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Airship and Zeppelin Mail

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Dirigible R-34 return flight cover

“Lighter-than-air” refers to balloons and airships, which use helium, hydrogen, or hot air for lift rather than engine power. After the first balloon flight by the Montgolfier brothers in France in 1783, the desire to control the direction of the balloon led to many novel designs. These "airships" finally flew under controlled flight in Europe and the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Airship designs include rigid (zeppelin-type), semi-rigid (Italian polar airships), and non-rigid (blimps) fuselages. The first flight of a "zeppelin" occurred July 2, 1900, in Germany in an airship with lightweight metal framework covered by fabric that held individual gas cells. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin designed this marvel. Europeans and Americans soon replicated von Zeppelin’s design.

By the 1920-30s, zeppelins flew mail to the arctic, around the world, and on regular transoceanic service. They provided vital links before airplane service was available. Between 1928 and 1937, the Graf Zeppelin carried mail from almost every country in the world on its many flights. The Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937, dramatically ended the golden era of airships and airship posts. Today NT (New Technology) zeppelins and blimps fly advertising, carry tourist passengers, serve for aerial scientific research, and provide camera platforms for television.

During the development period, airships established new air postal routes over long distances. They provided the fastest link over oceans and continents for passengers, mail, and freight during these years, and the public enthusiastically embraced this enlargement of services. Airship and zeppelin mail exists from foreign airships that flew to, from, and within the United States as well as from U.S. airships, both rigid (zeppelins) and non-rigid (blimps).

Foreign airships and zeppelins that flew to the United States included Great Britain's R34, Italy's Norge (over the pole to Alaska), Germany's LZ126 (later named ZR3 Los Angeles by the U.S. Navy), LZ127 Graf Zeppelin, and LZ129 Hindenburg.

U.S. Navy zeppelins that flew mail included the ZR1 Shenandoah, ZR3 Los Angeles, ZRS4 Akron, and ZRS5 Macon. The Navy airships flew both official and unofficial mail. In addition, Navy blimps and Goodyear blimps also carried mail during this era.

To read more about airship and zeppelin mail, also see:

Michel Zeppelin- und Flugpost-Spezial-Katalog 2002 (2nd ed.) (München, Germany, 2002).

Sieger Zeppelinpost Spezial-Katalog (22nd ed.) (Lorch: Germany, 2001).

Airships: A Zeppelin History Site, www.airships.net

Zeppelin Study Group, www.eZep.de

Cheryl R. Ganz, National Postal Museum