• Empires of the Sky

  • Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World
  • By: Alexander Rose
  • Narrated by: Jason Culp
  • Length: 22 hrs and 43 mins
  • 4.7 out of 5 stars (149 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

The Golden Age of Aviation is brought to life in this story of the giant Zeppelin airships that once roamed the sky - a story that ended with the fiery destruction of the Hindenburg.

“[An] exhilarating history of the dawn of modern air travel.” (Publishers Weekly)

At the dawn of the 20th century, when human flight was still considered an impossibility, Germany’s Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin vied with the Wright Brothers to build the world’s first successful flying machine. As the Wrights labored to invent the airplane, Zeppelin fathered the remarkable airship, sparking a bitter rivalry between the two types of aircraft and their innovators that would last for decades, in the quest to control one of humanity’s most inspiring achievements. 

And it was the airship - not the airplane - that led the way. In the glittery 1920s, the count’s brilliant protégé, Hugo Eckener, achieved undreamed-of feats of daring and skill, including the extraordinary round-the-world voyage of the Graf Zeppelin. At a time when America’s airplanes - rickety deathtraps held together by glue, screws, and luck - could barely make it from New York to Washington, D.C., Eckener’s airships serenely traversed oceans without a single crash, fatality, or injury. What Charles Lindbergh almost died doing - crossing the Atlantic in 1927 - Eckener had effortlessly accomplished three years before the Spirit of St. Louis even took off. 

Even as the Nazis sought to exploit Zeppelins for their own nefarious purposes, Eckener built his masterwork, the behemoth Hindenburg - a marvel of design and engineering. Determined to forge an airline empire under the new flagship, Eckener met his match in Juan Trippe, the ruthlessly ambitious king of Pan American Airways, who believed his fleet of next-generation planes would vanquish Eckener’s coming airship armada. 

It was a fight only one man - and one technology - could win. Countering each other’s moves on the global chessboard, each seeking to wrest the advantage from his rival, the struggle for mastery of the air was a clash not only of technologies but of business, diplomacy, politics, personalities, and the two men’s vastly different dreams of the future. 

Empires of the Sky is the sweeping, untold tale of the duel that transfixed the world and helped create our modern age.

©2020 Alexander Rose (P)2020 Random House Audio
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History

Critic Reviews

“An obsessive, decades-long struggle between two equally matched people is always fascinating, and especially when the prize they are fighting for is nothing less than the future of flight. We take the airplane’s defeat of the Zeppelin for granted, but in the Roaring Twenties and Dark Thirties it was anything but, and now, in a world aiming for carbon neutrality, we might even regret who won. Alex Rose is a historian with a scintillating prose style and an eye for the insightful, and often amusing, detail. Whereas dirigibles were heavy, ponderous, and full of gas, this book is the precise opposite.” (Andrew Roberts, author of Leadership in War)

What listeners say about Empires of the Sky

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • JP
  • 08-03-20

Actually, a One-Sided Story

While very interesting for what it is, the book might more accurately be called "A Wistful History of the Airship" or "An Appreciation of Hugo Eckener." As either, it seems thorough and balanced. However its treatment of the airplane seems superficial--and of airline pioneer Juan Trippe, jealous-to-hostile. Perhaps Trippe and the airplane lack the romance of fighting--and losing--in a forlorn cause.

From "Empires of the Sky" i learned much about the technological and political aspects of Zeppelin development, and i valued the information enough to add a Kindle copy of the book to my library for easier reference. If I'd relied upon this for information about airplane development, though, I'd have learned little, and much of that would have seemed negatively biased. Concentrating on Pan Am and Juan Trippe, I'd have missed the contributions of the nascent airline not only to air travel in general but also to US interests in the interwar period. Besides countering German influence in South America, Pan Am developed bases in the Pacific which were vital to the conduct of WW II and did much to advance airborne radio communication. When Roosevelt travelled to Casablanca in 1943, he did so on the Dixie Clipper, a Pan Am flying boat requisitioned by the US Navy but still operated by a Pan Am crew. Trippe, painted in this book as a devious charlatan, was an aviation pioneer. The people with whom he dealt were Presidents, Cabinet Officers, and other captains of industry. Maybe he was not a very nice man, but contrary to the impression given in "Empires of the Sky," he did not develop his airline by tricking Girl Scouts out of their cookie money.

In short, while I would recommend this book as an introduction to the glorious, if ill-starred, airship, I would caution that an understanding of airplane development and especially of the contributions of Pan American Airways and Juan Trippe requires additional reading. "Pan Am at War," also available from Audible, might be a good place to start.

18 people found this helpful

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Good story, incompetent narrator

The story was of great interest to me, but the recording was marred by the narrator. Nothing wrong with his pace or voice, but more than half the story takes place in Germany, and he butchers nearly every German (and other nationality) name he encounters. Two characters are named Joachim, which is pronounced yo-A-kim in German, but he insists on pronouncing wa-KEEM! Literally hundreds of times he mispronounces Friedrichshafen, the Zeppelin headquarters. For some reason he has all non-English-speaking characters talk in an unrecognizable "foreign accent," even when they are speaking or writing fluently in their native language--and it's the same "foreign accent" for every character. If you can get past this and enjoy the history of aviation, you'll enjoy this title. If you can't get past it, read the book.

5 people found this helpful

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Title is a bit of a misnomer

A comprehensive story of the Zeppelin company and it’s production of airships. Detailed almost to a fault. I would say that about 4/5ths of the story centers on the Zeppelin Company and Hugo Ekenor. The book’s title gives the impression that the story will revolve around the “battle” between Ekenor and Juan Tripp of Pan Am. This is given only limited space and seems to be an afterthought when the book was written. Overall a worthwhile listen but could have been better.

3 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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Poor Performance Spoils Good Content

Completely unprofessional and highly irritating mispronunciations of German names and locations throughout the performance.

3 people found this helpful

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Not bad not great

Both the narrator and writing quality are so-so for such a long and detailed book. There is so much potential to impart the excitement and wonder of these ships. The first few pages do this. Much is matter of fact. On the positive side there is interesting thematic material in regards to the follies of believing in a future that would never come to be, what were the fallacies that created these mistakes of prediction. It is loaded with information, depending on your interest in air history.

3 people found this helpful

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fascinating history

While we all know about the Wright Bros & if interested in aviation history, their antecedents (mostly failures of one kind or another) & their direct competitors (e.g., Glenn Curtiss, among others), I had not come across a book explaining the somewhat parallel evolution of ballooning, which culminated with the Zeppelin (& today's simpler blimps), nor one that pitted the latter development of Zeppelins as a mode of leisure & business transportation, with the development of long-range aircraft with a similar purpose. This book accomplishes these two objectives nicely. The background on ballooning, the sometimes eccentric Count Zeppelin & the rigid airship, followed by his subordinates & post WWI Zeppelin transportation, against the business & technical history of Juan Trippe & Pan American airlines. I found the book very satisfying -- well written, well narrated, not too heavy on technical details (I was able to look up the technical material I wanted to know about the late airships & Trippe's flying boats on the internet, while reading … there are some useful videos & infographics online). You don't have to be an airplane aficionado to enjoy this book.

3 people found this helpful

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Astonishingly interesting romp through the early history of flight

This audiobook was so enjoyable and interesting. I’d give it 6 stars out of 5 if I could. If you’ve ever wondered about the history of man’s quest for powered flight, have any interest in things like the development of technology, society and business, or even stories of human intrigue, hubris, disappointment and success against the odds this book is for you. We’ve all heard of Lindbergh being first to cross the Atlantic solo by airplane, but did you know airships did so with whole crews years earlier?

This wonderfully paced work, full of personal profiles of the key movers, and chocked full of anecdotes, charts the race for supremacy between lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air craft. For many decades the outcome of the race was uncertain. For one thing airplanes were rattling, noisy death traps with limited range, while airships were graceful, reliable and even luxurious. Ultimately though airplanes were cheap, with low barriers to entry and ease of innovation, while airships required enormous resources and technical knowhow so advanced pretty much only the Germans excelled in the art, though many nations tried.

1 person found this helpful

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Outstanding.

Outstanding- technical and historical review. Particular liked the inclusion and conflict between the aeronaughts of Graf Zepplin and the ultimate competition and replacement by the clipper ships and Juan’s Trippe TWA; the hero Lindbergh and Sikorsky. Once again the wrong side won WW2 and we would have advanced to supersonic transports as desired by Uncle A; Juan Tripp and other visionaries.

The narrator was excellent as well.

1 person found this helpful

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Great narration uneven storytelling

I greatly enjoyed the book, however I felt that the Juan trippe content was almost bolted on as an afterthought. The content is definitely 3-4 zeppelin over trippe. I feel the author could have benefitted by either increasing the portion on trippe or having two books entirely with one each dedicated to zeppelin and trippe.

Regardless great book and a great listen

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Great history!

If you are interested in the history of early commercial aviation, and early aviation in general this is a fantastic listen!