Hidden above its 102nd floor, the Empire State Building has a historical secret – a blimp parking spot. In the late 1920s, as Germany was ramping up dirigible technology, and the Empire State Building was being put together beam by beam, Alfred Smith, former New York City mayor and head of the group constructing the tower, proposed a grandiose plan to create the Empire State Building mast, a 200-foot addition that would make the Empire State the largest building in the world. Unfortunately, blimps and the Empire State Building just don't mix – and blimp parking spots half a mile in the air are not only terrifying but also exceedingly hazardous.
The Empire State Building mast only ever saw three minutes of genuine connection with a blimp before the project was skipped over and forgotten. A few short years later, dirigibles fell out of favor thanks to highly publicized accidents like the Hindenburg disaster and the fact that fossil fuels made airplane travel faster, safer, and cheaper. Today, the floating aircrafts are reserved for advertising and sporting events rather than public transportation, but the Empire State's blimp dock remains a weird blip in New York City's strange and exciting architectural history.
Even though the first transatlantic airplane flight happened in 1919, there was something really magical about the idea of airships peacefully floating across the pond – so much so, that the first transatlantic zeppelin flight drew a crowd of over 50,000 people. The flight was delayed because of bad weather, but that didn't stop thousands from gathering and waiting for its landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey. One voyager summed up the difference between traveling via airplane and traveling via airship as follows: “On a plane you fly, but on the Graf Zeppelin you voyage." Said voyage, however, didn't come cheap. A round-trip transatlantic ticket cost $3,000 (worth about $40,000 today). Today, an economy flight from New York City to London costs about $600.
Since their disappearance from the aeronautical scene, airships have been seen as pretty impractical; however, the 1930s were a different story. Dirigibles represented the future of luxury travel, and as the Empire State Building was being built, people expected it to be their gateway into a life that saw them dining and dancing in these floating hotels. That's right, dirigibles were far from the squished, ever-shrinking airplane seats of today (but they were also super slow). Magazines even touted two-day trips to Europe in flying hotels. However, they also portended a hopeful future of aviation innovation and a warning of military strength. In 1931, Soviets created a fleet of military airships in the name of Lenin, and dirigibles were used in bombing raids during World War I.
Just a year after the first transatlantic dirigible flight, investors announced their plan to raise the height of the Empire State Building by 200 feet to allow for a mooring mast for zeppelins. The plan was announced by Alfred E. Smith, who noted that passengers would exit the airship via a gangplank. The proposed plan would get passengers off of the zeppelin and onto the streets of Midtown Manhattan in just seven minutes.
The innovative dirigible dock was dismissed as completely impractical by Dr. Hugo Eckener, the commander of the Graf Zeppelin and the leading expert on dirigibles. In an interview with the Times, he noted that traditional zeppelin landings required dozens of ground crew and tons of rope, and even then, landings were still "dicey." That's just on the ground – not even close to unpredictable wind conditions 1,250 feet in the air.
The notion that passengers would be able to descend an airport-style ramp from a moving airship to the tip of the tallest building in the world, even in excellent conditions, "beggars belief,” wrote the Times.