A trip to New York on Hydrogen Wings. It Was Just One of Those Things
After the stunning success of our first guest post, I am happy to announce our second, which is also amazing, but in a very different way. Today’s blogger, Stacy Danielle Stephens is most certainly a polymath in the traditional sense of the word. Not only is she the owner of Flatwater Press in Nebraska, which puts out classics in affordable editions, but she is also an author in her own right, having written The Nothing That Is and Other Stories, The Bohemian Girl and Other Stories, When So Much Is Left Undone and Other Stories, But Soon It Will Be Night, and Daybreak in Alabama. As if that wasn’t enough, she is also extremely knowledgeable about WWII and the immediate prewar era. And that, of course, means airships. Because, as steampunk writers never tire of telling us, there is nothing more awesome than airships. Enjoy!
In 1936, a passenger boarded The Hindenburg, then went to her room to rest before takeoff. After some time had passed, she began to wonder what the delay was, and rang for a steward. When he arrived, she asked when they’d be taking off. He told her they’d taken off over an hour earlier. This illustrates two things. Traveling in The Hindenburg was unbelievably placid. If you weren’t watching the ground passing beneath you, you probably didn’t know you were moving. The other thing? You couldn’t watch the ground from your room, because it had no windows.
A passenger cabin of The Hindenburg was actually smaller than a Pullman car for railroad passengers. But the Hindenburg passengers didn’t mind this. They spent most of their time on the promenade deck (below), where they could watch the landscape, in much the way rail passengers in the observation car might, except on The Hindenburg, you watched from above, with just enough altitude for the the view to be dramatically panoramic, yet highly visible. The Hindenburg operated at low altitudes not just to offer this fabulous scenery, but for the safety of it. Atmospheric pressure decreases with altitude, and this caused the potentially explosive hydrogen inside to strain at its containment cells. It would be vented as necessary to prevent damage, but also to compensate for the loss of fuel as it travelled. And from this lower altitude, the Hindenburg crew was also better able to watch the weather as they approached it, and would not only avoid storms, but even take advantage of them, maneuvering the ship into a useful tailwind whenever and wherever they found it. The passengers were seldom aware of this, or of the fact that the elevator man was essentially strong-arming the ship’s stabilizers to keep it within five degrees of level, which is another reason passengers seldom felt any sense of movement. An eight-degree tilt is enough for heavy objects to slide off of a smooth surface, and in household plumbing, drainpipes are set to a four degree slope to ensure that waste water flows easily but quietly.
In 1936, passage on The Hindenburg, between Germany and the US, cost $400; converted to today’s dollars, that would be between five thousand and six thousand, depending on how the conversion is calculated. For comparison, first class passage on a fast boat was $240. The Hindenburg would make the crossing in no more than three days; its fastest crossing was forty-three hours. A fast boat would take five or six days. For people who could afford it, getting there in half the time was worth paying nearly twice as much, particularly when comfort was only slightly compromised, and any risk of seasickness done away with.
For further comparison, the standard of transcontinental fixed-wing air travel in the thirties was set by United Air Lines Boeing 247. For $160, United would take you from New York to San Francisco in twenty hours, with five to eight stops along the way. In those same twenty hours, for still more comparison, the Twentieth Century Limited would take you from New York to Chicago for $52.
Now contrast The Hindenburg’s reading room (below left) with the 247’s interior (below middle) and the 20th Century Limited‘s observation car.
I have yet to write the passage of my War Correspondent novel in which a woman who travelled on The Hindenburg wistfully recalls the absolute wonder of it some twenty years later. If you don’t want to wait, you might want to visit The Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, Germany, and see the Hindenburg replica there.