Empires of the Sky

Wreck of the Hindenburg

Alexander Rose. Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World. New York: Random House, 2020.

The two men of the title both led a great aviation enterprise. Both dreamed of spanning the world with their passenger aircraft. Both struggled at times, and prospered at others. But one was outlived by his company, while the other died knowing that his life's work had been reduced to ashes. The former was Juan Terry Trippe, the head of Pan American Airways (PAA; better known as Pan Am) from 1927 to 1968; the latter, Hugo Eckener, who ran Luftschiffbau Zeppelin and DELAG, the Zeppelin airline, after the death of Count Zeppelin in 1917.1 Both wanted to span the world's continents and oceans by air: Trippe championed aeroplanes as the best way to do this; Eckener, obviously, airships. We all know how that turned out, but well-known stories are often worth revisiting because, well, you don't always know what you thought you did. And so Alexander Rose -- who is perhaps best known as the author of Washington's Spies, which was turned into a successful television series, but wrote his PhD on British air defence policy in the 1930s -- has written a thoroughly researched, fully referenced, hugely informative and compellingly readable account of the struggle for the future of civil aviation.

As often seems to be true of pioneers, Trippe and Eckener both, in their different ways, come across as an odd combination of idealism and cynicism; the cynical methods were needed to get to those idealistic goals of global air travel. Trippe, in particular, wheeled and dealed his way into a prime position at the forefront of American aviation, using quite underhanded methods at times (vital equipment ordered by NYRBA, a rival for the Argentinian market, mysteriously went missing, for example). For his part, Eckener took a very relaxed approach to accounting (and he needed to: Graf Zeppelin carried an average of just 9 passengers on its South American route in 1932, and sometimes carried less than 10 pounds of cargo; it was largely underpinned by philately), and cooperated with the Nazis in order to keep the Zeppelin dream alive -- not very enthusiastically, admittedly, and they always regarded him with suspicion; the only reason he wasn't arrested on the Night of the Long Knives was that he was on a flight to Brazil.

Empires of the Sky takes in a lot of aviation history beyond (and before) Eckener and Trippe, and even Count Zeppelin himself (who dominates the first third of the book). I learned a lot. For example, I'd somehow missed the fact that when Benjamin Franklin famously asked 'Of what use is a newborn baby?', it was as a defence of ballooning, not a general point about patience and long-term investments. Nor did I know that Ernst Lehmann, an experienced airship captain, bizarrely claimed that there had been thirty reconnaissance flights along the US east coast by Zeppelins during the First World War -- as Rose points out, 'a simply impossible feat' (180).2 More substantively, I now have a clearer understanding of Eckener's ambitions in the United States, which were not confined to Goodyear-Zeppelin for airship construction, but also included the (theoretically) transoceanic airlines American (later International) Zeppelin Transport and Pacific Zeppelin Transport (which somehow survived until 1957). Count Zeppelin's own travails in attempting to realise his dream are also fascinating, requiring him to persuade emperors and kings, outmanouevre military leaders, persuade engineers and industrialists, and court public opinion. More than once he snatched (or was given) another chance at resurrection from the ashes of disaster, most famously at the 'Echterdingen miracle' in 1908; but as early as 1894 he won a hearing before a military committee thanks to reports of a Russian airship, and something similar happened a decade later when the Kaiser got wind of the new French Lebaudy airship. Even peaceful aviation (and at this point Zeppelin mostly foresaw civilian uses for his airships) needed war, or the possibility of war, to propel it.

Rose is good on the technological side of aviation, giving clear explanations of the changing understanding of aerodynamics in the late 19th century, for example, as well as the reasons for the use of helium in airships (well, it doesn't burn) and the less obvious reasons against its use (far more expensive than hydrogen for much less lift). He also provides an excellent account of the causes of the Hindenburg disaster (the aftermath of which is pictured above). This is one of the strongest chapters of the book, and the most vivid. Rose traces media accounts of the disaster in the first few days after the fire, showing how some of the most indelible impressions we still have didn't come until much later ('Oh, the humanity!', for example, wasn't played in newsreels alongside the film footage, which instead were accompanied by scripted voiceovers). He shows that American sentiment did not, as is commonly thought, turn against airships after the disaster, and was quite supportive of supplying helium to Nazi Germany. (Not that the senior Nazis had any interest in airships, other than their propaganda value: 'the thing is rubbish' (483), Göring said in 1940 of the last Zeppelin, just before having it scrapped.)

Most of what I've said above relates to the Zeppelin side of the story. That partly reflects my own interests, and the non-Zeppelin parts of the book are just as good (for example, the chapter on the post-Lindbergh aviation boom in the US is a brilliant evocation of airmindness, and I never tire of reading about the ridiculously overscale size of PAA's operations on the tiny Wake and Midway Islands). But it's also true that the book does balance that way: the prologue apart (about the famous 'millionaire's flight'), Trippe doesn't appear until two-fifths of the way in. Mostly, too, it feels like the two sides of the story run in parallel rather than intersecting: the 'duel' of the title was mostly notional, with little geographic overlap in terms of air routes, although Trippe did play some of his dirty tricks against Eckener at key points. I didn't have a problem with that, because Rose nevertheless interweaves both stories and tells them so well that I was glued to Empires of the Sky to the end.

In 1928, Oliver Wendell Holmes, after Graf Zeppelin flew over Washington D.C. while he was in court, said 'I wish I could have seen that Zeppelin' (298). Me too, Oliver, me too; but at least I can read this book.

Image source: The Atlantic.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://airminded.org/copyright/.

  1. Citing a newspaper obituary, Wikipedia claims that Trippe got his first name from 'the Venezuelan wife of his great uncle'. But according to Rose he was actually named after his mother's stepfather, Juan Terry, a Venezuelan millionaire. Trippe hated his name and his non-WASP family connections; the fact that PAA's empire began in Latin America was a coincidence. []
  2. Quotations and page references are from a pre-publication version. []

2 thoughts on “Empires of the Sky

  1. Shrike58

    I just finished this book up myself and I'm also highly impressed. That Count Zeppelin had a very good technological education for his time was a major revelation for me.

  2. Post author

    Yes, me too! I'd previously understood Zeppelin to be more of a dilettante than anything else (if an extraordinarily single-minded one), but while he was not an engineer he was much more across the technology than I had given him credit for.

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