Air travel, still highly experimental, captured America's imagination during the 1920s. It promised to speed communication and commerce among peoples and nations. At a time when ocean liners symbolized modernity, wealth, and national pride, it was exciting to think that giant and graceful airships might one day replace their ocean rivals.
The German dirigible Graf Zeppelin inaugurated the first commercial transatlantic passenger service by air in October 1928. It carried 20 passengers at a time, with a crew of 43. It flew across Europe and the world through the 1930s. At the same time, airline companies began to proliferate, flying early piston-engine airplanes. The sizes of these planes were small. Like the Graf, they accommodated just a few passengers and commanded high ticket prices. Until the widespread adoption of the DC-3 aircraft (see 'DC-3' in this database), commercial air transport of passengers was for the wealthy and the daring.
Like all German dirigibles, the Graf Zeppelin used hydrogen for lift. Hydrogen gas, although explosive, has excellent lifting properties. By contrast, the U.S. Navy, which owned several large dirigibles in the 1920s and 1930s, including the German-built Los Angeles, filled its airships with helium, sacrificing lift for non-flammability.
Dirigibles were judged impractical for military operations after storms and accidents destroyed most of the American airship fleet. The explosion of the German dirigible Hindenburg at Lakehurst, New Jersey, brought an end to airship passenger service in 1938.