The Development of Airships

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The Development of Airships


Lighter-than-air airships and heavier-than-air airplanes both became practical around 1900, and coexisted for the next 40 years. Airships reached technological maturity by 1920 and were, for the next two decades, superior to airplanes for long flights with heavy payloads. Germany, Great Britain, and the United States all built airships after World War I, and all saw airships as a key part of aviation's future. The promise of airships dimmed rapidly in the 1930s, however, after a series of spectacular crashes tarnished their reputation. World War II smothered any hope of a quick revival, and produced a new generation of airplanes superior to any foreseeable airship. Airships survived, after 1940, in the significant but narrowly defined niche of aerial observation platform.


The two basic elements of an airship—a balloon for lift and an engine-driven propeller for power—were readily available to nineteenth-century designers. The problem, as many discovered, was finding a light, powerful engine. The first successful airship was built and flown in 1852 by Henri Giffard (1825-1888), then Europe's leading steam engine designer. His 350-lb (159 kg), 3-horsepower engine drove the 44-ft (13.5 m) airship at little more than 5 mph (8 kph), making operation in even a gentle breeze impossible. The gasoline engine, developed in the 1890s, provided the kind of power-to-weight ratio airships needed. In 1898 Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873-1932) flew a gasoline-powered airship, Number 1, that produced the same 3 horsepower as Giffard's steam engine, but weighed 80% less. The growing power of gasoline engines gave Number 1's successors greater speed and maneuverability, making them the first truly practical airships.

Santos-Dumont's airships, like virtually all of those built before them, were non-rigid: the pressure of the lifting gas maintained their shape. Beginning in 1900, however, airships of a radically different design began to emerge from Germany. Designed by (and named for) Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838-1917), the new airships had rigid, cigar-shaped hulls built of metal frames braced by wires and covered by fabric. Tall, narrow gas bags, separated by frames and maintenance catwalks, filled the interior space. The engines, crew, and passengers occupied small pods suspended from the underside of the hull. The Zeppelin's most striking feature, however, was its size. The first was 420 ft (128 m) long with a gas capacity of 400,000 cu ft (11,200 cu m)—10 times the size of Giffard's pioneering airship, and 60 times the volume of Santos-Dumont's Number 1.

Zeppelins were powerful enough to do useful work in both military and civilian roles. They inaugurated the golden age of the airship, roughly 1906-1937, and ensured that Germany would dominate its first dozen years. They also defined the form that the airships of the golden age would take. The big airships built by Britain, France, Italy, and the United States would all be variations on Count Zeppelin's technological themes.


Zeppelin and his partner, Hugo Eckener (1868-1954), used the new airships to found the world's first airline in November 1909. Known as DELAG, the line began operations in 1910 and quickly grew to serve most of Germany's major cities. It made more than 1,500 flights in the four years leading up to World War I, carrying more than 10,000 passengers and traveling more than 100,000 mi (160,934 km) without even a minor accident or injury. The prewar success of DELAG raised hopes of a postwar era in which a new generation of larger airships would serve international or even intercontinental passenger routes. The 1917 flight of a naval Zeppelin, L59, from Bulgaria to East Africa reinforced these hopes. L59, the largest airship yet built, carried 13 tons (11.8 metric tons) of cargo 4,200 mi (6,759 km) in 96 hours on an aborted mission to resupply besieged German troops. Her mission, though a failure, provided what many airship watchers saw as a glimpse into the future.

The airship's military record in the 1910s was more mixed. Their greatest success came in the essential but unglamorous role of coast defense, where they served as platforms for observers looking for enemy naval vessels. Their range and endurance gave them substantial advantages over the still-primitive airplanes of the time, and their proven reliability made them well suited to long flights over water. The airships used by the German army and navy as strategic bombers were more visible, but less successful. Three-and-a-half years of raids on London killed only 557 people and did only localized property damage. The difficulty of hitting specific targets at night limited the raids' tactical value, and the growing effectiveness of air defenses steadily eroded their impact on Londoners' morale.

Interest in airships as strategic bombers evaporated after the end of World War I, but interest in them as airliners and coastal sentinels remained high. Having lost the war, however, Germany also began to lose its lead in the airship business. Britain, France, and Italy seized Germany's four surviving military airships, along with two new ones built by the Zeppelin Company for the reborn DELAG, as spoils of war. The United States, alone among the allies, paid for its German airship, contracting with the Zeppelin Company to build the Los Angeles. Using their appropriated German technology, the allied nations entered the airship business in earnest. Britain's R34, based on wartime studies of Zeppelins that crashed on British soil, made the first round-trip aerial crossing of the Atlantic in 1919. Seven years later, a joint Italian-American-Norwegian expedition flew the Italian-built airship Norge over the North Pole, from King's Bay, Spitzbergen, to Teller, Alaska.

Both R34 and Norge followed in the footsteps of airplanes. A converted World War I bomber had made the first one-way, non-stop Atlantic crossing a few weeks before R34, and a Fokker transport commanded by Admiral Richard Byrd (1888-1957) had flown from King's Bay to the North Pole and back hours before Norge departed. The airplanes, however, had been operating at the limits of their capabilities, while the airships had made more ambitious flights with ease. The ultimate demonstration of the airship's range and endurance came, however, from Germany. The Graf Zeppelin, launched in 1928, inaugurated commercial air travel across the Atlantic in the fall of that year, carrying both mail and fare-paying passengers. She went on to circle the world in the summer of 1929 before beginning scheduled service flights from Europe to South America.

The success of the Graf Zeppelin, already the largest airship built up to that time, encouraged the construction of even larger craft. The United States Navy commissioned Akron and Macon for coastal patrol work in the early 1930s, while the British government backed the building of two passenger airships: R100 and R101. Germany's own super-airship appeared in 1935, built by the Zeppelin Company with the backing of the Nazi government and named for Germany's last pre-Nazi leader—Hindenburg.

The immense size of these super-airships gave them capabilities that no airplane, and no earlier airship, could match. Akron and Macon could carry up to five fighter planes each in hangars built into their bellies, launching and recovering them high over the ocean. R100 and R101, designed as the prototypes of an air fleet that would link Britain to its distant colonies, could carry 100 passengers apiece—five times the capacity of the Graf Zeppelin and four times that of the largest passenger airplanes then flying. Hindenburg was, in its way, the most spectacular of all—designed to transport 50 passengers in the luxurious style of the finest ocean liners. Its passengers could enjoy gourmet meals, a lounge with a grand piano (made of aluminum to save weight), and even a carefully engineered smoking room—in close proximity to 7 million cu ft (196,000 cu m) of explosive hydrogen.

The careers of four of the five super-airships ended in catastrophe. R100 performed flawlessly on her first and only flight (to Canada in 1930), but months later R101 crashed on a French hillside only hours after departing on her inaugural flight to India. Akron crashed in the Atlantic during a 1933 storm, and Macon went down in the Pacific two years later. Hindenburg had the most spectacular end, bursting into flames as she landed at the Lakehurst, New Jersey, airship terminal on May 6, 1937. None of the crashes, in retrospect, reflected badly on the airship concept: Akron and Macon were lost to weather and pilot error, R101 doomed by grossly incompetent engineering, and Hindenburg most likely destroyed by a freak accident. The death toll in all four crashes was only 159: 74 aboard Akron, 2 aboard Macon, 48 aboard R101, and 35 aboard Hindenburg. Nevertheless, the crashes led first Britain, then the United States, and finally Germany to abandon support for large rigid-hulled airships. The last rigid airship, Graf Zeppelin, was grounded after the Hindenburg explosion and never flew again. She, and her never-flown successor, Graf Zeppelin II, were broken up for the aluminum in their frames on the eve of World War II.

The end of the passenger airship coincided with the airplane's rise to technological maturity. World War II produced a new generation of long-range bomber and cargo planes that, after the war, became the basis for the first land-based airliners capable of crossing oceans. Jet engines and pressurized cabins, also products of World War II, allowed the airliners of the 1950s to match the smooth, quiet ride of prewar airships at speeds many times greater. Airships thus lost any hope of reclaiming their prewar share of the passenger-carrying market. The small, non-rigid airships (blimps) built since 1940 have been built for the few, limited roles where their unique attributes are still valuable. The most significant of those roles, coastal patrol, evaporated in the 1950s as ballistic missiles became the principal threat to the security of Western nations. Airships now serve only as camera platforms and flying billboards—as fixtures in the sky rather than a means of traveling through it.


Further Reading

Botting, Douglas. The Giant Airships. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1981.

Collier, Basil. The Airship: A History. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1974.

Eckener, Hugo. My Zeppelins. London: Putnam, 1958.

Horton, Edward. The Age of the Airship. New York: Henry Regnery, 1973.

Robinson, Douglas H. Giants in the Sky: A History of theRigid Airship. University of Washington Press, 1973.

Santos-Dumont, Alberto. My Airships. New York: Dover, 1973.

Shute, Neville. Slide Rule: The Autobiography of an Engineer. London: Heron Books, 1953.

Toland, John. The Great Dirigibles: Their Triumphs and Disasters. New York: Dover Books, 1972.


The May 6, 1937, landing of the giant airship Hindenburg was a routine event but still a newsworthy one. Reporters waited and watched. A newsreel crew crouched behind their movie camera as the biggest airship in the world edged toward its mooring mast just before 7:30 PM. Speaking into a portable tape recorder, reporter Herb Morrison described the arrival for an upcoming radio broadcast. Suddenly, the giant airship burst into flame and sank toward the ground, a smoldering wreck. Newsreel cameras silently recorded her destruction. Morrison sobbed into his recorder: "It's burning, bursting into flames, and it's falling on the mooring mast and all the folks. This is one of the worst catastrophes in the world.... Oh, the humanity and all the passengers!" The newsreel images and Morrison's words had a visceral impact no written account or still photograph could match. They demonstrated, for the first time, the unique power of radio and film to make audiences feel like eyewitnesses to real-world events. They also showed the new technologies' power to shape viewer perceptions. Most viewers, then and now, assume that all aboard the airship died; in fact, nearly two thirds escaped alive.


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The Development of Airships

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The Development of Airships