Imagine yourself in an airship anchored to a pole at the top of the tallest building in New York …getting ready to disembark onto the rooftop. That was the plan when the Empire State Building was finished in 1929. In 1936, this German advertising poster was produced, showing the Zeppelin “Hindenburg” approaching the Empire State Building.
The Empire State Building’s distinctive Art Deco spire was originally designed to be a mooring mast and depot for dirigibles. The 103rd floor was originally a landing platform with a dirigible gangplank. A particular elevator, traveling between the 86th and 102nd floors, was supposed to transport passengers after they checked in at the observation deck on the 86th floor. However, the idea proved to be impractical and dangerous after a few attempts with actual airships. The powerful updrafts caused by the size of the building itself, as well as the lack of mooring lines, were obstacles not overcome and Zeppelins instead used an airfield in New Jersey.
The text on this poster exclaims “In 2 days to North America !”. In addition to its speed, the airship was said to be so stable that a pen or pencil could be stood on a table without falling. Its launches were so smooth that passengers often missed them, believing that the airship was still docked to its mooring mast. One way fare between Germany and the United States in 1936 was US$400. This meant that Hindenburg passengers were affluent, including public figures, entertainers, noted sportsmen, political figures, and leaders of industry. Among the famous passengers was German heavyweight boxing champion Max Schmeling, who returned home on the Hindenburg to a hero’s welcome after knocking out Joe Louis in New York on June 19, 1936.
The Hindenburg was the largest German Zeppelin airship and was named after the late Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, President of Germany from 1925 until his death in 1934. It was to be the modern way to travel for first class passengers: faster and smoother than any other mode of travel and with a crew of 40 for 50 passengers. It was also the safest way to travel at the time. Germany’s long history of flying hydrogen-filled passenger airships without a single injury or fatality engendered a widely held belief they had mastered the safe use of hydrogen. The Hindenburg’s first season performance appeared to demonstrate this. The Hindenburg made 17 round trips across the Atlantic in 1936, its first and only full year of service, with ten trips to the United States and seven to Brazil.
But then came the Hindenburg’s shocking explosion at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937…..it burst into flames, a complete loss together with 13 passengers and 22 crew that perished. It was the first loss of life in commercial airship traffic since Zeppelins were first flown commercially in 1910, completing over 1500 flights with over 10,000 fare-paying passengers before the outbreak of WWI in 1914. It took only one accident in 27 years to bring down the worlds first airline.
Airplanes filled the void from that year onward.