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Dr. Eckener’s Dream Machine

23 November 2012

Dr. Eckener’s Dream Machine

Dr. Eckener’s Dream Machine: the great Zeppelin and the dawn of air travel, Douglas Botting, 2001, ISBN 0-8050-6458-3, 331 pp.

The first part of the 20th Century was a time when anything seemed possible in aviation. Dirigibles, especially the rigid airships, vied for dominance over airplanes and ships with regard to long distance travel. Although beginning with the French it was Germany, through Dr. Eckener, which took the lead in the design of large airships. They were also used for bombing missions over Great Britain where their weakness of large mass sensitive to conditions became apparent.

These great airships had advantages and potential that could not be overlooked at the time. They were more reliable and longer ranged than airplanes, there was no competition in this regard, and much faster than ocean going liners. The potential for profitable mail routes as well as passenger travel was high.

Botting describes the construction and design of Eckener’s designs in great fashion. It is his writing of the events that are the reason this book is an excellent read, however. His knowledge of the aircrew, as well as some of the passengers, allows him to write about the voyages as if we are in the airship at the time – whether it be the Graf Zeppelin (LZ 127) or the Hindenburg (LZ 129) – on the circumnavigation flight (with two harrowing moments, one in departing from Los Angeles leaving a trail of cargo and the other an incredible passage through a narrowing mountain pass) as well as trans Atlantic flights. The reader can feel the excitement of running down the sandy coast of Brazil from Recife to Rio de Janeiro or arriving at New York City using the Statue of Liberty as a turning pylon.

There is also the incredulous telling of a German news correspondent fabricating an event and story, who was then taken off the airship and left to make his own way back to Germany. But it is the 20-20 perspective of Botting’s descriptions of the flight crew going about their business which makes Dr. Eckener’s Dream Machine so rich in the reading. Reading Botting’s book soon has the reader so familiar with Eckener’s airships it is not hard to imagine either being a passenger or crew member on one of those great Zeppelin airships.

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