|Graf Zeppelin arriving at Opa-Locka naval base|
By Jane Feehan
The German-built airship, the Graf Zeppelin, achieved world-wide celebrity status in 1928. It made the first commercial-passenger dirigible flight across the Atlantic, landing Oct. 15 that year in Lakehurst, New Jersey. It was also the largest one built up to that time—800 feet— and its commander, Dr. Hugo Eckener (1868-1954) was considered a leading expert in dirigible flight. In 1929 he successfully flew the airship around the world, chalking up another first.
Enthusiasm for commercial dirigible flight surged across the U.S. after the Graf Zeppelin’s trans-oceanic trip in 1928. The U.S. military was already using rigid-construction (frame) airships to support search and coastal operations but visions of passengers and goods traveling across the Atlantic fueled dreams of expanded commerce. According to news accounts, Miami officials, excited by the prospects of such travel, set aside hundreds of acres and spent $40,000 for a dirigible docking port at the Opa-Locka Naval Reserve Base, dedicating it Jan. 13, 1930. Some news sources claimed it was the only such port in the world municipally owned.
Miami officials were eager to see the Graf Zeppelin up close after the commander accepted their invitation to visit Miami. Dr. Eckener scheduled a trip from Friedrichshafen, Germany to Miami in 1933 before heading to Goodyear headquarters in Akron. Floridians were also caught up in airship fever. Seaboard Air Line advertised discounted two-day, round-trip rail service from Bartow, Winter Haven, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood to see the famous zeppelin in Opa-Locka.
On Oct. 23, 1933, the Graf Zeppelin, with its 98-foot gondola, coasted 1,000 feet over Miami. It was escorted by a plane to the Opa-Locka naval air station, where beefed-up security was deployed to guard the dirigible against possible violence. Protests were predicted (but did not occur) against the new German regime headed by Hitler who grabbed power in January 1933.
Commander Hugo Eckener was accompanied by a representative from the German Air Ministry, an editor from a French aeronautical magazine, Hearst reporter, Lady Grace-Drummond-Hay and a few private citizen passengers. Miami Mayor E.G. Sewell, Miami commissioners, Opa-Locka officials, and other notables, soon whisked the visitors to the McAllister Hotel and then to a luncheon at the Old Heidelberg restaurant.
Eckener told hosts about his plans to expand Graf Zeppelin’s trans-oceanic service: a route from Seville, Spain to Rio de Janeiro with a stop in Miami during the winter, and a summer route to Lakehurst or Washington, D.C. The commander thought the service could begin in two years. Dr. Eckener also hoped for service from the U.S. to Egypt via Europe.
The Graf Zeppelin, its crew and passengers departed Opa-Locka for Akron about 16 hours later. It proved to be a short visit with a long list of possibilities that did not come to fruition. Later, Eckener thought traveling across the Atlantic on a more southern route would be easier. The airship continued to operate but under clouds of pending war in Europe. Its nine-year successful run came to an end the day after the Hindenburg disaster May 6, 1937 in New Jersey when 36 died in its fire. In 1940, parts from the grounded Graf Zeppelin were taken for use in German war-bound winged aircraft.
Dr. Eckener, no fan of the Nazis (nor they of him) criticized the regime for cutting costs in operating dirigibles; he endorsed the use of helium rather than the explosive hydrogen in landings. Helium, a by-product of mined mineral gas, was controlled by the U.S. starting in 1925; regulation drove up its costs. The German government opted for use of the cheaper hydrogen. Some experts later surmised a spark ignited hydrogen, causing the devasting Hindenburg fire that occurred just 200 feet above ground. The Hindenburg disaster spelled doom for dirigible flight. Airplane travel was about to take over, further diminishing prospects for such ships as the Graf Zeppelin.
The L-27 Graf Zeppelin, the one that stopped in Miami, proved to be the most successful of zeppelins. It made 590 flights, racked up more than a million miles and carried more than 34,000 passengers without a single injury. It also conducted one scientific mission to the North Pole.
Between 1912-1930, there were 13 airship flights (NOT the Graf Zeppelin) involving 275 fatalities. There were more fatal accidents both before and after that time span; a comprehensive list is difficult to find. In spite of safety concerns, the glamour of dirigible flying was never matched by the more efficient common carrier airplanes, the flying buses that replaced them.
Miami News, Oct. 11, 1928
Miami News, Oct. 16, 1928
Miami News, Jan. 13, 1930
Miami News, April 4, 1933
Miami News, Sept. 28, 1933
Miami News, Oct. 21, 1933
Miami News, Oct 23, 1933