It was a lazy summer day in 1929 when Japanese farmers out in their fields heard the distant drone of engines. Looking up, they saw a giant "UFO" sailing towards them. Awestruck, they watched as the Graf Zeppelin airship glided over them. At 236.6 meters long and 30.5 meters wide, it was shades of the blockbuster movie "Independence Day", but this was no alien invasion (at least not in the ultimate sense, anyway!)
Even those who had heard the news that the world's largest flying machine was visiting Japan on its around-the-world cruise must have been stunned by awesome sight. But can you imagine what it would have been like for some country bumpkin without access to a radio or newspaper to have this monstrosity suddenly appear overhead? Many were no doubt terrified by the scene ? especially since it typically flew only a couple of hundred meters above the ground. At that height, it would have filled a large chunk of the sky if directly overhead.
The Graf Zeppelin was later supplanted by the Hindenberg, which was a few meters longer at 247.8 meters, as the largest manmade object ever to fly. That ship met its fate on May 6, 1937 when it caught fire while attempting to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey, just outside New York City. Interestingly, it was not the hydrogen-filled tanks that caused the fire, but the flammable aluminum powder filled paint varnish that covered the outside. (See http://www.clean-air.org/hindenberg.htm for details).
After the Hindenberg disaster, the Graf Zeppelin was dismantled and no other airship on that scale has been built since. During its 9 years of operation, it made more than 650 flights safely carrying more than 18,000 passengers. In addition to its 20-day around-the-world publicity flight in 1929, it also made a trip to the North Pole in 1931. The 1929 flight was for publicity purposes and was financed by American philanthropist William Randolph Hearst. It left New York City on August 7 and flew to its home base in Germany and from there on across Russia to Japan, a 4-day trip. After dazzling people in Tokyo and Yokohama as it flew over, it circled back up to land in Tsuchiura on August 19. After a 4-day layover in Tsuchiura, where the crew and passengers were wined and dined, the Graf Zeppelin headed out across the Pacific to Los Angeles and back to New York, arriving on August 29.
This was only 2 years after Charles Lindberg became the first person to fly across the Atlantic, and so flying around the world in only 288 hours of flying time was quite a feat indeed. The publicity stunt was a huge success, as "Zeppelin fever" swept the world, establishing airship travel as the wave of the future. Imagine, a luxurious around-the-world cruise with stopovers in exotic places in far less time than the Queen Mary! What a view it must have been from the luxurious seats! But that wave was short-lived, as the disastrous end of the Hindenberg (the "Titanic of the skies"), as well as Nazi warmongering and WWII, brought this glorious chapter in aviation to a close.
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