I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Grace Drummond-Hay became the first woman to travel around the world by air when she joined the famous flight of the Graf Zeppelin airship in 1929.
Grace Lethbridge was born in Liverpool, England in 1895. In 1920, she married the diplomat Sir Robert Hay-Drummond-Hay. He being 50 years her senior, the marriage wasn't destined to be a long one. And so it was not, as Sir Robert died in 1925, leaving behind a young, aristocratic widow who was entitled to style herself Lady Grace Drummond-Hay.
In 1928, she managed secure a place aboard the Graf Zeppelin airship as it made its historic crossing of the North Atlantic in 1928. This was the first transatlantic commercial passenger flight.
First Transatlantic Crossing
The Graf Zeppelin left Friedrichshafen in southern Germany in the early morning of October 11, 1928. It arrived at Lakehurst, New Jersey four days later with a flight time of 111 hours and 44 minutes.
The trip was quite eventful, as the flight ran into squall line on October 13. The airship pitched violently upwards until brought under control by Captain Hugo Eckener. The crew discovered that the port fin of the craft was damaged–some of the fabric covering had been torn away. If repairs were not carried out, the airship was in danger of becoming uncontrollable.
Crew members had to climb out onto the bare struts of the fin to attach a new covering. Meanwhile, the captain had sent out a distress signal, which was picked up by the listening press. Lurid stories followed about the impending disaster of the Graf Zeppelin on its maiden flight, until the blimp showed up in one piece the following day.
Grace Drummond-Hay wrote about the flight for a couple of newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst. The stories were a sensation, and left a public eager for more.
Hearst loved breathtaking stories in his newspapers: grisly murders and sleazy scandals were his stock in trade, and he also liked to create news.
During the 1920s, the airship industry was still in its infancy. It was a new and largely untested technology, and it carried with it the excitement of possible danger. In September 1925, the USS Shenandoah had been caught in a storm over Ohio. It had broken apart, killing 14 crew members.
Couple the supposed peril in the sky with sending a "delicate" female aloft, and Hearst had his next front-page story. If his editors could make more of the danger than was real, so much the better, but if they couldn’t embellish a story they’d better look for employment on another paper.
Hearst Pays the Bills
The Graf Zeppelin was to circumnavigate the world and, as the Hearst organization was putting up half the cost, it was entitled to make some demands.
The flight was to begin and end in the United States and Hearst newspapers were given exclusive rights to newspaper coverage in America and Britain.
To do the reporting, Hearst selected Lady Grace Dummond-Hay (the title added a certain cachet and she was famous for the transatlantic trip the year before). She was paired up with seasoned journalist Karl von Wiegand.
Grace and Karl had a bit of history. They had both been on the transatlantic jaunt and had an on-again, off-again, on-again love affair despite von Wiegand being a married man.
Lady Drummond-Hay was the lone female aboard among the 60 passengers and crew.
Around the World
August 7, 1929, the Graf Zeppelin began the first leg of its journey from Lakehurst to Friedrichshafen. They hop-scotched across the globe to Tokyo, Los Angeles, and back to Lakehurst on August 29.
To salvage German national pride, the airship then carried on to Friedrichshafen so the craft’s designers and builders could also claim a round-the-world trip starting and ending in the homeland.
Along the way, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin got into a snit because a planned fly-past over Moscow was called off due to bad weather. The mass murderer filed an official complaint that he felt slighted. In Tokyo, a crowd of 250,000 greeted the airship and Capt. Eckener and a few guests had tea with Emperor Hirohito.
Eckener skilfully timed the Pacific crossing so that the zeppelin would arrive in San Francisco at the end of the day. He is reported to have said “When for the first time in world history an airship flies across the Pacific, should it not arrive at sunset over the Golden Gate?”
They ran into a bit of trouble while trying to land in Los Angeles. A temperature inversion made it difficult to get down to the ground, so the crew vented off some hydrogen to make the airship heavier. Unfortunately, there was no replacement supply of hydrogen in LA so the take-off on leaving was a ponderous affair that almost fouled power lines.
However, the huge dirigible made it back to Lakehurst safely; the journey covered 12 days and 11 minutes and brought worldwide attention to the business of airship passenger travel.
Cruise Line History comments that “The trip was a complete success and the world, particularly the U.S., caught Zeppelin Mania.”
Lady Grace and Karl von Wiegand continued their love affair long after the celebrated flight aboard the Graf Zeppelin. In 1942, the couple were in the Philippines when the Japanese invaded. They were captured and imprisoned in an internment camp where they were poorly treated, along with everyone else who fell into Japanese hands. After the war, Grace returned to New York but her health was so badly compromised by camp conditions that she died of a heart attack in early 1946.
Stamp collectors put up much of the money that financed zeppelin flights. The Graf Zeppelin carried about 50,000 covers that philatelists had paid to be taken on the round-the-world flight.
In October 1930, the British dirigible R101 crashed in France on its maiden flight killing 48 people. Then, in May 1937, the Hindenburg exploded in a fireball as it landed at Lakehurst, taking 35 lives. These accidents put an end to the notion of using this type of flying machine for long-distance passenger travel.
- “Graf Zeppelin History.” Airships.net, undated.
- “Lady Grace Drummond-Hay.” Airships.net, undated.
- The Graf Zeppelin.” Cruiselinehistory.com, February 27, 2009.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor