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The Great Zeppelin and the Dawn of Air Travel

by Douglas Botting

Pub Date: Oct. 10th, 2001
ISBN: 0-8050-6458-3
Publisher: Henry Holt

An ardent, readable history, by British travel writer and biographer Botting (Gerald Durrell, 1999, etc.), traces the rise and fall (or self-immolation) of Zeppelin travel.

For nearly 40 years, the Zeppelin vied with the airplane for a niche in the air travel market. The brainchild of the eccentric German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the lighter-than-air vehicles were originally intended as military machines—a use shot down by British airplanes in WWI. After Zeppelin’s death in 1917, management of the project fell to his top assistant, Dr. Hugo Eckener, an experienced and prudent pilot of both the vehicles and the enterprise. The war had proven airplanes faster and more powerful than Zeppelins, but they remained uncomfortable and unable to fly long distances. By contrast, Zeppelins could fly thousands of miles without stopping for fuel, and did so with unmatchable ease and grace. Both advantages made them natural vehicles for transcontinental passenger flights, and it was Eckener’s dream to establish such a service. After struggling to raise funds and develop a clientele, he sought to prove the Zeppelin’s capabilities through a first-class, around-the-world voyage in the largest, most-powerful airship ever built—the Graf Zeppelin. This voyage, the apex of Zeppelin flight, is the focus of Botting’s narrative, which describes the ship as “almost as long as the Titanic, twice as beautiful, and three times as fast”—suggesting that the flight of the Graf Zeppelin is as much Botting’s dream voyage as it was Eckener’s. Reconstructing the flight from passenger accounts, he marvels at what it must have been like to glide along so close to the earth’s surface. The 1928 trip established the Zeppelin as the supreme transcontinental air carrier, a position first challenged by worldwide depression and the rise of the Nazis in Germany, then literally exploded in flames with the Hindenburg disaster in 1937.

An engaging history, especially appropriate for travel enthusiasts.