The Do X – A luxurious flying boat
by Christine Anne Berger
In 1928, famed “First Flighter” Clara Adams flew across the Atlantic aboard a zeppelin, having bought the first ever transatlantic flight ticket sold to a woman. Clara became famous as a woman who knew how to travel in comfort and style. She was a prominent aviation enthusiast and people looked up to her. In 1931, she was the only paying woman passenger on board the Do X flying boat from Rio de Janeiro to New York, where she enjoyed the quirky amenities and rare opulence of such a flying cruiser. The Do X in 1931 was the ultimate in luxury, with three decks containing sleeping quarters, a bar, offices, bathrooms, a kitchen and a dining room.
German aeronautical engineer Claude Dornier created the Dornier Do X specifically for wealthy customers to show the world the potential that existed for commercial air travel. In an era during which airplanes were used mainly for war, the Do X showcased the potential of an aircraft built with passenger safety and comfort in mind. This type of aircraft could accomplish tremendous good by connecting people; by enhancing quality of life; by helping people achieve their dream of traveling around the world, experiencing other cultures, and visiting long-lost friends and family in far-off lands.
Guests in the salon of the flying boat Do X, 1931 (photo: Keystone)
And even better, such an airplane could make it possible to get back home, no matter how far the distance. The idea of traveling in ultimate comfort has been around for a long time, and today it is still being offered by the world’s most elite air carriers. Efficient luxury travel was the ideal that inspired Claude Dornier to dedicate five years of his life and much of his wealth to creating what would be the largest and most powerful seaplane of its day.
So exciting was the promise of a commercially viable aircraft that the German government sought to finance Dornier’s endeavor and built a plant on the Swiss side of Lake Constance, a body of water that also has shores in Switzerland and Austria. It was there that Dornier began building the Dornier Do X, an aircraft that would change perceptions of air travel with regard to aircraft size, passenger capacity and range.
To say that the Dornier Do X was innovative for its time is an understatement. The technical know-how to build a machine as large as the “flying boat,” or even the components needed to make it run, did not yet exist. Undaunted, Dornier persisted with his goal, building an aircraft propelled by twelve engines and throttles. The flying boat’s sturdy hull and powerful wings were made from steelreinforced aluminum alloy and industrial-grade linen. Although it had a pilot in charge, the flying boat required a crew with maritime skills. This is because the aircraft’s operations resembled those of a ship. Son of a sea captain and experienced seaplane operator, Friedrich Christiansen was the obvious
choice to pilot the first Do X.
At the time, there was not the same association between luxury and fast travel. Wealthy people traveled by ship, so naturally the Do X’s plush interior caught the attention of travel enthusiasts. The aircraft boasted a kitchen and an exceptionally large dining room, sleeping quarters for privacy, bathrooms and a smoking room with its own wet bar. It offered seating for up to 100 passengers. The trappings of luxury seemed endless. An exquisite decor featured high-quality furniture and Persian rugs. To look at the photos, you would scarcely realize that they showed the inside of an aircraft. Even today’s first-class passengers do not experience anything like the opulence the Do X offered. Parts of the passenger cabin even offered an electrical power supply. The top deck housed the navigational office, cockpit and radio rooms, while the bottom deck held the fuel tanks.
German transatlantic Dornier Do X cabin interior (photo: alamy)
Four years passed, and the Do X was prepared for its maiden test flight in 1929. To demonstrate the aircraft’s power and potential, 169 passengers from the Lake Constance area boarded the plane for what is said to have been about a one-hour flight. The achievement was considered significant for the time. Never before had a plane carried so many passengers at such an altitude, 200 meters, and at such speed, 170 kilometers per hour, for that long.
The Do X was made ready for its first marketing tour of the Americas, and on November 3, 1930, the seaplane departed from Friedrichshafen, Germany. Dornier understood that authentic storytelling is a vital part of successful marketing, hence the importance of journalists to create publicity for the aircraft. For this reason, passengers on the transatlantic flight included German-American war correspondent Karl von Wiegand and diehard aviation enthusiast, British travel writer Lady Grace Drummond-Hay. Clara Adams would later join them in Rio de Janeiro.
The flight path to the Americas traversed the Netherlands and Portugal, and by November 29 the seaplane had already been grounded in Lisbon because of technical difficulties that took six weeks to repair. After giving the passengers a close-up look at the West African coastline and Cape Verde, the flight crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Its first port of call was Natal, Brazil. The town, known for its large German population, received the plane and passengers enthusiastically. Two months later, the flight departed Rio de Janeiro for New York.
People came from far and wide to see the seaplane during the nine months it was under repair at present day LaGuardia Airport in New York. It is believed that the economic impact of the Great Depression played no small role in the US aviation industry’s lack of interest in the Do X, which left the United States and arrived back in Berlin on May 24, 1932. If it had been up to the American public, the Do X might have been quickly adopted as a major mode of transport.
Unfortunately, the marketing and advertising of the amazing luxury flying boat failed – maybe for budget reasons or perhaps because operators could not be convinced to fly such a plane. To this today, however, the flying boat is still remembered as a great achievement of its time. The creation of the Do X revolutionized passenger air travel and ignited a passion among people to continue developing our ability to travel in luxury and comfort, flying forever into the future.
The Dornier Do X, taxiing on Lake Constance, Germany, 1929 (photo: alamy)