It sounded like thunder from afar, coming steadily closer the sound grew constantly. It was not thunder, though, for it did not pause, but continued it's deep, low rumble, which grew louder and louder. "Was ist das, Papa?" 10 a child asked from across the table. "Schauen wir mal," 11 came the reply. As father and child stepped out of the cottage home at the edge of the town of Echterdingen, Germany, they saw what might be a giant bird creeping closer in the distant sky. Or perhaps it was a balloon as seen at carnivals and that were all the craze in France. The owners of those giant round bags of air often allow passengers aboard, for a price, offering breathtaking views of the surrounding area.
Graf Zeppelin over 13th Street, Washington D.C., circa 1920.
As the object drew closer the father and child recognized it as a balloon, but this balloon was different. It was elongated and floating horizontally, the rounded cone of a nose guiding the sleek, tubular body behind it. As the enormous shape enveloped the sky, and as the thunderous sound drowned out the noise of normal farm life, the father finally answered the young child's question with two simple words echoed throughout the land, "Zeppelin kommt!" 12 The monstrous shape floating above them was the fourth creation of Count Ferdinand Adolf August Heinrich von Zeppelin. The previous three airships had gone virtually unnoticed by the small town of Echterdingen. But this was a historic flight. In an effort to sell his idea to the German army and public, Graf von Zeppelin 13 was taking this fourth airship, the LZ4 (Luftschiffe Zeppelin IV), on a record breaking flight from southern Germany to the north and back again. A trip spanning over 700 kilometers and projected to take 24 hours. This expedition would be the qualifying test to prove to the German army that the Zeppelin airship was a viable form of steerable, sustained human flight, and ready for the Imperial army. 14
As father and child followed under the shadow of the floating giant, a multitude of people joined them. It seemed everyone from the town had come out to see the zeppelin. And not just the town of Echterdingen, but people from all over Germany. Spectators gazed in astonishment while animals yelped in terror and confusion, as the immense hovering mass of fabric and metal began to descend. Engine problems that plagued the airship since the beginning of its journey the day before, brought the monstrous, airborne behemoth once again to the earth. As the airship touched down, the first time for this machine to touch dry earth15, the crowed swelled to well over a thousand souls wishing to catch a glimpse, and perhaps a touch, of the largest human creation to have been put up into the air. At 45 ft in diameter and nearly 450 feet long, this craft was clearly something that could not be missed. 16
LZ3 at Luneville, surrounded by military.
Whereas the previous attempts of Graf von Zeppelin had sparked only minor curiosity from the local and national public, this fourth machine became a sort of patriotic symbol that stood for the German people. As the Zeppelin airship made its way across Germany in early August 1908, a national fervor began to build, centered on the stoic hero of the Franco-Prussian war and his crazy, gravity defying leviathan. Major newspapers from both sides of the Atlantic covered the progress of Zeppelins airship. "The Streets were filled up, people clambered onto rooftops," wrote the Scwäbisher Merkur, Stuttgart's largest newspaper. "Above the hilltops, just to the right of the Bismark Tower, a silver, glimmering, wondrous entity appear[ed]. At first it seem[ed] to stand still, but then pushe[d] itself slowly but steadily against the fresh morning breeze," continued the paper. The excitement and awe inspired by the giant dirigible was something that they never would forget. "One [felt] its power;" exclaimed the article, "we [were] overcome by a nervous trembling as we follow[ed] the flight of the ship in the air. As only with the greatest artistic experiences, we [felt] ourselves uplifted. Some people rejoice[d], others [wept]." In other cities reports patriotically proclaimed that crowds spontaneously broke out in singing of the national anthem, "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles." 17 Such was the fervor surrounding the landing at Echterdingen, that in short order, an estimated forty thousand people had gathered to catch a glimpse of the monstrous balloon. 18
What started as a record-setting journey, though, would soon turn catastrophic, the result of which would catapult the Zeppelin airship and its creator into the realm of folk hero and national icon. A large group of military was brought to the field for the purpose of keeping order among the swelling crowd. Count Zeppelin left for a nearby inn to rest from the stressful, overnight journey he had just completed, while engineers went about the task of seeking repairs for the damaged engines. To accommodate the growing crowds, special railway cars were run by the local railways. At approximately 2:30 in the afternoon, after a rise in the wind, some of the crowd, expecting a storm, advised the military to anchor the ship more securely, but the advise went unheeded.
Postcard of LZ4 at hangar, in flight, and destroyed on the field at Echterdingen.
Thirty minutes later the ship was completely destroyed. As storm winds increased the ship rose up into the air with men frantically clinging to the ropes and several crew still aboard. With great force the ship crashed into a grove of trees and violently smashed to the earth, whereupon the engines exploded, causing the whole ship to disintegrate in flames. 19 One of the crew, presumably Karl Schwarz, described the event in graphic detail. "Fifteen thousand cubic meters of hydrogen gas were burning, and the ballonettes were bursting with our reports. The rigs, supports and struts of the metal frame were glowing, bending and breaking; the envelope was being torn apart in blazing shreds; and soon flames were eating through to the gasoline tanks. The heat was becoming unbearable; it was Hell itself in which I was burning alive." After trying desperately to release the hydrogen, a great explosion rocked the ship and sent Schwarz and the remaining crew aboard flying to the ground. With herculean efforts, Schwarz managed to extricate himself from the wreckage and stumble to safety. 20
10 "What is that?"
11 "Let's go see."
12 "The Zeppelin is coming!" John Duggan and Henry Cord Meyer, Airships and international affairs, 1890-1940 (NY: Palgrave, 2001), 38.
13 Graf is the German equivalent of the social class 'count.' The term 'Graf von Zeppelin' should not be confused with the term 'Graf Zeppelin,' the former being the person, and the later being two zeppelin airships named after the man, the LZ127 (1928) and LZ130 (1938).
14 Duggan and Meyer, 31.
15 Boston Globe "Tragic End for Monarch of Air", 1.
16 Duggan and Meyer, 31.
17 Scwäbisher Merkur, no. 363, 6 Aug. 1908. Duggan and Meyer, 31.
18 New York Times, "Explosion Destroys Zeppelin's Airship," August 6, 1908, 1.
19 Boston Globe, "Tragic End for Monarch of Air", 2.
20 Robert Hedin, editor. The Zeppelin reader : stories, poems, and songs from the age of airships (Iowa City : University of Iowa Press, c1998), 44.