generally took two days and from South America, four.
The Graf Zeppelin (LZ-127) was older, smaller, and slower than the Hindenburg. In her later years, she was used exclusively for the flights to and from Rio.
What did one do on an airship?
The experience was akin to that of an ocean liner in a smaller space. Passengers could read or write postcards and letters. A letter or postcard which had been postmarked on the Graf Zeppelin or the Hindenburg was a wonderful souvenir and collector’s item. The bar and smoking lounge on the Hindenburg were popular places to hang out. Passengers also played cards, worked jigsaw puzzles, viewed the scenery, and chatted with each other. The meals were always something to look forward to.
Here are some photographs to bring those great airliners back to life.
The experience of flying on a zeppelin is not obtainable today. Nothing exists to duplicate the experience. What we have are pictures and descriptions from those who were fortunate enough to fly on the great airships.
A poster on The Straight Dope forum in 2011 gives us this tidbit:
My great aunt came back from her studies abroad in Germany on the Hindenburg. According to her it was nothing like flying in a plane or even sailing on an ocean liner. There was no sensation of movement at all; even during “take off”. She was looking out the window in the starboard lounge when it launched and felt nothing. Basically it was like the airship was stationary and the ground was falling away.
A favorite game on the Hindenburg was to balance a pencil on end and time how long it stood there. Try doing that on a jet today!
Think of this the next time you squeeze into a modern airplane seat.
Flight on a zeppelin was quiet. According to the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei passenger brochure “There is no noise beyond the distant murmur of the engines and the sigh of the wind on the outer hull.” And when you retire for the night “The soft murmur from the distant engines seems to have lulled you to sleep.” Compare that with the constant roar on a modern jetliner — especially if you are seated in the rear of the plane!
When was the last time you were in the reading and writing room of a modern jet?
While Pan Am’s Sikorsky S-42 flying boats weren’t as quiet or as smooth as a zeppelin, they easily put any commercial jet of today to shame. Here are a couple pictures of the interior. Just look at all the space!
Think of this the next time you fly!
For me, writing dieselpunk lets me relive those wonderful days from The Machine Age, where we truly believed technology and science was making life better — even if I only get to do so in my imagination. That was a golden age of optimism, even with a depression raging in the latter half. The dreams and aspirations of the generations that lived during those halcyon days are still worthy of emulation. I think it is why steampunk and dieselpunk is so appealing. We get a chance to vicariously experience the future that should have been but never was.
To the retro-future! Cheers!
CW Hawes is an author and award winning poet. His interests are wide ranging and this is reflected in both the genres and the contents of his books. He is the author of the post-apocalyptic The Rocheport Saga, the Justinia Wright, PI series, the dieselpunk Lady Dru Drummond novels, and the psychological horror novella Do One Thing For Me. His love of fine food, interesting locations, philosophy, music, art, books, and history can be seen in each of his tales.
CW lives in suburban Minneapolis, MN with his wife and their cat. He is also the owner of a new bicycle. More adventures await!