The hindenburg’s ‘millionaires’ flight’ amazed connecticut residents history electricity equations physics


On that foggy fall morning in 1936, the Hindenburg lifted off from its U.S. docking port, the New Jersey naval station at Lakehurst, at 6:57 to the shouts of “Schiff hoch!” (“Up ship!”). Dr. Hugo Eckener, head of the DZR and the former commander of the Graf Zeppelin, was in the control car along with Cpt. Ernst Lehmann. On board were more than 70 American dignitaries. The passenger list read like a who’s who for 1936, which led the press to refer to it as the “Millionaires’ Flight.” Those on board included: Nelson Rockefeller, a 28-year-old New York financier, scion of the Rockefeller oil fortune, and future electric zap sound effect free New York governor and U.S. vice president; Winthrop Aldrich, chairman of the board of Chase National Bank; Paul Litchfield, president of the Goodyear Tire Rubber Co.; Byron Foy, an auto executive who would go on to head the Chrysler Corp.; Juan Trippe, founder of Pan American World Airways; Eddie Rickenbacker, World War I flying ace and director of Eastern Airlines; three admirals, a general, assorted government officials and a cadre of newspaper and magazine correspondents. John B. Kennedy, a reporter for NBC, was on board to provide in-flight radio broadcasts on the NBC Blue and Red networks.

Preceded by a small plane towing a banner reading “Hindenburg Coming,” the great airship proceeded north and circled New York City, providing a bird’s-eye view of the two recently completed skyscrapers, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. She followed the Hudson River to Peekskill and then headed east to Connecticut. At 9:45 a.m. she was over Danbury, adding to the excitement of the 67th annual Danbury Fair. F. Hayward Merritt and Brandes Meeker of Danbury flew small planes out to meet the Hindenburg west of Brewster, New York. They accompanied the ship over Danbury as far as Brookfield, keeping a specified one mile away. In the neighboring small town of Bethel, Harry Kibbard became somewhat of a celebrity by being the first to spot the zeppelin.

The Danbury News-Times reported that within minutes of the sighting, people were running from homes and stores to view the spectacle. Telephones rang all over town spreading the news. Instead of cheering, most people stood silently, apparently awed by the size and majestic beauty of the ship. Just over 800 feet long and 135 feet high, she was the size of the U.S. Capitol building and nearly as long as the Titanic. Yet amazingly she floated in the air, with more gas 93 than 7 million cubic feet of lighter-than-air hydrogen providing the buoyancy. Powered by four Daimler-Benz diesel engines, each generating 1,100 horsepower, she was the largest aircraft to ever fly. Many people noted the swastikas on the tailfin as the most conspicuous marking.

After its leisurely swing over Hartford, the ship turned north and proceeded into Massachusetts, passing over Springfield and Worcester. At noon, the guests sat down to a luxurious meal which included Indian swallow nest soup, cold Rhine salmon with a spice sauce, tenderloin steak with a goose liver sauce, château potatoes, beans a la princesse in butter, Carmen salad and iced California melon. The wine list featured a 1934 Piesporter Goldtrőpschen and a 1928 Feist Brut. Pastries and liqueurs were served for dessert, accompanied by Turkish coffee.

The meal reflected the luxury of traveling on the Hindenburg. She sailed along more quietly and smoothly than contemporary ocean liners. With a top cruising speed of 80 mph, she could cross the Atlantic in two days, more than twice as fast as the speediest cruise ships. Her 70 passengers had hot and cold running water in their cabins, were served gourmet meals in a spacious dining room, relaxed in a reading and writing lounge and could even enjoy a cigar in the special smoking room. Promenade decks on each side of the ship had large observation windows providing breathtaking, panoramic views, and a specially designed, lightweight aluminum baby grand piano offered musical entertainment. In the tradition of the finest continental hotels, passengers could leave their shoes outside their cabin doors each evening and find k electric share price them freshly polished the following morning.

Circling Boston, the Hindenburg made a graceful turn and headed south, flying over Quincy, Brockton and Attleboro. Proceeding over Providence, she crossed back into Connecticut over New London, and flew on to New Haven. Factory whistle blasts greeted her as she approached the Elm City at 2:05 p.m. Schools were let out so children could watch the passage while people congregated on the historic New Haven Green for a good view of the dirigible. The New Haven Register described the sight: “As it idled over this city, majestic in size and grace, the ship undoubtedly made an impression.”

As an exhibition flight, the day was a huge success. During the 10-hour flight, the Hindenburg had traveled 618 miles, flying over six states. It was estimated that as many as 20 million people had seen gas monkey monster truck the airship. Photographs of her passing graced the front pages of many local newspapers. The reactions of those on board were enthusiastic. Some commented that railroad trains had looked like toys around a Christmas tree. Edward Neil, an Associated Press writer on board, said that the progress of the huge airship through the skies was “as uneventful as a calm sea trip on a huge ocean liner.” Acting Secretary of the U.S. Navy William Standley described the day as “a wonderful experience.” All were impressed with the quiet, secure and luxurious comfort of the flight.

The day, however, was not without its downsides. An editorial in the New Haven Evening Register commented on the ship’s majestic size and grace. However, it added “there is much in our record to temper whatever envy any current or near future exhibition flight may happen to arouse.” This was an obvious reference to the fatal crashes of several U.S. Navy airships dating back to 1925. The most recent one, the Macon, had occurred in 1935 with the loss of two lives. Another newspaper editorial noted and dismissed rumors that the purpose of the Hindenburg’s trip was to film U.S. munitions plants.

Seven hours after the trip ended, the Hindenburg lifted off from Lakehurst on her last North Atlantic crossing of the season back to Frankfurt. An expanded 18-round-trip schedule was already planned for 1937. Eckener must have been very pleased with the trip through New England and the new hope which it afforded his dream of expanded international airship travel.

However, that dream was never to be realized. The lasting image of the great airship for most Americans was a horrific one of fiery destruction. It was on the Hindenburg’s next trip to the U.S., on May 6, 1937, that she burned and crashed while landing at Lakehurst. Lehmann and 34 passengers and crew were killed. (A ground worker was also killed, bringing the total death toll to 36.) Eckener was asked to take part in the inquiry into the tragedy. He made the solemn journey to America on the ocean liner Europa, rather than by airship. (Though controversy over the cause of the calamity persists to this day, the leading hypothesis is that a spark from static electricity ignited leaking hydrogen gas.) The spectacular disaster helped to bring an abrupt end to the future of commercial airship travel. It was a future which only seven months earlier had seemed as bright as the colorful Connecticut foliage.

The Hindenburg passed over Connecticut 21 times during its 17-month service, including round trips to Germany and the Millionaires’ Flight. The last time was on the fateful date of May 6, 1937, en route to New Jersey. Fairfield resident Roy Ervin, a local lawyer and one-time town attorney, was a child at the time, but he “remembers it like yesterday,” according to his description published in the Fairfield Citizen newspaper gas bubble in throat in 2014:

Suddenly I heard a strange noise, a rumbling, low-pitched wailing noise. I looked up, and slowly and loudly starting to come directly overhead, was this huge dirigible, virtually just over tree-top high — perhaps 400 to 500 feet. The size of the airship was mammoth. And in reality it was. Today’s dirigibles you see at football games, etc., you’d think are the size of this airship but they are only about 170 feet long and 30 feet in diameter. The airship above me, however, was the Hindenburg on its very last journey.

I ran to my house to call my mother and she came out and we watched this giant airship slowly pass over us. We also saw what I thought was a huge spider emblazoned on its tail. As a 6-year-old, I did not realize it was a giant swastika. The airship slowly continued on its path to New Jersey and, of course, later that day as it landed, it caught fire and crashed with 36 people dying.

Some years after, a neighbor friend who knew I saw the Hindenburg’s last voyage had secured a piece of the airship from a news photographer. It was about 4 by 6 inches in size, which I placed in my bedside table. Years later, it disappeared and my mother informed me that she thought it was a useless cloth and when cleaning my room, she threw it out with the garbage. I can’t blame her, but I wish I had it today as it would be quite a piece of memorabilia (and maybe even worth some real money).

Ervin was correct about the piece of cloth being “worth some real money.” In February, a 6.25-inch-by-5-inch canvas swatch from the airship sold for more than $36,000 at auction. While the save electricity images for drawing pre-auction estimate was only a few thousand dollars, the piece was unique because, unlike most of the Hindenburg’s gray canvas, this cloth was red and likely came from one of the Nazi flags emblazoned on the tailfin. The purchaser witnessed the crash from the ground as a teenager, her father a member of the naval crew tasked with docking the airship.