Books February 2021
The air up there
A review of Empires of the Sky by Alexander Rose.
Flying has been a dream of humankind since time immemorial. As E. Y. Harburg wrote, “Somewhere over the rainbow,/ Blue birds fly/ Birds fly over the rainbow/ Why then, oh why, can’t I?” Only at the dawn of the twentieth century was the dream of flying finally realized. And, as hardly anyone now remembers, it was realized twice.
For a third of a century, the two means of flying—heavier-than-air (airplanes) and lighter-than-air (airships)—vied to become the dominant form of air transportation. This now forgotten contest has been brought back to vivid life in Empires of the Sky by Alexander Rose, the author of several well-regarded works of history, including Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (2006). Despite a ridiculously over-the-top subtitle, this new work is well worth the reader’s time.
The dirigible, also called a zeppelin after its inventor, Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, a German aristocrat, had many advantages over the airplane in the early days of flying. For one thing, it evolved from a proof-of-concept to a mature technology much faster. By 1910, zeppelins were capable of handling substantial numbers of passengers. Only in the mid-1930s could airplanes do the same.
And while zeppelins were slower than airplanes, they had a much greater range because they didn’t need to expend energy just to stay aloft. Large ones could easily cross the Atlantic Ocean, for instance. And they were much faster than the other means of transatlantic passenger service, ocean liners. A zeppelin could cross the Atlantic in only two and a half days, twice as fast as rms Queen Mary, the fastest ship of her day.
The dirigible had other undeniable advantages over the airplane as well. Unlike the cramped, uncomfortable space in early airplanes, airships were more like ocean liners. They had cabins, commodious lounges, a well-stocked dining room and bar, sometimes even a grand piano (made of aluminum to save weight). They even had smoking rooms, pressurized to ensure safety, where the steward would light people’s cigars and cigarettes with a device like an old-fashioned automobile cigarette lighter to avoid a flame.
Because we now live so deep in the age of the airplane, all that most of us know about airships is the spectacular end of the largest and grandest of them, the Hindenburg, on May 6, 1937. Transatlantic zeppelin landings had become routine by then and therefore no longer newsworthy. But, fortuitously, a cameraman was there to capture riveting footage of its landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey.
Bad weather had made the ship seriously late, and the weather was still threatening thunderstorms as the Hindenburg maneuvered towards its mooring mast. Suddenly the great airship burst into flames—probably due to a gas leak and a build up of static electricity because of the weather—and crashed to the earth, killing a third of its passengers and crew. The footage was shown around the world in newsreels and can be seen online in dozens of documentaries and docudramas, as well as in the raw footage itself.
The United States at the time had a monopoly on non-flammable helium, thanks to natural gas wells in Oklahoma that were particularly rich in the first of the noble gases. Had the United States been willing to sell helium to Nazi Germany, the disaster wouldn’t have happened. But America wouldn’t, afraid it might have military applications. And so the Germans had to use hydrogen.
Hydrogen has the advantages of being both cheaper and able to lift 18 percent more weight than the same volume of helium. But it has the fatal disadvantage of being highly flammable, and the end of the Hindenburg spelled the end of the airship as a serious rival to the by then rapidly developing airplane.
Indeed, no more dirigibles, with their metal framework and vast sacks of gas, were ever completed. Today what you see hovering over major sporting events are blimps, essentially large, helium-filled, powered balloons. Today’s Goodyear blimps are 192 feet long, dwarfed by the Hindenburg, which was more than four times that length. The Hindenburg remains to this day the largest flying object ever constructed.
Rose tells this tale through the eyes of three main characters, Graf von Zeppelin, Hugo Eckener—who ran the Zeppelin company for much of its existence—and the American Juan Trippe, who built Pan American World Airways into a major airline. It was the last two who would battle for dominance in air travel in the 1920s and ’30s.
Graf von Zeppelin was born in 1838 in the Grand Duchy of Baden in what is now the southwest of Germany. Educated by private tutors and at the University of Stuttgart, where he studied engineering, he joined the army of Württemberg, one of the many still-sovereign states that would form modern Germany in 1871.
In 1863 he took leave in order to be a military observer in the American Civil War. Unimpressed with the Union Army, Zeppelin toured the upper Midwest, thereby missing the battle of Gettysburg. It was in St. Paul, Minnesota, that he encountered a balloonist and fellow German, John Steiner, who offered rides to people for a fee. Zeppelin took his first balloon flight with Steiner, in a tethered balloon that gained its buoyancy from coal gas.
Steiner was grounded by winds on the day he met Zeppelin, and so he had plenty of time to talk to him about ballooning. Balloons at that time were what we would today call light bulb–shaped and could not be steered. Untethered, they were at the will of the wind and thus had no practical use other than entertaining people brave enough to take a ride. (Steiner had been in the Union Army balloon corps, intended for observing enemy movements, but it had been disbanded when it yielded little actionable intelligence.)
But Steiner told Zeppelin about how he intended to revolutionize ballooning by changing the shape of balloons to one more like a cigar, with a large rudder at the back end to help steer it. Zeppelin flew with Steiner the next day and would not fly again for more than forty years, but the idea of a practical, freight- and passenger-carrying airship did not leave him.
As early as 1874 he had produced the essential design of a dirigible, with a rigid metal frame and huge gas bags inside an outer skin. But he had to wait until nearly the end of the nineteenth century for two new technologies to emerge that made the dirigible possible: cheap aluminum, which weighs less than half what steel weighs, and the internal combustion engine, which had a much higher power-to-weight ratio than the steam engine.
Zeppelin’s first dirigible, the LZ-1, flew in 1900, three years before the Wright Brothers successfully flew an airplane. Zeppelin, a military man with the rank of four-star general, foresaw military use for them, but the German army was not very interested at the time. The military did, however, commandeer zeppelins at the outbreak of World War I and ordered many more from Zeppelin’s company for bombing campaigns against England and France. But while they created considerable panic at first (they were dubbed “baby-killers”), they were very inaccurate and once defenses were developed, such as search lights, they proved too vulnerable to attack to be useful as bombers.
Zeppelin, an aristocrat to his fingertips, thought using zeppelins for passenger travel a vulgar tradesman’s undertaking and had little interest in the founding of the world’s first airline, the Deutsche Luftschifffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft (German for “German Airship Travel Corporation”), known by its acronym, delag. But by the outbreak of World War I, the company had transported 34,028 paying passengers on 1,588 flights around Germany.
Graf von Zeppelin died in 1917, and by that time Hugo Eckener was head of the company. Born in northern Germany, he earned a doctorate at the University of Leipzig in psychology, which he would later put to very good use marshaling public interest and support for airships. But he became a journalist. Assigned to cover the first zeppelin flights, he criticized the engineering, and Graf von Zeppelin sought him out for advice and asked him to become a part-time publicist for the company. He soon became deeply fascinated by airships and went to work for the company full time. He earned his airship pilot’s license in 1911.
The Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I forbade Germany from building any large airships, and the two that the company owned were given to France and Italy as reparations. After much skillful lobbying by Eckener, the company was allowed to build a new zeppelin for the U.S. Navy in 1923, named the Los Angeles. In 1924, Eckener piloted it across the Atlantic to the naval air station at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the first non-stop transatlantic flight.
The strictures of the Versailles Treaty were loosened in 1927, and the company was able to build the Graf Zeppelin, modeled on the Los Angeles. It entered passenger service in 1928 (it was christened on what would have been Zeppelin’s ninetieth birthday), operating mostly between Germany and Brazil, which had a large German population. In 1929, at the behest of William Randolph Hearst, it went around the world, making the first non-stop crossing of the Pacific by air. It also went to the Arctic on a scientific expedition, both times piloted by Eckener.
These flights made Eckener a national hero in Germany, and he was considering running for president of the country until Paul von Hindenburg decided to seek another term. As Eckener was adamantly anti-Nazi, when Hitler took power he was soon sidelined. But Eckener in the previous sixteen years had succeeded in establishing that lighter-than-air passenger service was a viable commercial enterprise with an apparently limitless future. Then, of course, came the Hindenburg disaster.
Juan Trippe was, on his father’s side, what his generation would have called “well born.” His mother’s side was considerably more raffish, with a colorful line of crooks and gold diggers that Trippe was always at pains to conceal. His maternal grandmother, Irish born, had married Juan Pedro Terry as her second husband, a Venezuelan of Irish ancestry, whose father owned the biggest sugar plantation in Cuba. It was after his step-grandfather that Juan Terry Trippe was named, a name he hated.
Trippe was always closed-mouthed about his background and business dealings (he kept a roll-top desk in his office which was always locked unless he was alone). And he cultivated what Rose calls a “silky sneakiness.” Franklin Roosevelt—a Harvard man, of course, and a shrewd judge of character—called him “the most fascinating Yale gangster I ever met” and “a man of all-yielding suavity who can be depended on to pursue his own ruthless way.”
Trippe had a conventional wasp upbringing at the Hill School and Yale (St. Anthony’s Hall, Skull & Bones) and went to work on Wall Street. But he was soon bored and he was already fascinated by airplanes. He had dropped out of Yale when the United States entered World War I to take flight training from the Navy and was commissioned an ensign in the Naval Reserve. The war ended before he saw combat, and he returned to Yale, graduating in 1921.
In 1923 he raised money from his Yale friends and founded Long Island Airways, using nine surplus Navy biplanes based on Coney Island to take passengers for rides along the beach. But there was only room for one passenger and giving joyrides was no way to make a profit, especially as during the barnstorming era there was lots of competition. He put in larger engines and moved the fuel tanks to the wings to make room for a second passenger seat, but the airline shut down after only a few months.
Trippe studied the history of railroads and shipping lines and came to three conclusions. First he realized that an airline needed substantial capital to invest in the latest aircraft. Second, an airline had to be able to charge enough to make a profit, and that could only be done if it had exclusive rights to a particular route. And third, the public had to be convinced that airplanes were now a legitimate form of transportation, not just something to take a joyride in.
With his Yale friends, who numbered Vanderbilts and Whitneys among them, capital was not a major problem. And a change in how airmail was carried solved the second problem. The Post Office had been running its own airmail service, and the railroads were complaining about competing with the government. So the Kelly Act of 1925 provided for four-year exclusive contracts with airlines to carry airmail on various routes. And new government regulation of flying and airplanes quickly made flying much safer, greatly reducing insurance rates (and ending the brief era of the barnstormers).
Rose goes into entertaining detail about the wily and often devious Trippe and his corporate machinations as he maneuvered his way into becoming president of Pan American Airways. He had an agreement with the president of Cuba giving him exclusive landing rights, and he used that to force a merger of his Colonial Air Transport with Pan American, which had the Key West–Havana mail contract but no landing rights in Cuba.
The Post Office had specified that the route had to become operational no later than October 19, 1927, or the contract would be canceled that very afternoon. Heavy rains had made the runway at Key West unusable, and his first plane had not been delivered. But Trippe saw in the contract that it didn’t specify that the plane had to take off from a runway. He managed to find a seaplane and, in the nick of time, fulfill the contract’s requirements. Pan Am was in business.
Over the next decade, Pan Am expanded through the Caribbean and South America (Trippe wisely took along the already legendary Charles Lindbergh when he personally negotiated rights with various South American countries). He also began trans-Pacific operations in the late Thirties.
These new routes were made possible by the rapid increase in airplane capacity and range in these years, pushed relentlessly by Trippe, especially for seaplanes that didn’t need runways to take off and land, producing the famed Pan Am clippers. By 1940, air travel by airplane was routine and growing quickly, the long battle with the airship already forgotten.
Whatever his personality defects, Juan Trippe was, undoubtedly, the most important single individual in the history of passenger air travel.
Alexander Rose handles this complex story with authority and very considerable skill, making Empires of the Sky not only an enjoyable read but a deeply satisfying one as well.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 6, on page 60
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