This is the final installment of Blimp Week II, folks, and I’m playing a couple of requests. Soon-to-be parasite on society Paul Frankenstein (he’s famous, you know) IMs, suggesting the title above. Ergo:

1. Go to Google Image search.

2. Enter the word “zeppelin” and hit the submit button.

3. Steal as many zeppelins as you’d like.

Thank you! I’ve been here all week!

Seriously, I looked for as many variations on this as I could, and I got bupkis. I did find an online steampunk tale, Queen Victoria and the Zeppelin Pirates, and brief references to a stop-motion film by one Karel Zerman called The Stolen Airship, but as far as I can tell, no factual incident of airship theft has been recorded, an astounding wrinkle in the gasbag.

Despite this, the early history of airships is rife with attempts to reverse engineer the technology or to obtain it by force of arms (there was a war on, after all). I’ve never encountered a detailed discussion of wartime espionage, but the themes play a big role in the ho-hum 1971 film Zeppelin, starring Michael York and Elke Sommer. York is a British spy sent to his duty in Freidrichshafen, where things get out of hand. I can’t recall if he attempts to steal the airship but we can safely state that it came up during script development and thus I rule it in bounds.


The creators went to great extents to make the ship convincing on screen, and as far as I could tell when I stumbled into it on the tube late one night, the interior control-deck seen in the film is quite accurate. Alas, the mediocrity of the film is apparently so great that even on the internet, no hard-core of obsessed admirers has surfaced to liberally sprinkle the darkweb with illict screen captures and grainy Quicktime video. At least there is some sort of collector’s market.


At the other end of the spectrum from technicolor films I’ve seen by directors I’ve never heard of, Dirigible was made in 1931 in black-and-white and directed by Frank Capra. I’ve never seen it, but it has a much cooler poster than that seventies monstrosity, I’m sure you’ll agree. It’s my understanding that the film also features the USS Los Angeles in her only starring role.


As usual, John Dziadecki has done the legwork on the topic of airships in film generally. His list is really the best collection of information on the subject I have seen on the net.

Mr. Frankenstein also sought information on the scene in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow in which the Hindenburg III is moored to the airship mast of the Empire State Building, and the passengers debark via a rickety nose-mounted gangway, high above the city. He wanted to know if the mast had ever actually been employed to moor an airship, and if so, if the depiction was accurate.

I had a hard time sourcing the details, but I know the answers off the top of my head, so here’s my un-researched skinny. The mast was added in the throes of a height race with the builders of the Chrysler Building, and its’ primary purpose is to add footage to the obelisk. The decision to design and promote the tower as an airship mast was largely driven by the desire for publicity. Shortly after the building was completed, of course, the airship era was brought to an abrupt and explosive close. However, even if the Hindenburg had not exploded, it’s unlikely that the Empire State’s mast would ever have been used.

At the time that the mast was conceived, there were two kinds of masts in common use on airship bases around the world. One, a mast low enough to the ground to allow the base of the ship to touch the ground and to allow people to board and debark directly, was less employed than another. The other, the high mast, is the approach which the Empire State’s mast emulates.

The high mast was, as the name implies, much taller. The moored airship’s crew would indeed primarily enter and leave via a nose-mounted gangway. If I understand the details, mooring a ship to the high mast was easier, faster, and required less crew, and therefore only if it was absolutely needed did a ship moor to the low mast. However, around 1920 (I think), a series of accidents occurred which led to the abandonment of the high mast generally, well before the Empire State building was completed.

The essential problem is that an airship is a great sail in the wind, and when the ships were tethered to the masts, wind could cause breakaways which severely damaged the craft and often occurred with only a skeleton crew aboard. The vessels were symbols of national pride and terribly expensive, and so it was rapidly learned not to expose them to the risks of the open air while moored.

So, amusingly, the most improbable aspect of the Hindenburg III sequence in Sky Captain – the absurd, apparent risk inherent in walking a plank while a quarter mile in the air – is also its’ most and least realistic element, simultaneously. It’s an enigma, a chinese puzzle box of the cinema, I tells ya!

I think we can fairly argue that the failure of humans to practice the second-oldest profession with regard to lighter-than-air aviation is also a mystery, and since this is a wrap up I can use that to transition into a couple of interesting anecdotes. Solidy in the realm of documented mystery along the lines of the Marie Celeste, the mystery of The Ghost Blimp generates a new story every few years. I believe the image below, of the pilotless vessel’s crash landing, originally ran with the linked story in print.


Well, if that doesn’t satisfy your appetite for fearful phenomena, may I suggest a careful, late-night perusal of The Mystery Airship of 1897, in which a rash of Victorian airship sightings in the midwest appear to presage our own darling UFOs and flying saucers. Triangulating airships and the UFO subspecies of delta-shaped craft brings us to the intriguing backyard engineering group JP Aerospace, whose mission is to develop a high-altitude lighter-than-air craft as a launch platform for spacecraft, or as they put it, “ATO – airship to orbit.” Widely reported this summer to be preparing a test flight of a 172-foot V-shapped craft, the Ascender, I found no meaningful follow-up and surmise the flight did not take place this year.

And so Blimp Week II sails into the enveloping fog of the internet, her graceful lines gradually losing definition in the digital mists as she succumbs to bit rot. Thanks for sailing!


I regret that the source of this image is forgotten, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s the R101 and that it came from the Airship Heritage Trust site.

4 thoughts on “How to steal a Zeppelin

  1. I should point out that I’ve never claimed to be famous myself. It’s just that some people have said that I’m famous, and that they said it to my face.

  2. “I’m famous” – Paul Frankenstein, October 1

    (Quote may be heavily excerpted)

    *Some* people, counselor?

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