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Volume 45, Number 4July/August 1994

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Contrary Winds

Zeppelins Over the Middle East

"The Egyptian people, through no fault of their own, are being prevented from witnessing a magnificent spectacle. This is due to [British] envy of the thoughtful, hard- working German nation, which is developing so quickly and outclassing most other countries, particularly in aviation. As a result, the people cannot see the [Graf Zeppelin], and it will not see the Suez Canal."

Written by Alan McGregor
Photographs courtesy of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin

That dispatch in Egypt's Al-Ahram newspaper of March 24,1929, from correspondent Mahmud Abul Fath - already known as a forthright critic of Britain's role in his country - reflected popular indignation at the Egyptian government's refusal, on British "advice," to allow the great German dirigible to enter Egyptian air space during its first trip to the Middle East.

As a guest on that trip from March 25 to 28, Abul Fath was cabling from Friedrichshafen, on Lake Constance, the airship's base and site of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin's main plant.

"Everything had been prepared to give this voyage an Egyptian setting," Abul Fath wrote, "even a postage stamp depicting the airship over the Sphinx and the pyramids. With the exception of Egypt, all countries contacted have authorized it to cross their territory" - including Palestine, then under British mandate. Abul Fath quoted Dr. Hugo Eckener, the Graf Zeppelin's captain, as saying, "The clouds in the skies of international politics are looming ever larger."

Because of such clouds, the Graf Zeppelin, with 41 crew and 25 passengers - among them Reichstag President Paul Loebe, Al-Ahram's Abul Fath and two Hearst Newspapers representatives - had to leave Friedrichshafen on March 25 at the inconvenient hour of 45 minutes past midnight. The French government had permitted the airship to cross its territory only during darkness, and at an altitude not lower than 1100 meters (3600 feet). Warm clothing - fur coats for the women - was obligatory; It was Europe's coldest winter in half a century, and the zeppelin's onboard heating had to be supplemented by the occasional aluminum hot - water bottle. The airship headed west toward Basel and the Franco-Swiss border, then down the Rhône Valley.

By breakfast next morning, the Graf Zeppelin was past Marseilles and cruising serenely in sunshine above a white- flecked Mediterranean on a course via Corsica to Rome. Circling over the Italian capital that afternoon, the captain radioed greetings to Mussolini, referring to the "genius of the Eternal City."(Eckener wondered afterward whether the Italian dictator might not have under stood this phrase as a tribute to himself.) Then the airship headed for Naples and Capri - through a second night - on its way to Crete and Cyprus.

The passengers were excited, even rapturous, at experiencing the ultimate in air travel. Nothing could match the Graf Zeppelin in comfort or non-stop range. Of course, these luxuries came at a price. "The tariffs were extremely high," notes R.E.G. Davies, curator of air transport at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, in his book Lufthansa: An Airline and Its Aircraft. He adds: "The Graf Zeppelin's economics were subsidized by the German government.

The Graf Zeppelin's four-day trip to the Middle East in 1929 was not her first international flight - she had flown to New York the previous November - but it was her introduction to warmer climes. "As if we were softly gliding through an infinity of misty blue, air and sea merged imperceptibly into each other," Eckener recalled in his memoirs, Im Zeppelin Über Länder und Meere (By Zeppelin over lands and Seas). He described the passengers as being "in a mood of wordless ecstasy."

By early evening they were over Palestine, dropping a bundle of 5000 letters to the large German colony at Jaffa. They found Mount Carmel bedecked with German flags and the word "Willkommen " spelled out in 8-meter-height letters; then they flew along the coast to Tel Aviv, where a passenger showered confetti on the crowds below.

Over Jerusalem, the zeppelin's engines were briefly stopped and the airship floated silently above the walled old City. It circled slowly on reduced power before heading over the rocky hills toward Jericho and the Dead Sea.

There, Eckener brought the Graf Zeppelin down close to the surface, about 300 meters (1000 feet) below the level of the Mediterranean. "The newly-risen moon gave little light, so that the great lake lay half-dark," he wrote, "mysterious at the nether world. Carefully we sank down, feeling our way lower and lower, until we hovered a few hundred feet above the water. We looked up as if from a cellar at the heights towering around us."

The passengers celebrated the sight. They were enjoying the finest foods and beverages during the three days and four nights of this non-stop flight. A typical luncheon menu featured turtle soup, two kinds of roast, potatoes, vegetables and salad, followed by French cheese, nut tart and coffee. Meals were served at separate tables in the mahogany-paneled main saloon, which had two large windows on each side.

At the rear of the saloon a corridor gave access to 10 cabins, each with is own window and each convertible, like a rain compartment, from a sitting room by day to sleep two at night. Behind the cabins were separate washrooms for women and men, with double basins and hot and cold taps.

All these ship-style passenger accommodations were in the gondola that was integral with the forepart of the Graf Zeppelin, whose factory designation was LZ127. Further forward, also within the gondola, was the crew area, which consisted of radio and navigation rooms, kitchen, officers' cabin and "wheelhouse" - complete with steersman standing at the helm. The Graf Zeppelin was 236.6 meters (776 feet) long - three times the length of a Boeing 747 - with a maximum diameter of 30.5 meters (100 feet), two-thirds the height of the Statue of Liberty - with its pedestal. Maximum gross weight was 150 tons, including 12 tons of mail or freight, her maximum range was over 11,000 kilometers (some 7000 miles), and her cruising speed was 117 kilometers an hour (73mph).

The crew's quarters were tucked within the hull's main frame, which was constructed mostly of duralumin, a high-strength aluminum alloy developed in Germany. Eugene Bentele, who served on both the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg, described the crew accommodations in The Story of a Zeppelin Mechanic: My Flights 1931-38, published in 1992 by the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen: "The bunks for the mechanics, 15 in all, were in the stern of the ship on either side of the gangway... The two-man bunks were separated from each other and from the gas cells by canvas partitions. If you lay on your belly, it was possible to see down into the hull of the ship through an observation hole. Despite the noise of the engines in the stern, we slept well - we are certainly tired enough… We ate four good meals a day in the crew's mess near the kitchen on one side of the gangway."

Smoking aboard the Graf Zeppelin was strictly prohibited: Apart from the 75,000 cubic meters (2.6 million cubic feet) of dangerous hydrogen lifting gas, another 30,000 cubic meters of blaugas, a fuel mixture that included hydrogen, was stored in separate gasbags. Tanks of gasoline were mounted within the frame as well, since the engines ran on either fuel.

After hovering over the Dead Sea, Eckener ordered three-quaters power to the five 550 horsepower Maybach motors, wooden propellers spun, and the Graf Zeppelin soared out of the Dead Sea depression. Some 20 minutes later, back over the Mount of Olives, passengers and crew gazed down on Jerusalem, conversation momentarily silenced by the beauty of the Dome of the Rock and the Haram al-Sharif bathed in clear moonlight.

Little more than three hours flying time away lay Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza, originally envisaged as the high point of the trip, where ancient and modern wonders of the world would meet. Prevented by politics from realizing his goal, Eckener set a homeward course on the third night, planning to take the airship along the Egyptian coast, just outside territorial limits.

From Jerusalem, he headed towards the Mediterranean. With a strong tail wind, the Graf Zeppelin averaged a record 158 kilometers an hour (98 mph) and found itself close to the Egyptian coast near the city of Rashid, or Rosetta, soon after breakfast. Eckener flashed off a radio message to King Fuad's chamberlain, asking that his greetings and best wishes be conveyed to the monarch, whose birthday it was, and also his regrets that "contrary winds prevented us from flying over the land of ancient wonders."

Turning towards home, the LZ127 headed across the Mediterranean and north over the Aegean to Athens. The zeppelin circled the Acropolis twice, dropped more mail, then crossed over the Austrian Alps and overflew Vienna on the fourth night, bound for snowy Friedrichshafen. The airship reached home early Thursday, having covered some 8000 kilometers (5000 miles) and visited eight countries in 81 hours.

The "contrary winds" Eckener referred to were blowing from the direction of Britain, and were generated by the airship R-101, Britain’s rival to the Graf Zeppelin. The R-101 was close to completion and scheduled to leave the next year on a demonstration flight to India, calling at Cairo en route. In the face of rising Egyptian nationalism, London was in no way disposed to see the R-101 play second fiddle to the Graf Zeppelin in the eyes of the Egyptian people.

Tragically, this consideration ceased to apply when the R-101 crashed in France on October 5, 1930, killing 48 of 54 people on board and virtually ending further British airship projects. Because of his friendship with airship experts traveling on the R-101 and in keeping with his status in the aviation world, Eckener went to London for victims' state funeral. As he stood in the Whitehall enclosure reserved for diplomats and distinguished visitors, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald shook his hand and said, "Thank you, Dr. Eckener, for coming here specially to show you share our grief."

The following morning, Eckener had an appointment at the Air Ministry, where he saw Lord Londonderry and other British officials. After they have talked for a while, he was suddenly asked: "Dr. Eckener, you expressed the wish last year to go to Egypt; are you still interested in such a flight?"

In reply, Eckener observed that "unfavorable winds," of whose nature his interlocutors must certainly have aware, had prevented the LZ127 from visiting Cairo. Whereupon he was asked, "May we now invite you to make this trip? Should you wish to call at Cairo, our troops will help you with the landing and in keeping back the crowds."

Perhaps it crossed Eckener's mind that British interests had changed: The invitation might be aimed partly at reassuring the public by showing what airships could do, and so countering the effects R-101 disaster, and partly at confounding Egyptian critics like Mahmud Abul Fath, for whom the previous year's refusal ranked. Still the offer was too good to turn down. Not only would the British permit the Graf Zeppelin to circle the Giza Pyramids and Cairo, but she could pick up passengers for a day long excursion flight, cross the Suez Canal and see Jerusalem and Holy Land from the air. The visit, called "Ägyptenfahrt," was scheduled for April 9 through 13,1931.

Although described as "Pleasure cruises" by the Zeppelin company these international flights were primarily designed to keep the LZ127 in the public eye. Maximum publicity for what the airship had to offer was crucial at this juncture in facing the serious challenge represented by the Dornier Do-X flying boat, the largest airplane yet built, which had made its maiden flight from Lake Constance on July 12, 1929.

By 1931, the Graf Zeppelin providing summertime scheduled service Brazil. But despite the zeppelin's superior range and comfort, the Do-X, because of its impressive size - with 12 engines on its single high wing represented the handwriting on the wall for the airship era. Zeppelin and Dornier found themselves competing for state and private capital, the odds increasingly in the latter's favor as manufacturers persuaded the resurgent German military of the future role of bigger and faster planes, which were far more maneuverable - and far less vulnerable - then any dirigible could ever be.

Setting out on its second visit to the far side of the Mediterranean, the "zepp" left Friedrichshafen on April 9, 1931at 6:14 am. Al-Ahram's Mahmud Abdul Fath was once again among the 25 passenger; also aboard was Squadron-Leader R.S Booth, commander of the successful British R-100 airship, which had visited Canada previous year. This time the LZ127 was allowed to overfly France during daylight hours. Crossing the Mediterranean the first night, the zeppelin reached the Libyan coast near Benghazi, passed Derna and entered Egyptian airspace of Salum.

Eckener promptly radio-telegraphed Al-Ahram : "The crew and passengers the Graf Zeppelin send heartiest greetings to Egypt through Al-Ahram. All aboard are very happy at the though of being in land of such great and ancient culture."

Flying along the Western Desert coast, with its miles of idyllic, deserted beaches and coves, they reached Alexandria at 12:55 p.m. The airship then circled the area for 40 minutes as the passenger admired the sweep of the fine seafront corniche, then headed up the Nile toward Cairo.

"I am convinced there is not a single person in Alexandria who did not see the zeppelin," an Al-Ahram correspondent on the ground reported. "Groups of people were at every vantage point, thousands of them on roofs, laughing and applauding. Some even thought they were personally visible to the airship’s passengers and waved their handkerchiefs and shouted. We shall ask Abul Fath if he really noticed anything of all this commotion from the zeppelin itself."

Speeded by tail winds much of the way, the zeppelin arrived over Cairo at 3:20 p.m, just 33 hours after leaving Friedrichshafen. Conscious of his role as the unofficial envoy of German aviation, Eckener learned through diplomatic radio of King Fuad's whereabouts and, with Abul Fath pointing out landmarks, he brought the LZ127 over Qubbah Palace near Heliopolis and dipped its bow three times, in respect, as the king and queen waved from a balcony. Cars and buses, even trains, halted at the spectacle.

The airship turned away toward Giza, and hovered 21 meters (70 feet) above the summit of the Great Pyramid of Cheops before heading in leisurely fashion, in two or three engines, up the Nile Valley that night to Beni Suef and then back north over the Delta - Tanta, EI Mahalla el Kubra, El Mansura. Returning to Cairo at 5:30 am., the passengers and crew noticed traffic streaming from all directions toward Almaza; a huge crowd watched as the Graf Zeppelin slowly circled the airport before coming in to land, with mooring ropes dangling from bow and stern.

The ropes swiftly seized by 350 men from the nearby airfield and from the King's Own regiment stationed at Abbassiya, midway between Heliopolis and downtown Cairo. They had been given a quick course the previous day on essential procedures for securing an airship, including what to do in the event of a sudden sandstorm. Mahmud Abdul Fath did not not take kindly to the presence of British troops: "What shocked us when we got off the airship," he wrote in Al-Ahram, "was that all the people around it were British Soldiers - not an Egyptian in sight. It is true that Egyptians came later, but only after a time, long enough to leave then passengers with a certain impression."

A cordon of foot and mounted police strained to keep the crowd away from the LZ12, where Eckener was being greeted by government ministers and personalities. Hundred of spectators surged toward the zeppelin, hut the sweating policemen managed to hold them back a few yards from the airship's steps and clear a passage for travelers boarding to make the trip to Palestine. When the while the airship's engines were started, police had to force them back with fire hoses.

The zeppelin departed for Palestine without Eckener, who went off to view off to view the Pyramids from grounds level and to lunch at Shepheard's Hotel with Tawfiq Doss Pasha, Egypt's minister of communications. From there, he proceeded to Qubbah Palace for an audience with King Fuad, who had fully approved of the Graf Zeppelin’s proposed visit in 1929 and deplored the British veto.

Arriving over Jerusalem at 11:00 a.m., just as the sky cleared after a rainstorm and the sun broke through, the LZ127 made four circuits of the city, unfurling the German flag in salute to the Augusta Victoria Hospital on Mount of Olives, where members of the German colony gathered to applaud its passage. After similar ovations at Jaffa and Tel Aviv the airship returned to Egypt, and was back at Almaza by 5:00 pm. The day trippers then took off for home, affording passengers farewell glimpse of the Muqattam Hills and the Citadel, rose tinged the setting sun.

In cruising majestically over Cairo, the Graf Zeppelin captured the Egyptians imagination, their enthusiasm fired also by the belief that the spectacle was somehow symbolic, auguring well for their rising national aspirations after centuries of tutelage. Recollections of the airship were passed on the successive generation and in the local language, the phrase "zayy al-zeppelin " (like the zeppelin) came to signify anything that was large, impressive and almost mythical in character and proportions.

Alan McGregor’s introduction to both journalism and Egypt came during his World War II military service there. He was later a Cairo correspondent for BBC Radio and The Times of London, and is now based in Geneva. The Al-Ahram extracts were translated by Lamia Radi.

Carrying Out The Dream
Written by Alan McGregor

The first attempt to build a steerable airship—a logical step onward from lighter-than-air-balloons—was made by the French in 1852. Further experimental craft followed in that country—the airship La France made the first fully-controlled, powered flight in 1884—with other advances in England, Italy, the United States and especially Germany. There, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was pushing ahead at Friedrichafen with development of the hydrogen-filled, rigid-framed airships to which he gave his name. The first, LZ1, flew in 1900.

A professional soldier at age 25, von Zeppelin visited America in 1863, when the Civil War was at its height. There he met President Lincoln, traveled as a foreign observer with the Union troops, and was impressed by both sides' use of tethered observation balloons. During this tour of duty, he made his own first balloon ascension in St. Paul, Minnesota. Several decades passed before von Zeppelin set forth his ideas on dirigible airships—featuring a rigid frame, an outer skin of toughened fabric and interior gas cells for static lift—in a memorandum to King Karl of Württemberg in 1887; he began working to make those ideas a reality when he left the army in 1890. An 1895 entry in his diary envisaged airship passengers and cargo services to New York.

World War I gave an enormous boost to airship development, particularly in Germany where special hangars and landing fields, suitable for military as well as well as civilian use, already existed. From 1914 to 1918, German factories produces 109 airships, 89 of them zeppelins, which were used bombing—their targets included London—and for North Sea observations. After the British had shot down and examined the wreckage of a few zeppelins, their own airship design improved: In 1919, Britain's R-34 became the first airship to cross the North Atlantic in Both directions. The Shenandoah, built in the United States after the war for the Navy, resembled the Germans' LZ96, which had made an emergency landing behind Allied lines near Bourbonne in 1917; it was the first airship to use inert helium gas rather than highly flammable hydrogen.

At the end of the war, German crews destroyed most of their remaining airships rather than hand them over to the Allies as called for in the armistice agreement. The Americans eventually did get a German airship, in the form of the helium-filled LZ126, constructed specially by the Zeppelin company (now headed by Eckener; the count had died in 1917) and flown across the Atlantic in 1924 to enter naval service as the USS Los Angles. Retired in 1932, she was later recommissioned, then finally scraped in 1939.

When completed in 1933, the USS Macon, also helium-filled, was the world's biggest airship until the title passed in 1936 to the zeppelin Hindenburg, the "flying hotel," largest and last of the zeppelins to go into regular passenger service. Its hydrogen cells burst into flames as it neared the mooring mast at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937 and 35 of the 97 people on the board died. The disaster followed the loss of 14 lives in the crash of the Shenandoah in 1925, 48 lives in the crash of the British R-101 in 1929, and 73 lives when the Akron, sister ship of the Macon, was last in an Atlantic storm in 1933.

The Graf Zeppelin appeared for last time off England's east coast in 1939, just before World War II, in an unsuccessful attempt to monitor British radar installations. When scrapped the following year she had made 590 flight, covered 1,053,396 miles and carried a total of 13,100 passengers.

The Hindenburg's successor, the LZ130 or Graf Zeppelin II, made 30 factory and test flights, covering 23,717 miles, between September 1938 and the outbreak of World War II a year later. Eckener, wanting the airship to use safer helium instead of hydrogen, cultivated his American contacts in seeking supplies of this gas, virtually a US monopoly. While a first consignment of helium was on its way to Germany by the end of 1937, Hitler's annexation of Austria in March 1938 ended any prospect of regular supplies, and the LZ130 has to depend on hydrogen for lift. On Goering's orders, the airship was broken up in spring 1940, as was the Graf Zeppelin itself, the LZ127. At Friedrichshafen, war brought the airship era to a close, and work was abandoned what would have been the LZ131.

A Secret Mission
Written by Alan McGregor

The Graf Zeppelin's 1929 trip was not the first German venture through Middle Eastern Skies. Some 12 years earlier, another, smaller zeppelin made a wartime journey in circumstances altogether unique.

This was the L59, adapted for a range of almost 16000 kilometers(10,000 miles) at a cruising speed of 80kph (50mph). The L59 left its base at Yambol, Bulgaria, on November 21, 1917, carrying medical and military supplies for troops in the Makonde Highlands of German East Africa, 6985 kilometers (4340 miles) away. She was to remain there in support of General Paul von Lettow Vorbeck's forces, a 17,000 man German "army" that sought to pin down a much larger Allied force in the area, using guerrilla tactics.

Flying along the Mediterranean, the L59 crossed the Egyptian coast undetected and was already in the vicinity of Khartoum when; it received a radio; message from the German High Command saying that its intended destination was falling to the enemy. So the zeppelin turned back and, despite gasbag leaks and various mechanical difficulties, made it safely back to Yambol, after covering 6705 kilometers (4166 miles) in some 95 hours.

For many years it was rumored that the recall message had been faked by the British—until the original source was conclusively identified in German World War archives. In March 1919, Maybach, manufacturers of its engines, issued a poster showing the L59 over the Pyramids which it had of course never visited. Although soon withdrawn from circulation, this poster led to details of zeppelin's "GG" (ganz geheim, or top secret) trip becoming public knowledge—although in Friedrichshafen, even schoolboys had known about it from the outset.

This article appeared on pages 8-17 of the July/August 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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