Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s a zeppelin! It has been a century since the conception of a massive airship that would traverse the Atlantic via the Canary Islands. The plan entailed establishing a regular service of two weekly voyages between Seville and Buenos Aires with a layover in the Archipelago. The grand news reverberated through all the media, but the country’s financial woes and the eruption of the civil war in 1936 thwarted the Spanish venture from materialising. Nevertheless, the tale between the Islands and the zeppelins did not culminate there. Although the layover was unattainable, the Canary Islands’ strategic location along the Europe-America route made it a mandatory transit point in the 20s and 30s, serving as a reference to prevent straying off-course. This enabled the inhabitants of the islands to witness the colossal airships traversing the Archipelago’s skies on various occasions.
Also, a century ago, in October 1924, the LZ 126 model successfully crossed the Atlantic from Friedrichshafen (Germany) to New York on a 30-hour voyage. The aircraft was transferred to the North American authorities, who renamed it The Angels. The zeppelin passed by Tenerife, a moment preserved in the documentary Im Zeppelin über den Atlantik III. Telil by Neumann Production. The film served to showcase aerial views of the Canary Islands worldwide.
Despite the initial planning of the Seville-Buenos Aires line with a layover in the Canary Islands in the early 1920s, it was not until January 1927 that the Colón Transaérea Española company was authorised. The monarch Alfonso XIII took a keen interest in the venture, but the 1929 crisis hindered the securing of the necessary investments and ultimately, the Germans assumed control of the route, adapting it to their requirements.
“No motion sickness”
The renowned Graf Zeppelín envisioned for the Spanish project boasted a volume of 135,000 cubic meters and nine engines, seven operational and two reserved. It measured 250 meters in length, 22 in diameter, and 30 in height. Capable of accommodating approximately 60 passengers who could luxuriate in cabins, bedrooms, lounges, and even a kitchen. «There is no motion sickness on board these airships, and the risks are minimal, as the danger of fire is averted by the absolute prohibition of smoking, except in a special lounge, and the arrangement of the balloons shields them from the impact of an electric discharge during a storm,” read the advertisements of the era, promising a four-day journey compared to several weeks required by a ship to cover the same distance.
The Graf Zeppelín undertook its maiden flight in 1928. On May 18, 1930, the General Directorate of Communications instructed that correspondence be parachute-dropped over Santa Cruz de Tenerife, with 92 letters and 131 postcards embarked from Seville bound for the Archipelago. Ultimately, the release was discouraged as its passage over the capital was scheduled for 4:30 a.m. on May 21.
Records also indicate that on May 30, 1932, the flying craft passed over Tenerife and Gran Canaria, and in that same year, it repeated the feat in August and September. A few years later, in 1935, the zeppelin not only flew over Santa Cruz de Tenerife but also parachute-dropped the correspondence. Newspapers of the time narrate the excitement stirred by the passage of the German dirigible, especially when it occurred during the daytime, enabling documentation of the moment. Rooftops and terraces were filled with onlookers, and those with binoculars could observe the passengers waving handkerchiefs to greet the islanders.
The success of these grand airships was short-lived, extinguished following the LZ-129 Hindenburg’s accident on May 6, 1937. The zeppelin caught fire over an airfield near the city of New York, claiming 36 lives. Subsequently, confidence in the safety of these colossal flying machines waned. Adolf Hitler was the first to order the suspension of the commercial dirigible fleet. The Graf Zeppelin was dismantled, and its sibling, the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin II, was utilised for military purposes for a brief period.