Book Review: Empires of the Sky

Book Review: Empires of the Sky

Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes and Two Men’s Epic Duel to Rule the World, by Alexander Rose, Random House, New York, 2020, $32

Empires of the Sky is a chronicle of how manned flight became a big business early in the 20th century, as well as a biography of three (not two) noteworthy men. German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838–1917) became enthralled with airships after riding in a hot-air balloon in St. Paul, Minn., in 1863. In 1874 he conceived his own version of what was then called a dirigible but later became popularly known as a zeppelin. After decades of further experimentation (with hydrogen, motors and other paraphernalia) and politicking, the count in 1900 finally took his namesake airship aloft. Soon after the 1914 outset of World War I the German military launched zeppelin raids against Britain. It wasn’t a successful strategy. The British devised defensive measures—tactics employing anti-aircraft guns and airplanes—that decimated the airships.

Zeppelin founded the Zeppelin Co. to build his airships. His successor, Hugo Eckener (1868–1954), had grand and peaceful ambitions for his post–World War I aircraft. Under Eckener’s auspices, zeppelins flew across the Atlantic and around the world, ferrying passengers in luxurious trappings. However, his major goal—to establish a permanent zeppelin route between Germany and New York—became entangled in 1930s realpolitik: namely, the ascendancy of Nazism in Germany. Eckener, the most flawed, fascinating person in the book, hated the Nazis, but he was so obsessed with keeping his beloved zeppelins flying that he cooperated with the Third Reich regardless. Readers will decide whether his final betrayal of the Reich atoned for his collaboration.

While Zeppelin and Eckener were tough, driven men, American aviation entrepreneur Juan Trippe (1899–1981) could have taught both something about federal bureaucratic conflict and how to trounce opponents. Trippe’s domain was the airplane, not the airship. He was determined to dominate air travel through his airline, Pan American—and he did. He established passenger and mail-delivery routes to South America and the Pacific, catalyzed by bribes and duplicity. Like Eckener, he coveted a U.S.–Europe route. Unlike Eckener, he succeeded—and helped destroy the appeal of the commercial airship.

Empires of the Sky is both absorbing and thought-provoking. Author Alexander Rose’s descriptions of the evolution of zeppelin technology are lucid, and he writes discerningly about disasters that befell certain airships (particularly Hindenburg, which catastrophically exploded in 1937). The book is most intriguing, however, when it probes business machinations and the kaleidoscopic personalities of three passionate, formidable men.

—Howard Schneider

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