Europe

Friedrichshafen

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The 1937 Hindenburg disaster in Lakehurst, New Jersey, was only the most famous of the mishaps to befall the airships produced by the Graf Zeppelin Works here at Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance. Several never made it out of the hanger. LZ2 and LZ44 lost their engines and collided with alps. LZ60 broke loose in a gale, vanished out to sea, and was never seen again. Several blew away in storms or caught fire in landings and collisions with trees. In wartime use, these lumbering, massively explosive behemoths made irresistible targets for anyone with a machine gun.

But hucksterism was as important as engineering to many a 19th century industrial genius, and Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin excelled at both. After a balloon flight while observing the American Civil War, he caught the bug and then worked on the Imperial German government and public until they caught it too. It didn’t matter that the American State of Kansas had produced every whiff in existence of the safer gas helium or that the Americans had embargoed its export. Graf von Zeppelin turned to hydrogen, one of the most explosive gases on the planet, with explosive results.

In the end, fewer than 130 airships were built—compared with 5,490 Sopwith Camels or 12,731 B-17 Flying Fortresses. The damage the ships did never measured up to the complications of housing, manning, and flying them in the ugly north European weather. But in World War I, the Zeppelins did introduce the English, Belgian, and French publics to the horrors of indiscriminate aerial bombing. A 1914 attack on Liège in Belgium missed its target, killed nine civilians, and set a gruesome pattern for the future.

During World War II, the German city of Konstanz sat close enough to the Swiss border that they never even turned off the lights, much less endured an air raid. Across the lake, Friedrichshafen was flattened. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring had already grounded the Zeppelins, but the works here still produced Dornier bombers and parts for the infamous V2 rockets that rained down on London.

Today, those are all gone, but the Zeppelin has been resurrected with Goodyear as a key customer. We scheduled a 30-minute ride in the local (helium-filled) airship this week, but then it was grounded—by the weather, of course.

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