Let us now stop and pay homage to the airship, the dirigible, the zeppelin — the great flying machine that is best remembered, if it’s remembered at all, for its greatest failure: the explosion of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, N.J., in May 1937.
Most people, even children — thanks to a proliferation of juvenile books on this subject — know the hazy outlines of that story. All that inflammable hydrogen gas. All those people on board. The unexpected crash just before landing and the famous eyewitness report of the carnage. “Oh, the humanity!” Alexander Rose, the author of several books including “Men of War,” says his interest in this topic began there, starting with a simple question: “Hey, what about a book about the Hindenburg?”But to say that Rose’s new book, “Empires of the Sky,” is about the Hindenburg is to diminish the genius of the narrative Rose has crafted here. Instead of writing about a single moment in time — May 6, 1937 — Rose has built a sweeping narrative, taking us all the way back to the 1800s, to the days of “aeronauts” and “balloonmania,” to the early dreams of flying and to the central question that loomed over aviation from the late 1890s all the way to the 1930s and the Hindenburg explosion.That question wasn’t whether or not we could fly. Early efforts showed that it was possible — for anyone willing to risk dying in a crippling crunch of wood, aluminum, fabric and fuel. The question, instead, soon became this: If we are to fly — if we are to truly travel in the sky — will it be by airplane or will it be by airship?It’s an unthinkable question today. When, besides football games, was the last time you even saw a blimp? But the question, and the heated rivalry it created between the airplane and the airship builders, form the heart of the action in “Empires of the Sky,” pitting the two sides against each other in a quest for aerial domination at a time when no one knew how it would end.On the one side, there’s Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the quixotic German aristocrat whose name would become synonymous with the airship, and his anointed heir, Hugo Eckener, a tireless true believer in the notion that hydrogen-filled zeppelins were the only way to fly. And on the other side, there are the Wright brothers and Juan Trippe, the power-hungry, Yale-educated executive who, in the 1920s and ’30s, a generation after the Wright brothers’ early successes, would try to make money off airplanes at his fledgling company: Pan American Airlines.In a sign of just how far-reaching the narrative will be, the book opens in the summer of 1863, with the Civil War raging in America and a young Count von Zeppelin traveling through the wilderness in the newly minted state of Minnesota. The privileged count was vagabonding across America when he met up with a balloonist in the streets of St. Paul and did what privileged counts are wont to do: He wheedled himself a ride.Air travel is so commonplace today (or it was, at least, before coronavirus restrictions) that it’s hard to imagine how flights like these changed the world. But they did. From the air, people felt untethered from the earth; many spoke about their experiences in over-the-top, rapturous tones. “From now on our place is the sky!” said one man in Rose’s narrative after an early balloon flight. “Such utter calm. Such immensity! Such an astonishing view.”Zeppelin felt similarly, and the early chapters of “Empires of the Sky” document his efforts to build what the French called a dirigeable — a “steerable” balloon. It did not go well, at first. In the 1890s, the esteemed count was, frankly, a joke. “As he walked down the streets of Stuttgart,” Rose writes, “Zeppelin was ridiculed and taunted as a lunatic.”But in July 1900 — three years before the Wright brothers would fly — Zeppelin soared for almost 18 minutes over Germany in a 420-foot airship filled with nearly 400,000 cubic feet of hydrogen. He quickly built other, better models. By 1908, Germans routinely turned their heads to the sky, shouting, “Zeppelin kommt!,” and even when the count crashed and crashed badly, people loved him. There was, Rose notes, Zeppelin beer, cheese, suspenders, boot polish and cigars.Without question, at this point the airship — not the airplane — was the future, and many experts still believed that after Zeppelin’s death (of natural causes) in 1917. Eckener — Zeppelin’s disciple, “as German as one can be,” and the true protagonist in this narrative — would reel off a string of successes to prove it. Zeppelins, not airplanes, were the first to offer passenger flights in Europe and the first to transport passengers across the Atlantic Ocean, connecting to both North and South America. And the bullet-shaped ships were always intriguing to the military. Even the Americans briefly commissioned airships in hopes of winning the heavens — all of which is recounted in “Empires of the Sky” with mounting tension, building to the climax of the Hindenburg.It was to be the Zeppelin company’s greatest ship — “the pinnacle of German engineering, German technique, German air power and German prowess.” But by then, Eckener had three major problems: Juan Trippe; fast-improving airplanes; and Adolf Hitler, who had little love for Eckener but viewed his zeppelins as yet another way to prove German superiority.While Hitler, to Eckener’s horror, slapped enormous swastikas on the tail fins of the Hindenburg, Trippe was looking to take everything that Eckener had, his trans-Atlantic service most of all. “We will be going across the Atlantic and, after that, across the Pacific,” Trippe promised. “We are going around the world.”The characters are fascinating — you’ll recognize their names. Roosevelt, Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and Lindbergh are all here. They mingle together in smoke-filled rooms with Eckener, while passengers on nascent airlines toss cigarettes out their windows, dine off porcelain plates, wipe their lips with linen napkins and then stroll through new Art Deco airport terminals.The history here is fascinating, too. Why did zeppelins use hydrogen instead of helium, the American airship gas of choice? Rose answers that. And what caused the Hindenburg to crash? Rose answers that, too, taking on — and debunking — all the many conspiracy theories, without veering too far from his narrative. But at times, the prose wanders into clichés. Characters bite off more than they can chew, twiddle their thumbs, cool their heels, have albatrosses around their necks and are as pleased as punch. And early on, the narrative feels a bit like one of Eckener’s 800-foot airships. It lumbers just a bit on takeoff, taking 200 pages just to get through World War I and introduce Trippe.Over all, however, the reader will be glad for staying with Rose. We need to know about Zeppelin’s early failures because, at its heart, this book isn’t about a rivalry. It is a love letter to the airship. And even though we know how the story ends — with the airplane winning our business, and the Hindenburg going down in flames and Eckener disappearing from our collective imagination — I read with great urgency all the way to the final page, captivated by what might have been and marveling at what humans can accomplish with the help of engineering, physics, facts.That’s a lesson that’s only all too relevant today. But it’s all just subtext here. Rose could not have known the world in which this book would fly. And so, we should just appreciate “Empires of the Sky” for what it is: important history and a true narrative — a definitive tale of an incredible time when mere mortals learned to fly.