THE WORLD’S LARGEST FLYING MACHINE

The Graf Zeppelin was the first aircraft to fly passengers around the world, and this map shows its route. Samantha Weinberg unearths the drama behind it.
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From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2014

This map begins in Lakehurst, New Jersey, after dusk on August 7th 1929. The Graf Zeppelin rose gracefully into the air to begin its attempt to become the first passenger-carrying aircraft to circumnavigate the globe.

It was the world’s largest flying machine at the time—a 776ft, gas-filled silver lozenge. In the glassy gondola fixed to its belly were 60 men and one woman, Lady [Grace] Hay Drummond-Hay, who had been hired by William Randolph Hearst, of “Citizen Kane” fame, to cover the trip for his newspapers. As she gushed: “We passed from a symphony of silver to golden glory as the lights of New York city scattered themselves beneath us like grains of golden stardust, tracing patterns strange and fantastic, set with the jewelled brilliancy of ruby, emerald and topaz electric signs…”

Hearst had underwritten half the costs of the endeavour in return for exclusive media rights. Every rise and bump of the journey were to be conveyed to the paper-reading world by Lady Hay and her former lover, Karl von Wiegand, who had broken off the affair six months earlier, out of respect for his wife.

His continued admiration, however, was evident. As Time reported, quoting him: “Lady Drummond-Hay, in knickers and leather flying coat, clambered squirrel-like along the girders of the ship’s hull. She carried a Boston Bull pup, who was cold and, she decided, lonesome…Her cloth cat mascot remained in her cabin.”

The negotiations between Hearst and the Zeppelin Company had not been easy. Both parties insisted that the flight begin and end in their country. After extensive wrangling, a compromise was reached: there would be two start and finish points—Lakehurst first and then, eight days later, Friedrichshafen in southern Germany—which accounts for the two red lines across the Atlantic in the top right-hand corner of this map.

The first leg of the journey, the more southerly of the red lines, took the Graf north of Bermuda, south of the Azores, over Bordeaux and on to Friedrichshafen. The 4,391-mile trip lasted 55 hours and 22 minutes. There is film footage of the inside of the gondola, showing a comfy central clubroom where the passengers spent their days, eating, talking, reading and writing, before repairing to the ten cabins aft to sleep at night. Her ladyship is seen behind her typewriter, smiling, while Von Wiegand sits on the other side of the room.

On August 10th, the Graf Zeppelin touched down in Friedrichschafen, where it spent five days revictualling its larders before starting the German-centric circumnavigation with the longest leg of the trip, 7,297 miles across continental Europe and Siberia to Tokyo. The map shown here appeared in “Zeppelin-Weltfahrten”, a book published in 1932 and dedicated to the memory of the crews of German airships lost in the first world war. While the journey it records was monumental, the map itself is little more than a snapshot, reducing the distances travelled to fit on a single page, and ignoring the danger, the emotional and political dramas that took place within and without the Graf Zeppelin.

The map doesn’t show Josef Stalin’s fury when the captain, Hugo Eckener, refused the Soviet request to fly over Moscow, citing the need to “take advantage of the tailwinds and remain on the straight airline without deviation or halt”. It doesn’t show the concern on the deck as the zeppelin approached the uncharted Stanovoy Mountains in Siberia. It was travelling along a high canyon when it was suddenly forced to ascend 6,000 feet. It cleared the peaks with 150 feet to spare.

Following a four-day stop in Tokyo, the third leg took the Graf Zeppelin 5,986 miles across the Pacific. After floating over the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, it made a difficult landing in Los Angeles the next morning. Then it headed back across America. The map, again, is unable to note the summer turbulence that buffeted it over the deserts of Arizona and Texas, or the crowds that gathered across 13 states to cheer and gasp at the wonder of the silver flying machine.

The Graf Zeppelin landed at Lakehurst on August 29th 1929. The first passenger-carrying round-the-world trip had taken three weeks, of which 12 days, 12 hours and 13 minutes were spent in the air.

This map ends in Friedrichshafen on September 4th 1929. Seven weeks later, the American stockmarket crashed, effectively silencing the roar of the 1920s. Eight years later, the Graf’s sister ship, the Hindenburg, crashed into its mooring mast at Lakehurst, killing 36 people and ending the age of the zeppelin.

Samantha Weinberg is our assistant editor and the author of six books, including “A Fish Caught in Time”

Image Bridgeman Archive, Getty