The Flight of the ZR-3
By William F. Hanna
In the predawn stillness the sound carries across a darkened landscape lighted only by the nearly full moon. Far in the distance a throbbing, high-pitched whine penetrates the silence. Hardly noticeable at first, it becomes louder as it unspools across the countryside, and although there’s still an hour before first light, it’s noisy enough to bring people out of their beds and to the windows. Looking skyward, they catch a fleeting glimpse of history as it passes overhead; the racket reaches a crescendo and then slowly fades away.
That was the scene in Taunton in the predawn hours of October 15, 1924, as the enormous German airship ZR-3 passed over the city. It was completing a highly publicized transatlantic voyage from Germany to the U.S. naval station at Lakehurst, New Jersey. Upon arrival it would be renamed the USS Los Angeles and then join the U.S. Navy’s small fleet of airships.
Beyond the spectacle, this was notable because the zeppelin’s very existence seemed improbable in the years immediately following World War I. Enraged by the civilian deaths caused by bombs dropped from German airships over Allied cities, the victors took vengeance at Versailles with a treaty that, among other things, placed severe restrictions on Germany’s production of zeppelins. Airships large enough for international travel, for example, were banned, thus placing the future of an important German industry in jeopardy.
That problem was solved, however, by Dr. Hugo Eckener, the commander of the ZR-3 as it passed over the New England countryside on that dark October morning. Eckener was a pioneer in the German zeppelin business. At 56 years old, he was an experienced navigator who was familiar with every facet of lighter than air flight. During World War I, he had trained most of the German airship pilots and he remained a steadfast postwar proponent of the industry. In the early 1920s, over the strong objections of the British and French governments, Eckener had negotiated an agreement that allowed Germany to build an additional zeppelin large enough to safely undertake a transatlantic crossing. Under terms of the arrangement, the new airship, outfitted for peaceful purposes only, would be flown to the United States and turned over to the U.S. Navy as part of German war reparations. When it passed over Taunton, the ZR-3 was within hours of completing that mission.
No one who saw the airship ever forgot the sight. At 658 feet long, it was more than twice the length of a football field, and as tall as an 8-storey building. Kept aloft by hydrogen, its five engines allowed a cruising speed of 55 miles per hour, and under favorable conditions it could reach speeds approaching 75 miles per hour. By the time the airship finally reached Lakehurst later in the morning of October 15, it had travelled approximately 4,300 miles in just over eighty-one hours.
The flight from Friedrichshafen, Germany had not gone entirely as planned. Commander Eckener had intended to bring the zeppelin across the Atlantic along a southerly route from the Azores to Bermuda, but bad weather necessitated a change in strategy. In mid-ocean the ZR-3 turned northward on a course that would bring landfall over southern Nova Scotia, and from there the airship would make its way down the Eastern seaboard to Lakehurst. The fact that up to that time there had been only one successful, non-stop crossing of the North Atlantic by a zeppelin was not lost on either the press or the public.
At about 10 p.m. on the beautifully clear night of October 14, the ZR-3 passed above Sable Island and headed southward over the Gulf of Maine. Five hours later, off the port side, the crew spotted the Highland Light on Cape Cod, and at 4:15 a.m. the airship was sighted on its approach to Boston.
In addition to Dr. Eckener, the ZR-3 held a complement of 33 German crewmembers as well as four American military personnel who were making the trip as observers. One of those was U.S. Navy Captain George W. Steele, who was slated to command the zeppelin after it had been transferred to American custody. Also aboard was Ernst A. Lehmann, a well-known airman and former student of Eckener, who had commanded some of the zeppelin attacks against Allied cities during the war. Capt. Lehmann would be among those killed thirteen years later, when the airship Hindenburg, the pride of Nazi Germany, exploded as it attempted to land at Lakehurst in May 1937.
Despite the inhospitable hour, Bostonians were ready to greet the airship. The Boston Globe reported that “Sweeping along gracefully against a sky lighted by the moon, persons caught first her red and white lights. Her bulk then was discernible. . . . As she crossed the path of moonlight, the black hulk turned quickly into silver.” The reporter noticed that “Each window in the fore-cabin near the prow of the airship gleamed brightly yellow.” “In the center of the city men ran for the squares and open spaces and mounted to roofs as long as possible. They hooted and howled a welcome.”
From Boston the zeppelin travelled southward, over Brockton, Bridgewater and Raynham and on to Taunton, arriving over the city around 4:30 a.m. “The hum of its motors could be heard distinctly by those who were awake,” said the Taunton Daily Gazette, “. . . and not a few persons, looking for the cause of the sound, were able to see the giant hulk of the ship as it passed over the city.” The newspaper noted that among those who had a particularly good view of the ship were members of the trolley car crews working the early shift in downtown Taunton.
Upon leaving the city the airship followed the approximate course of the Taunton River down to Fall River and then on to Newport, R.I. After passing over Newport at 5 a.m., the zeppelin altered course slightly and was next reported over Westerly, R.I. forty minutes later. When the giant airship reached southeastern Connecticut, preparations were made for the upcoming and highly awaited transit of New York City. Eckener ordered an altitude of 12,000 feet, and it was from that height that the ZR-3 was first seen over Manhattan at approximately 7:45 a.m. Never a man to pass up an opportunity, Eckener circled New York City five times, occasionally descending as low as 600 feet. As the Americans aboard the airship eagerly pointed out landmarks to their German colleagues, New Yorkers waved flags and shouted their welcome. “Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers craned their necks . . . and watched the big silver cigar glide overhead,” reported the New York Daily News.
Then it was on to the 50-mile final leg of the journey bringing the ZR-3 to its moorings at Lakehurst, N.J. The naval station, under heavy guard, was well prepared for the airship’s arrival. Because of the heavy security in place, the public was not allowed near the landing zone when the zeppelin arrived. After circling the field the airship was overhead at 9:42 a.m. Her landing lines were dropped and the well-trained ground personnel had the ship moored in place within ten minutes.
Americans were fascinated by the ZR-3’s voyage. One New York newspaper called the transatlantic journey “a world epoch in aerial navigation,” while Eckener, was “the Columbus of this modern world event.” Hailed by thousands of New Yorkers, the crew was given a parade down Broadway and feted by President Calvin Coolidge at the White House.
As they celebrated the flight of the newly designated USS Los Angeles, many Americans anticipated a new age in the technology of air travel. They couldn’t know it, but that future would have no place for zeppelins. As time passed, the barnstorming pilots of the Lindbergh and Earhart generation would remake the aviation industry, and by the end of World War II airships would be relegated to the status of flying dinosaurs. Even so, for those many thousands who saw the ZR-3 pass over in the moonlight, it was a treasured memory to be saved for the grandchildren.