Press "Enter" to skip to content

In Our Waters – From A to Z – The Flights of the Aeolus and Zephyr

Captain Joachim Blankenburg scanned the brightly lit domain below. He turned to A. Eger, his flight mechanic. “We have,” he paused, “almost arrived.” The flight mechanic smiled. It had been a long flight. “We are not there just yet,” Baron Carl von Gablenz, the flight’s technical director, remarked solemnly. Captain Blankenburg grinned respectfully. “Close,” the captain offered. “There are almost a thousand people down there waiting for us,” interjected the radio operator, William Ehlberg. “We must be quite the celebrities,” he quipped. The Dornier-designed and built flying boat had been aloft for twenty-two hours and ten minutes. “I think,” Captain Blankenburg continued, “we could use a little time on land.” The co-pilot replied with a heavy “jah.” Captain Blankenburg eased forward on the controls. The Do-18 lowered through the early evening sky. “Finally,” he scoffed as he sighted the mother-ship in the distance. “We have arrived.” Captain Blankenburg scanned the watery landing zone. All was clear. He eased back on the throttles and began his descent into Manhasset Bay in Port Washington. The flying boat, at twenty minutes past six o’clock in the evening of September 10th, 1936, slid into the calm waters of the bay. The Zephyr had arrived in America. The flight, originating in the Azores and encompassing two-thousand, three-hundred and ninety miles, was the first step in establishing a regular transatlantic flight service for Lufthansa. History had been made.

The flight had originated with an air-compressed catapult launch from the Schwabenland. The ship, a converted freighter, utilized the pressurized catapult system and was capable of launching the ten ton aircraft from zero to eighty miles an hour in a matter of seconds. The Dornier-18, a silver-gray metal-skinned monoplane, had a seventy-eight-foot wingspan and utilized two Junkers Diesel-type engines capable of producing five hundred horsepower each. Capable of a cruising speed of one hundred and forty miles per hour, the cruising range was twenty-eight hundred miles. Capable of carrying a cargo of five hundred pounds of mail, Deutsche Lufthansa was hoping to establish a regular air mail route that would rival any other country.
The throaty sirens of several United States Coast Guard cutters offered their retort as the aircraft arrived in United States waters amidst the shrill calls from the bevy of small boats, launches and cabin cruisers. At the Pan American Airways terminal, over one thousand curiosity seekers had crammed the location to witness the historic event. A throng of dignitaries awaited the arrival of the Deutsche Lufthansa pilots and flight crew. The Pan American Airways launch carefully maneuvered to the Zephyr and arrived alongside as Captain Blankenburg and his crew finished hoisting the German flag on the tail and the United States flag atop the wing. After a quick inspection by a Quarantine and Customs officials, the launch took the Zephyr in tow. A few moments later, to the cheers and applause of the crowd, the flight crew and aircraft arrived at the landing in Manor Haven. Captain Rudolf A. Jahns, the regional official of Deutsche Lufthansa offered a hearty handshake and warm smile to his men. They had done an excellent job.
The dignitaries on hand included Juan Trippe, President of Pan American Airways, Vice Consul Krause-Wichmann of the German Consulate, Commander J.V. Baylis of the United States Coast Guard, F.W. Neilson, a Sikorsky official, Captain Ugo d’Annunzio, an aircraft engineer and designer, fifty members of the New York German Flying Club and a committee of trustees from the village of Manor Haven. After a host of handshakes, and greetings, and amidst an almost never-ending cascade of flash bulbs, Captain Blankenburg stood before a podium and answered a volley of questions from a sea of journalists.
“A routine flight,” Captain Blankenburg remarked stoically to a question about the Trans-Atlantic travail. “The flight in itself was nothing, an every-day event. I am glad to say however, that we had about everything the ocean could offer in the way of weather. We had head winds, tail winds, cross-winds. We had clouds and fog and clear weather and several squalls. We also flew though a thunderstorm, and we averaged 110 miles an hour for the flight.”
In addition to testing the flying boat’s performance – including its engines, durability, and flight characteristics – the pilot and crew also tested radio range and for a duration of the flight, depended on radio communications from the mother ship Schwabenland while nearing Nantucket. In addition to maintaining radio communications with the ship, the radio operator gave consistent updates to the radio operators at the Pan American Airways terminal. All of the equipment worked successfully with no breaks in communication despite the adverse weather conditions the flying boat encountered on its several thousand mile flight.
While Captain Blankenburg and his flight crew rested, her sister flying boat, the Aeolus was launched into the sky from the catapult of the Schwabenland bound for Hamilton Harbor, Bermuda, under the command of Captain Hans Werner von Engel. Arriving on September 11th, the Aeolus would remain overnight until taking the next leg in the journey. On September 12th, the Aeolus alighted into the warm waters of Manhasset Bay. The flight length from Bermuda to New York had been clocked at six hours and eighteen minutes.
On September 14th, both of the flight crews of the Zephyr and Aeolus, were driving to Newark Airport where they inspected and boarded a Douglas DC-3 monoplane. The aircraft then flew over New York City for a forty-five minute flight before taking a southern course to Washington, D.C. where the officers and crew met with officials from American Airlines and the United States Government to discuss their transatlantic flights, experiments, and observations.
On September 18th, the officers and crews of the flying boats were the guests of honor at a luncheon hosted by the Board of Trade for German-American Commerce, Inc. J. Schroeder, managing director of the New York offices of the Hamburg American Line-North German Lloyd, addressed the guests and attendees. Schroeder stated that the pilots and crew were “the pioneers who turned a new leaf in transatlantic commercial aviation.” In addition, he remarked that it was the first step in establishing routine trans-ocean passenger travel.
After battling a host of storms, the Schwabenland arrived and dropped anchor outside of Manhasset Harbor on September 19th. The following day, the Zephyr and Aeolus were slung back aboard and readied for their next set of test flights. On September 23rd, the Aeolus was catapulted airborne and headed out across the Atlantic Ocean bound for the Azores. The flight was successful and after seventeen hours and forty-seven minutes, the Aeolus landed in Horta.
Again, on October 6th, the Aeolus and Zephyr both arrived in New York from the Azores. The Aeolus made the flight in nineteen hours and twenty-five minutes while the Zephyr took the best time with eighteen hours and twenty-five minutes. As the crews rested in New York, the Schwabenland steamed for Sydney, Nova Scotia for the next rendezvous with the two flying boats.1 As the mother ship made her northern passage, the flying boats flew the length of the coastline along the United States’ Eastern Seaboard to gather information on “possible” landing areas in case their transatlantic flights encountered bad weather or mechanical issues.2
The experimental test flights of the Aeolus and Zephyr were qualified successes.3 The officials of Deutsche Lufthansa were open that these flights had been the first step in establishing an efficient transatlantic mail service that would clearly require larger aircraft with more significant flight range. New aircraft, officials reported, in the twenty-four ton size frame with a flight range capable of transatlantic flights without tenders, were being designed and built. Additionally, the new aircraft, under construction at the Dornier plant at Friedreichshafen, would be capable of a payload that would provide commercial viability for regular scheduled mail service between the two continents. The purpose, as highlighted by the test flights, was to “train crews” and to gather data on the North Atlantic routes.” Celebrated in the United States, the pilots and flight crews returned to a hero’s welcome in their homeland. On October 26th, the crews were celebrated upon their arrival at Tempelhof Field. A reception at one of the restaurants at the Tempelhof Airdrome was the culminating event for the historic test flights of the German flying boats of Deutsche Lufthansa that made history when they landed in our waters.

1 The Schwabenland was a steam liner of eighty-five hundred gross registered tons built in 1925. It was converted to serve as a catapult and support vessel in 1934. The catapult was capable of launching a fifteen-ton aircraft at a maximum speed of ninety-four miles an hour. During her service to Lufthansa, the Schwabenland was utilized for the Third German Antarctic Expedition (1938-1939). Later in 1939, the vessel was transferred to the Luftwaffe where she would eventually be utilized in World War II. In 1944, she was damaged by the British Royal Navy Submarine Terrapin and was beached. After the cessation of hostilities, the ship was repaired by the British, loaded with poisonous ammunition and scuttled.
2 While it appears that all of the experiments were scientific (and commercial) in their attributes, it does raise suspicion in the potential intelligence gathered during the series of test flights. A review of the contemporary reports of the activities of the German pilots (commercial), it certainly was information that could have been ascertained or utilized by military planners and strategists for long-term planning.
3 The DO-18E models were successful but their operational use was limited due to some accidents. The Aeolus was damaged after being lifted aboard a support vessel. While the Zephyr’s final fate remains unclear, a sister aircraft, Pampero was lost in October 1938 with a crew of 5. The cause of the loss remains unknown.