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~ An Historical Perspective ~

The Graf Zeppelin practicing a water landing on the Bodensee
(Lake Constance), Germany, prior to the1931 polar flight.

The 1931 polar flight of the Graf Zeppelin is possibly the least well-known of several spectacular flights the giant rigid airship made in the late 1920s and early 30s. Despite its massive aerial survey and mapping of the Russian Arctic, the flight is perhaps best known now to collectors of the highly-prized Zeppelin mail it carried. It should have been otherwise. Originally plans called for a meeting at the North Pole between a submarine and the airship. But mechanical problems with the submarine prevented the rendezvous from taking place and the Graf Zeppelin continued with the less well-publicized scientific pursuits of the flight. If for no other reason, the flight should be remembered as a tribute to Count Zeppelin who in 1910 envisioned the use of airships in polar exploration.

Background. At the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries, aerial transportation was taking two widely divergent paths. One was lighter-than-air flight in which a lifting medium, a gas such as hot air or hydrogen, causes a vehicle to "float" in the air. Balloons, both tethered and free-balloons, had been in use for a variety of purposes since the 1700s. By the late 1800s, the Brazilian Alberto Santos-DuMont was skimming the roof-tops of Paris in his powered dirigibles.

Heavier-than-air--or mechanical flight as it was then known since lift was produced "mechanically" by the movement of an airfoil through the air--was lagging far behind. By the time the Wright Brothers made their first powered airplane flight in 1903, Germany's Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had already made successful flights in the rigid airships that would bear his name. For the first three decades of the twentieth century, it appeared that lighter-than-air aerial transportation would dominate.

Andree Balloon
Classic photo of the Andrée party landing on the ice north of Danes Island Spitsbergen, 1897.

The Quest for the North Pole. By the late 1800s, the Victorian era fascination with remote, exotic places had centered on two parts of the globe commonly identified at the time as "Darkest Africa" and the "Frozen North." Coupled with this was a proliferation of newly formed newspapers, each competing for readers' attention…and their money, that created the image of The Explorer as a heroic figure. While other adventurers were struggling to gain a mile or two more over the surface towards attainment of the North Pole, a Swedish Engineer, Salamon Auguste Andrée, announced elaborate, and well-publicized, plans for flying to the North Pole in a hydrogen-filled balloon. Andrée and his two companions disappeared somewhere over the polar ice pack north of Danes Island, Spitsbergen in 1897. Their fate was a mystery until their remains were discovered on a remote arctic [1] island in 1930.

Some ten years later, an American journalist Walter Wellman attempted to follow in Andrée's footsteps by flying a somewhat more reliable French-built dirigible. In 1907 on Wellman's first attempt at the North Pole from Andrée's old base on Danes Island, Welllman ran into a snowstorm and landed on a nearby glacier where the airship was abandoned. Wellman returned in 1909 for another attempt at the pole, but this time the airship encountered mechanical problems out over the polar ice pack and returned to land. Wellman abandoned his plans when both Robert E. Peary and Frederick A. Cook announced in the fall of 1909 that each claimed to have attained the North Pole by surface travel. More than fifteen years would pass before the airship Norge finally reached the North Pole from Spitsbergen.

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