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Hugo Eckener

First Airship Circumnavigation of the World

On August 29, 1929, the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, piloted by Hugo Eckener, completed the first circumnavigation or the world in an airship when it returned to Lakehurst, NJ.

Completing the journey in 21 days, it also set a record for the fastest aerial circumnavigation of the world.

The LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin was a large rigid airship (or dirigible) in the early 20th century.  It was named after the German pioneer of airships, Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who held the rank of Graf or Count in the German nobility.  It flew for the first time on September 18, 1928 and, with a total length of 236.6 m (776 ft) and volume of 105,000 m³ (3,708,040 ft³), was the largest airship up to that time.

Initially it was to be used for experimental and demonstration purposes to prepare the way for regular airship traveling, but also carried passengers and mail to cover the costs.  In October 1928, the first long-range voyage led the craft to Lakehurst, New Jersey, and the crew was welcomed enthusiastically with confetti parades in New York and invitations to the White House.

In August 1929, LZ 127 departed for another daring enterprise: a complete circumnavigation of the globe.  The growing popularity of the “giant of the air” made it easy for Zeppelin company chief Dr. Hugo Eckener to find sponsors.  One of these was the American press tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who requested the tour to officially start in Lakehurst.  Starting there on August 8, Graf Zeppelin flew across the Atlantic back to Friedrichshafen.  She stopped there to refuel before continuing across vast Siberia to another stop in Tokyo.  Dr. Eckener believed that some of the lands they crossed in Siberia had never before been seen by modern explorers.  From Japan, the Graf Zeppelin continued across the Pacific to San Francisco, before heading south to stop at Los Angeles.  This was the first ever nonstop flight of any aircraft across the Pacific Ocean.  The ship continued thence across the United States, over Chicago and back to Lakehurst on August 29.  The entire voyage took 21 days, 5 hours and 31 minutes.  The distance travelled between departure from Lakehurst and return to Lakehurst was 31,400 km (19,500 miles).

One of Hearst´s guests onboard was the newlywed couple; the arctic explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins and his bride Suzanne Bennett.  The trip was given to them as a wedding gift.  In the following year, Graf Zeppelin undertook a number of trips around Europe, and following a successful tour to South America in May 1930, it was decided to open the first regular transatlantic airship line.  The ship pursued another spectacular destination in July 1931 with a research trip to the Arctic; this had already been a dream of Count Zeppelin twenty years earlier, which could not, however, be realized at the time due to the outbreak of war.  In October of 1933, the Graf Zeppelin made an appearance at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago.  Despite the beginning of the Great Depression and growing competition by fixed-wing aircraft, LZ 127 would transport an increasing number of passengers and mail across the ocean every year until 1936.

IN FACT:  Eckener intended to supplement the successful LZ 127 with another, similar Zeppelin, projected as LZ 128.  However the disastrous accident of the British passenger airship R 101 in 1931 led the Zeppelin company to reconsider the safety of hydrogen-filled vessels, and the design was abandoned in favor of a new project. 

LZ 129, which was to eventually be named the Hindenburg, would advance Zeppelin technology considerably and was intended to be filled with helium.  However, the embargo by the United States because of the looming war prevented German access to the required large quantities of helium, and the Hindenburg was fatefully converted to a hydrogen design.