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Majestic Giants of the Air

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 airship travelling, 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!

Majestic Giants of the Air

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.

cutaway diagram of the LZ 130, the last rigid airship ever built
cutaway diagram of the LZ 130, the last rigid airship ever built
cutaway of the passenger area on the R101
cutaway of the passenger area on the R101

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.

schematic of the Graf’s gondola, which combined passenger areas, crew facilities, and ship operations
schematic of the Graf’s gondola, which combined passenger areas, crew facilities, and ship operations
cutaway showing the passenger area of the LZ-130 ‘Graf Zeppelin II’
cutaway showing the passenger area of the LZ-130 ‘Graf Zeppelin II’

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!

hindenburg-promendade015web copy
Passengers enjoying the view

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!


Website novels page


  • Celine Jeanjean
    Posted July 8, 2015 at 03:13

    This is fascinating, I hadn’t realised just how luxurious airships were! And I’m also surprised that the flight was as smooth, I would have expected it to be a somewhat bumpy ride. As you say it really puts our modern jets to shame!

    Out of curiosity, were there ever any great crashes or accidents with airships, or were they pretty safe?

    • Post Author
      Posted July 8, 2015 at 06:36

      I was sursprised to discovered these things too… and if you asked me, I’d love to have a ride on one of these great sky beasts.

      I know there was one terrible accident, which put the era of airships to an end. I’ll allert CW to your question, since I’m sure he’ll have a story to tell 😉

    • CW Hawes
      Posted July 8, 2015 at 12:50

      Hi Celine!

      The history of aviation is filled with spectacular crashes and disasters. One could write a very long blog post on them! Compared to the airplanes of the time, airships were more safe. But they were also more expensive to build and operate. As with most things in life, it was economics which put an end to the great rigid airship.

      The first rigid airship took flight in 1900. A mere 36 years later the Hindenburg made its first flight! The first airplane flew in 1903. Pan Am airlines in the 1930s carried on passenger service from the US to Brazil with but 3 airplanes! The fabulous Sikorsky flying boats. Just one crash was a major event.

      The world was a very different place back then. The world of aviation was largely experimental. We were building great flying machines with an incomplete understanding of aeronautical engineering! Kind of like driving at night with no headlights! What amazes me is that there weren’t more disasters.

      But the triumphs of the great rigid airships are what fuel the dreams of their return. The spectacular disaster of the Hindenburg fire, caught on film, would never have happened had she been inflated with helium. American politics denied helium to the German government and as a result the mystery fire killed 36 people. Then WW II came along and the jet airplane and the rigid airship was relegated to history. Never mind that the Graf Zeppelin flew over a million miles in complete safety. One of the safest aircraft ever built. The USS Los Angeles (also built by the Zeppelin company) flew over 4100 hours on naval missions with no accidents.

      We need to think about this the next time a jumbo jet crashes and kills hundreds.

      • Post Author
        Posted July 8, 2015 at 15:52

        So the disaster of the Hindenburg can be considered a war-related event? I mean, to some extent? Was it becuause of the tention between the US and the Third Reich that the US denied the helium? What did they use instead?

        • CW Hawes
          Posted July 8, 2015 at 17:44

          The Hindenburg and her sister ship, the Graf Zeppelin II, were designed to use helium. At the time, the US had a total monopoly on the world’s helium supply (and essentially does today, as well). The tensions between the US and Germany led the US to deny the sale of helium to the Germans out of fear it might be used militarily. The Hindenburg was therefore inflated with hydrogen, which all airships except for American ships, used. Note, the original Graf Zeppelin flew over a million miles safely using hydrogen as her lift gas.

          Hydrogen by itself is not flammable and German hydrogen was very pure. But hydrogen combined with the right amount of oxygen is highly flammable. Despite all of the safety precautions, the Hindenburg caught fire and crashed on 6 May 1937.

          In the aftermath of the tragedy, the US government agreed to sell helium to the Germans to use in the Graf Zeppelin II. However, after Germany annexed Austria in March, 1938, the US reneged on the sale and the Graf Zeppelin II was subsequently inflated with hydrogen. Fearing a possible repeat of the Hindenburg fire, the German government did not allow the ship to go into passenger service. After a mere 30 flights, the last rigid airship was broken up for scrap in 1940.

          • Celine Jeanjean
            Posted July 14, 2015 at 02:06

            It’s so sad for something as majestic to have finished as scrap metal!! Especially since it sounds politics really had a lot more to do with it than the actual safety of the airship.
            The Hinderburg fire is very interesting though – that would make a great set up for a story. The more I find out about dieselpunk the more I think I’ll eventually write a dieselpunk novel – there’s so much inspiration there.

      • Michael Z Williamson
        Posted December 22, 2020 at 07:16

        All the US dirigibles crashed, including the Los Angeles. 4100 hours is nothing by modern safety standards, where planes fly literally hundreds of thousands of hours with millions of passengers, far more safely than a balloon that gets ripped apart in a thunderstorm. The fatality rate per airship per hour far, far exceeds that of airliners.

        The commercial zep were hideously expensive to operate and carried few passengers. They needed lounges and cabins because they took days to do what now takes hours.

        Very cool for their time, but not viable for the present day.

        • Post Author
          Posted December 28, 2020 at 09:05

          Thanks for the comment, Michael. Always good to get different perspectives 🙂

  • Mee Magnum
    Posted July 8, 2015 at 10:57

    What an amazing story and pictures. Oh how I wish I could have been on one of those flights. Fabulous! Thanks for getting CW to write that article. I wonder if he knows Chinese food! 😉

    –Mee (The Chinese Quest)

    • CW Hawes
      Posted July 8, 2015 at 12:52

      Hi Mee! I like Chinese food. Does that count? 🙂

      • Mee Magnum
        Posted July 8, 2015 at 13:42

        For sure!!

        I hope you check out our website. And we would love to publish, credit, and of course give you links back, any relevant articles!


  • Alice E Keyes
    Posted July 8, 2015 at 15:02

    I really enjoyed this article. The pictures helped see how large the space for passengers was. I wish there were more options for travel. If I never had to drive long distance again, it would make me ecstatic.

    • Post Author
      Posted July 8, 2015 at 20:17

      The pictures really make you want to be there, don’t they? 🙂

  • Andrew Leon Hudson
    Posted July 8, 2015 at 21:20

    Fascinating stuff!

  • Jacqui
    Posted July 9, 2015 at 15:04

    The world was calmer, quieter, slower then. I don’t know why we’re always in a hurry. Well, I am too and I don’t get that either!

    • Post Author
      Posted July 10, 2015 at 13:56

      Can you imagine flying for a couple days having nothing to do but relax, watch out the window and take your time?
      Sounds liek a dream to me 🙂

  • lupachi1927
    Posted July 10, 2015 at 05:13

    What a great post! I’m sorry to say I don’t know much about dirigibles—but now that I’ve read this, I’d like to know more! Any books you’d recommend, either of you?

    I particularly loved the pictures in this post. It’s amazing how it really looks more like, say, an ocean liner than a cramped early commercial airplane. It must have been quite the experience to fly on one of these…

    Celine’s mention of zepplin crashes makes me think of the explosion of the Wingfoot Express in Chicago on July 21st, 1919. Ever read Gary Krist’s book “City of Scoundrels”? It describes, among other things, how the Wingfoot blimp exploded while on a test-run 1,200 feet above the Loop, raining burning debris onto a host of terrified office workers in a nearby skyscraper. Here’s a Tribune review of the book if you’re interested:

    • CW Hawes
      Posted July 10, 2015 at 12:00

      Hi lupachi!

      There are many books on airships. A few I have on my shelf are
      Jane’s Pocket Book of Airships, ed by Lord Ventry and Eugene Kolesnik
      The Great Dirigibles by John Toland
      Giants in the Sky by Douglas H Robinson
      TransAtlantic Airships by John Christopher
      Slide Rule by Nevil Shute
      Dr Eckener’s Dream Machine by Douglas Botting

      I had not heard of the Wingfoot Air Express accident. The US has not had a very good airship record. Particularly with hydrogen filled craft. The Germans learned much from their experience in WW I. However, no matter how many safety precautions, accidents happen. Hence the Hindenburg fire. Yet, accidents happen all the time with small airplanes to jumbo jets — and no one says they shouldn’t fly. So I don’t think hydrogen is the real issue here. I think it is economics. The airship is not an economically efficient means of moving goods and people. And for that reason, I think, we won’t see these beautiful ships return.

      If for some reason a hydrogen filled airship were to become economically feasible, the skies would be filled with them and the hazard written off by corporation-controlled governments as “acceptable”.

      • Mee Magnum
        Posted July 11, 2015 at 14:16

        Thank you for the list of books. I’m fascinated in learning more as well!

        Adding a library stop to my agenda for the day.

        –Mee (The Chinese Quest)

  • Crispian Thurlborn
    Posted July 13, 2015 at 14:09

    A great article CW. Very informative and yet passionate. A delight to read. As you say, it was an age where wonder still existed and the future remained ours to discover.

    Quite possibly, airships were the closest we ever came to magic…

    • Post Author
      Posted July 13, 2015 at 15:11

      I belive you’re right. I can only imagin being on an airship, looking out the window and being in the sky, flying without sounds. Just floating.
      A dream 🙂

  • Alex Hurst
    Posted July 19, 2015 at 12:13

    What a fantastic article! The photos really brought it to life. I admit, I had never really thought about one of those behemoths actually looked like on the inside, but that space is unreal! I can see why it’s a popular setting for a great deal of steampunk. Almost unreal in its awesomeness. 🙂

    • Post Author
      Posted July 19, 2015 at 12:29

      They are unique, aren’t they? I’ve always been fascinated with airships, but never truly looked into them, so this article was a discovery for me too.
      It is quite an unreal setting.

  • Trace L Hentz
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 11:58

    this story and your blog in general are amazing!

  • Trackback: The Wonderful Machine Age: The Daring Young men in Their Flying Machines #2 | CW Hawes
  • Roland Clarke
    Posted April 9, 2017 at 22:21

    Great post. I’m a great fan of airships and would have loved to fly in one – hate aircraft though. Crossed the Atlantic by ocean liner – Queen Mary 2 – but realise that doesn’t really compare. Sarah told me about you and your airship knowledge – so signed up to your site – as I’m writing about an alternative history where airships rule the sky, thanks to the Vikings settling in North America and integrating with indigenous tribes. The rest is an alternative history –

    • Post Author
      Posted April 10, 2017 at 07:36

      CW did a fantastic job, don’t you think, Roland?
      If you head over to his blog, you’ll find a few series dedicated to airship. Worth reading 😉

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