These days, in-flight meal service often consists of a packet of pretzels and a can of soda. It’s a far cry from the days of the Hindenburg, where the sumptuous dining options included multi-course meals served in an opulent dining room.
Before it became a byword for disaster 80 years ago this month, the Hindenburg was the state-of-the-art in ultra-luxury flight: a giant passenger airship composed of durable aluminum alloy filled with highly flammable hydrogen. (That would prove its downfall.)
It was conceived as a swank transatlantic travel option for the well-heeled that was faster than the deluxe cruise liners of its day, making the journey in two and a half days — twice as fast as the Queen Mary, the star of the Cunard line.
The German-made Hindenburg – a point of pride and propaganda for the Nazi regime — came with its own all-electric kitchen (run by a head chef, with several assistants), grand dining room and printed menus.
Passengers were treated to lavish meals served on fine china, like Beef Broth with Marrow Dumplings and Rhine Salmon a la Graf Zeppelin. Indeed, these were so rich that some American passengers, unused to the heavy German cuisine, were known to complain about the buttery sauces, creams and gravies that pervaded every dish.
The complaints were common enough that a representative of the company that manufactured the Hindenburg suggested staff start providing “a printed card in the morning detailing the day’s menu, along with a line stating, ‘we would be happy to prepare an omelette for you if there’s nothing on the menu that appeals to you’,” says Dan Grossman, who writes Airships.net, a website dedicated to the history of the Hindenburg and other dirigibles.
At the bar, guests were treated to cocktails like Sloe Gin Fizzes, Manhattans, martinis and sidecars, but also crafted signature drinks, such as the LZ-129 Frosted Cocktail, a combination of orange juice and gin, named after the airship’s official moniker, the LZ-129 Hindenburg. Also available was a vast selection of more than 250 bottles of the finest German wines.
And after drinks? Head to the smoking lounge (many passengers lit up in those days). The pressurized, fire-proof lounge was the perfect place to relax with a Lucky Strike — though you had to hand over your electric (no gas!) lighter to the attendant guarding the heavy door, as one former passenger recalled.
Other aspects of the Hindenburg’s accommodations were decidedly less lavish. Grossman says American guests were horrified to find that there was only one small shared towel in the rest room. And perhaps even stranger to Hindenburg’s elite clientele: Upon boarding the ship, passengers were given a sturdy envelope containing a single napkin to last them the entire journey. Odd as this seems, it was an attempt to conserve weight on a ship that needed to be lighter than air.
The Hindenburg was in commercial service for just one year. Its final flight ended on a stormy afternoon on May 6, 1937. The airship approached its destination, Lakehurst, N.J., with 36 passengers and 61 crew aboard. As the ship dropped down its mooring ropes in front of spectators, an explosion occurred off the tail, engulfing the entire ship in flames. Thirty-six people died (including one crew member on the ground) — but amazingly, 62 people survived.
“The window of opportunity to escape was about 13-16 seconds,” says Grossman. “It’s amazing that two-thirds of the people survived. I think this is a testament to the fierce human desire to stay alive.”
In the years immediately after Hindenburg, luxury air-travel would triumph as Lufthansa, and later, Pan Am staked their own claims to commercial transatlantic passenger flight. But the explosion of the Hindenburg still echoes loudly as a death of the era of the silver airship and pre-war innocence.