November 12, 1996
The weather in Perry on the morning of August 28, 1929, was typically mid-summer: hot, humid and promising more of the same. One thing made the early morning hours of that day noteworthy, however. The mighty German airship, the Graf Zeppelin, sailed serenely overhead in the pre-dawn hours while hundreds of Perry citizens, some of them only half-dressed, watched in awe from their yards and city streets below.
The sighting here at that hour was unexpected, although it was known that the ship would be flying over Oklahoma that day en route to a hangar at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The exact flight path was not publicized. Some Perryans had driven to Oklahoma City the night before, hoping they would have a better view of the flight from there. As it turned out, Oklahoma City spectators saw much less than those who remained in Perry. The ship, about 800 feet long, was at an altitude estimated at between 3,000 and 5,000 feet as it soared across Noble county.
Thanks to Art Campbell, a volunteer fireman, Perry residents were aroused from their slumber by the city's fire siren as the Graf Zeppelin approached. Campbell, always an early riser, saw the zeppelin heading this way and notified the fire station. Firemen sounded the siren for at least five minutes and thus spread the word, according to a box on the front page of The Perry Daily Journal. "This played an important part in helping to awake the city and making it possible for many to wake up," The Journal said. The paper devoted several front page columns to coverage of the flight, even including a three-column photo of the airliner which evidently was pulled from a permanent file of news pictures. The newspaper reporter described it this way:
"Sailing majestically just as though it was on exhibition for Perry alone, the mighty Graf Zeppelin passed over Perry -- between 5:30 and 5:45 a.m. while hundreds of Perry citizens dressed in night gowns, pajamas and even some in less than those gazed at the mighty airliner." The account told of the "zum, zum; zum" sound emanating from the ship's five Mercedes-Benz diesel engines while local residents turned their faces skyward.
The Graf Zeppelin, one of the marvels of the world in the era following the first World War, was en route to Lakehurst from Germany. According to the World Almanac, the ship had left Friedrichshafen, Germany, on August 14 and was flying to Lakehurst with a scheduled arrival there on September 4. That was to be the culmination of a 21,700-mile world flight. Oklahoma would not seem to be involved in that flight plan, but one of the objectives may have been to build good will along the way. In that, the big ship was achieving great success. Crowds cheered it everywhere. The flight from Germany to Lakehurst required a little more than 20 days to complete. Even the early hour of the passage over Perry failed to dampen the enthusiasm of young people and their elders.
The Graf Zeppelin was completed in September 1928. It saw nine years of successful, continuous service. When commissioned in 1937, the Graf Zeppelin had made 590 flights, including 144 ocean crossings, and had flown 1,053,391 miles, carrying 13,110 passengers and 235,300 pounds of mail and freight, according to Encyclopedia Brittanica. The ships were made lighter than air by filling the huge bags with helium. The Graf Zeppelin's helium capacity was rated at 3,708,600 cubic feet. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who pioneered the airship's design and gave his name to the craft, died in 1917. His successor, Hugo Eckener, commanded the ship when it flew over Perry.
The Journal story continued: "As the ship made its approach the headlights as well as the very dim lights of the cabin could be seen but as the ship passed over the city and headed on northeast the back of the ship could be seen. The gondolas, carrying the five motors of the ship, appeared as just small boxes tied below the mighty ship, while the cabin, which carries more than 60 passengers and members of the crew, appeared to be extremely small to take care of so many individuals."
Another story in the local paper had this two-column headline: "Perry Does Go In For Pajamas As Suitable Morning Costume," with this sub-head: "This Was The Popular Attire As Town Gazes At Giant Airship. The story said in part: "Perry had never been much on the pajama fad. Not once during the summer months has anyone here ventured forth in the night attire until -- well, the Graf Zeppelin is to blame." The reporter wrote that the town's best pajamas were on parade -- green ones, blue ones, red ones, white ones, and those with all the trimmings.
Some humorous sidelights were added, including this: "Little Clifford Blake ... was convinced the house was on fire (because of the siren) and carried his clothes outside with him. Ed White Mooter admitted that he grabbed his pants as he went outdoors but that they were in his hand, he learned, after standing gazing at the airliner. A prominent doctor was found with his trousers in his hands and not on his legs. A prominent attorney was the last to get out in his neighborhood; he wore the old fashioned night shirt which had slits in the side and which was not any too long."
So it went in Perry early in the morning on August 28, 1929. The Graf Zeppelin and other dirigible type aircraft were believed to be the luxury method of air travel of the future. Not until the tragic burning of the German zeppelin in Hindenburg on May 6, 1937, at the Lakehurst mooring did it become obvious that this type of air flight was never going to be safe enough to succeed. The Hindenburg disaster resulted in 36 deaths, and the zeppelin age came to a close without ever really starting. The Graf Zeppelin was one of the first of that breed to catch the world's attention, and on August 28, 1929, pajama-clad Perry residents had a closeup look at it.