Luftschiff Hindenburg (LZ-129), Speisesaal

With some disappointment Carla looked through the downward slanting large windows: there was still nothing more to see than grey fog, a pea soup that seemed to touch the windows and that moved past with considerable speed. Of course she had it wrong, she realized, the ship was moving forward at one hundred twentyfive kilometer per hour and it was the fog that was stationary.

They had departed from Frankfurt yesterday and that had been an exciting experience. The ship had been moored to the landing tower at a height of about thirty meters and hundreds of people had swarmed below it. Commands and shrill whistle signals could be heard, hawsers were cast off, even a ship’s bell was sounded. She had heard a steady discharge of water – that was ballast, she was told. Then the ship had moved slowly away from the mast, going backward and upward in a stately manner, while the crowd below was cheering and waving. She had felt a shudder going through the mighty structure surrounding her, followed by a steady vibration when the engines took hold of the airship and started to propel it forward. The “Hindenburg” had freed itself from the airport departure site and had at first flown low over the city until it had begun to rise gradually into the clouds.


Obviously that’s where they still were at present. Carla had slept very well and after having been awakened by a light knock on the door, she had dressed quickly in order to hasten to the dining room with almost childlike impatience. Coming from the ladies’ rest room on the lower deck, it struck her that the corridor was sloping slightly downward toward the rear and that the ship was rolling and pitching lightly. Much gentler than an ocean liner, but, as she moved towards the tail, the movement became more noticeable. The engines hummed far away, not loudly and not bothersome, but rather emanating a feeling of security.

The breakfast room was empty except for two well-dressed gentlemen, most likely business men on their way to Brazil. As Carla walked past them to the large picture window at port, she smiled and exchanged a friendly “grüß Gott”. She had been hoping for a cheerful sunny morning, but outside there was only grayness. All the same, she peered out intently for some minutes as if to grasp the true meaning of the passing cloud patches.

She could not help overhearing the conversation of the two gentlemen. It also concerned the clouds.
“I think we’ll probably stay in the clouds today as long as possible,” said the larger of the two, a military looking man. “In that way the Captain saves his hydrogen gas. See, we are heavily loaded – the fuel tanks are almost completely full – we are near maximum weight. If we get out over the clouds into the sun, the gas cells will heat, the gas expands to maximum and it could well be that the safety valves will bleed it off. But, see, we can’t afford that – we need all the gas to stay afloat, especially during the night. That’s why we are staying in the clouds now. Do you want some more coffee?”
“Yes, please.”
“There is one more thing that shows that we are heavily loaded: we’re cruising with the nose slightly up. That means the forward speed gives the ship some lift on its hull, just like the wing of an airplane. If we were to fly horizontally, with static buoyancy, we might loose height gradually.”
“We could jettison ballast?”
“Yes, we could, that’s true, but we are at the beginning of the journey and the Capitan must make best use of his resources – we may get into a situation later where he needs the ballast badly. Don’t forget that the ship gets slowly lighter all the time because it uses its fuel. In a while we’ll get to a warm country with a much lighter ship. You wouldn’t want to be in a situation where you couldn’t descend because you were too light, would you now? Or where you kept going higher and higher? Haha!”

Carla felt a bit of a shiver – there was much more involved in this type of travel than she had ever suspected.
“But in that case he would valve off the gas, wouldn’t he?”
“Of course, I was only joking. But the essence is to maintain control of the airship in an optimal way by preserving as much as possible of both gas and ballast. Remember, we can use the resources – fuel, gas and ballast – only once. When they’re gone, they’re gone for ever. That’s to say, until we can land.”
“Same with water?”
“Less so. We can collect rainwater and condensation on the hull and replenish our stores. But that takes time.”


The weather outside cleared somewhat. The pea soup became less dense and wispier. Occasionally there were even clear spaces between the shreds of fog. The men behind her continued with their breakfast and the expert on zeppelin travel volunteered more information:
“On the other hand, of course it is advantageous to fly as high as possible.”
“Because there the air is less dense?”
“Yes, the air is thinner; the ship has less drag. That means less effort to propel it. So we can make the same speed with less fuel, or we can go faster with the same fuel – so we arrive earlier in Rio.”
“So, we should fly as high as possible?”
“Yes, but there are limits. First of all we get trouble breathing. Especially the older passengers may not find it very comfortable at two thousand meter. The engines also will have their problems; they deliver less power per liter of fuel. Then there is the cold, mind you. At two thousand meter it may start to freeze. So the ship has to be heated, for the passengers first of all, and that takes fuel again…”
“Yes, but if there are no clouds at two thousand meters, the sun will heat us. You said just now that the gas would get warm …”
“Indeed, by radiation, but the air temperature is low and the air will have to be heated!”
“What fuel do we use?”
‘Diesel, we have four twelve hundred horse power diesel engines.”

Carla no longer followed the conversation. Typical boy’s talk. Men were awful… They could go on and on about something technical. She was more interested in the clouds. They were unmistakably becoming less and less. Occasionally she could even see a small patch of ocean surface. Ripples in a grey sheet: waves seen from a great height. It was only for a moment that she could see the sea and the thought flashed through her that somebody on a ship could have seen the Hindenburg. She imagined being on a ship underneath an endless cover of clouds and then suddenly in an opening, an airship appears and is gone again immediately. A strange thought. Would there have been somebody, there at sea? Or were they the only ones present in this space: a surreal dining room at five hundred meters, surrounded by clouds? Was she dreaming? Did the sea down there really exist? And had the zeppelin been visible from the sea even if nobody had been there to see it? Was there a reality outside the things that you saw yourself?

Fortunately, at that moment more passengers entered the room and a friendly elderly couple invited her to join them. They talked about their destinations and where they came from and soon the disturbing thoughts were gone.


Luftschiff Zeppelin LZ-129 ‘Hindenburg’ was the largest operational passenger airship between the wars in Germany. It had a length of 800 ft and a diameter of 135 ft.
Starting March 1936, it flew a regular airservice between Germany and South (later also North) America, until it was destroyed by fire
in May 1937 at Lakehurst, New Jersey, USA. In 1936, 17 round trips were made across the Atlantic, carrying an average of 65 passengers with a crew of 56. In that season the ship flew 192,000 miles, carrying more than 2000 passengers and 160 tons of freight and mail. A westward trip
took an averige of 65 hours depending on weather conditions; eastward it took ten hours less. The one way fare to the USA amounted to $400.–.

for more reading, see this most interesting Wiki site:


for books on airships:



It may be surprising,
but the confrontation
with Real aeroplanes
often comes as a shock.
To begin with, we shudder at jet’s
Sudden Roar.
Aeroplanes turn out to be Noisy.
(They never were so
in our picture books or imagination).

Next, we resent being
into a Wide-Body fuselage
for transport to our Exotic Holiday.
The very act of embarking the aircraft,
being inside,
changes our feelings towards it.

We can no longer,
with our eyes,
its smooth outside shape.
We can no longer dream
how it will traverse the sky
after a graceful start.

In our imagination
the aeroplane
is the perfect Man-Made object.
Imita­ting a living being,
it almost has come to life itself.

of this almost-living being,
it turns out to be stuffy,smelly,
almost nauseating.

The interior flying machine
stacks its passengers
into a cramped,
crowded space.
Starved, strapped, sedated,
we are offered at most
a narrow glimpse of clouds,
earth and sky.


we aeroplane-lovers
are Bird-lovers.

We fancy birds,
we admire birds,
we wonder how they fly.
We would like to Be birds,
but we don’t necessarily
want to be


Every country has its own Aviation History, with gods and goddesses, who were as famous ninety years ago as the baseball players and pop stars of today. America of course had Lindbergh and Byrd, Holland had renowned pilots like Geyssendorffer, Parmentier and van Dijk, while in the U.K. Alan Cobham was one of the most famous pioneers, who explored new traffic routes through the British Empire with aircraft that were exceedingly primitive according to our present standards.

Sir Alan Cobham

Cobham was born in 1894. After a simple education he seemed predestined for office life in the City of London. However, during WWI he found himself with the Royal Flying Corps and after demob, he dived into civil aviation, a sector of endeavor that had not yet really begun to function. Cobham tried every alley that was presented to him. In his first season he gave 5000 people their ‘air baptism’. He took part in air shows, demonstrations, aerial photography and record setting flights. His name became well known because of exploratory flights to such faraway places as Rangoon and Cape Town.

In 1922 he married Gladys Lloyd and in the same year he flew in one day from London to Bucharest. In 1926 he set off a wave of national pride and excitement by a flight to Australia, after which he was knighted to “Commander of the British Empire”. From then on, he was entitled to call himself Sir Alan and his wife Lady Gladys.

Short Singapore I, a801x
Alan Cobham’s Short Singapore I

Always looking for new challenges, he meets in 1927 Sir Oswald Short, builder of a revolutionary type flying boat, the “Singapore”. It is a beauty of a biplane with a wing span of over thirty meters. Between the wings, two powerful Rolls Royce Condor engines are mounted, braced by sturdy crosswise struts. The machine is particularly special because of its whale-like boat fuselage that easily accommodates six persons and is built of seawater resistant aluminium.

Sir Oswald asks Sir Alan to submit the machine to an ultimate trial by making a flight around the African continent. Of course our young lord cannot say no to this tempting invitation and so, on a windy day in November 1927, Lord and Lady Cobham, co-pilot Worrall, Rolls Royce engineers Green and Conway and camera operator Bonnett take off from a choppy river at Medway. Bonnett will record the journey on celluloid for Gaumont Pictures.
see:    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRTlSNWNxYM


Cobham (with goggles) and Worrall

Three days later, while cruising along the west coast of Corsica, the weather suddenly turns bad very quickly. The wind, which is first a tail wind, now blows from the direction in which their destination lies. Daylight is diminishing and there is no inn in sight to pass the night…

“On the long journey that we had begun, we had taken it as a rule not to open the throttles of our engines fully, but now an occasion presented itself to call upon our spare power, because we had to make up for time. So full-throttle it went, lowering at the same time the nose of our machine to present less frontal area to the head wind. In this way we gave our giant flying boat a speed of no less than 115 sea miles per hour. Our altitude was no more than 10 meters over sea level to avoid the maximum counter force of the wind, because the higher one flies, the stronger the wind.”[1]

From Bonifacio, Cobham sets out a southeast course to Sicily, to cross from there on a short run to Malta, where they hope to spend the night in the comfortable harbor of St. Paul’s Bay. With a headwind of thirty miles an hour, however, it is a mighty struggle to reach Sicily and pass the island to the south, a distance of more than 450 miles. The day is drawing to a close. Heavy clouds in the western sky make for an early evening and the crew begin to feel uncomfortable. The waves look ever more ominous as the daylight fails and the storm increases. The giant airplane is a mere toy in this deserted world of waves and clouds, splashed by water and tossed about by gusts of wind. If no sheltered landing site is found before dark sets in completely, the sea will overwhelm them and they all will be pulled down in the deep and drown…

Gladys Cobhamy
Lady Gladys Lloyd Cobham

Lady Gladys shivers at her little typewriter table in the dark hull with the two open deck hatches through which showers of rain and wind sweep inside. To her immense relief her hus­band suddenly calls through the speaking-tube that he has seen the lights of a man-of-war at anchor near the west coast of Malta. Oh, miracle, it is the flagship of the British Mediterranean Fleet, the “Queen Elizabeth”. The Singapore circles low, touches the water on the lea side and plows through the high waves to the ship. Cobham makes himself known by means of his megaphone and the Commodore on the big ship orders his First Mate to shout back that he would be honored to receive the famous air travelers for diner and a bunk for the night.

HMS Queen Elizabeth, flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet

Securing the flying boat to the giant ship and preparing her for the night takes some time and Lady Gladys takes the opportunity to inspect her wardrobe for a suitable outfit for this unforeseen dinner invitation. It is of necessity rather limited, although she does possess two evening dresses for official occasions. She finally selects her long black suede skirt with white silken blouse and chain of pearls. Because of the beastly weather she’ll be leant a long, grey woolen uniform coat by one of the crew members in the sloop carrying them to the battleship. It is obvious that all the ship’s men are eying her as she carefully steps from the sloop onto the ship’s ladder in her grey pumps. A whistle is blown and even a hurrah is heard.

The introductions are very formal yet cordial. Loyal subjects of the same King meet in the middle of the sea and behave as if they are at a cocktail party. At dinner, Commodore James first proposes a toast to His Majesty George the Fifth and then one to the success of Cobham’s mission. As the meal progresses, Gladys, seated of course to the right of the Commodore, feels more and more at ease and happily secure in the middle of all these handsome, immaculately dressed men smelling nicely of tobacco. She is so glad to be delivered from that horrible sea. She is truly grateful to God, Alan and the Royal Navy.

After dinner she would have preferred to go straight to bed, but the Commodore insists on a guided tour of the ship, so she obediently follows him upstairs, downstairs, along decks and back again below, from bow to stern and back to bow, all the time stepping in her tight skirt with her pumps through odd doors with high thresholds in watertight bulkheads, meanwhile smiling to one thousand grinning sailors.


™The following day they were towed to a sheltered part of St. Paul’s Bay. From then on the whole flight became a huge success, even if they nearly drowned near Malta, suffered a hurricane in Benghazi, underwent quarantine because of the pest in Alexandria, weathered a sand storm near Khartoum and overheating in Malakai. In the marshes of Bor they scattered a herd of one thousand elephants, which made Worrall loose his index finger in the air screw; they nearly lost control in the rapids on the Nile near Mongalla and enjoyed liqueur and cigars at the crossing of the equator. They almost sank because of a collision near Mwanza, made an emergency landing at Tresco and were delayed for one full month at Bassam.

But these were exactly the things why they had started out in the first place and Gladys loved it.


[ I must confess to have borrowed three pictures from the following excellent web page:
The last two pictures are from Wiki.]


[1]  “Twenty-Thousand Miles in a Flying Boat”, by  Sir Alan Cobham;  History Press Limited, 2007



Today I am updating the ROHRBACH ARCHIVES with some remarkable photographic material sent to me by good friends. Also available is now a link to the PDF copy of a Publicity Brochure (in French) of the ROHRBACH METALL-FLUGZEUGBAU from 1928, promoting its flying boats with Trans Atlantic capacity. Click here or in the relevant column on this screen:


Rohrbach_French Brochure

Finally a word of recommendation: