What Happened to Giant Airships?

What Happened to Giant Airships?

DALLAS — Giant airships, also known as dirigibles, once ruled the skies and captured the imagination of people around the world. They were the first aircraft capable of controlled powered flight and were used for both passenger and cargo transportation. For a time, they were even considered a serious rival to the new airplanes.

These majestic vessels were often compared to floating palaces, with luxurious cabins, dining halls, and observation decks that allowed passengers to experience the thrill of flight in comfort and style.

Airships are a type of aerostat or lighter-than-air aircraft that can helm through the air under its own control. Aerostats gain their lift from a lifting gas that is less viscous than the surrounding atmosphere.

Despite their popularity and promise, airships eventually fell out of vogue and largely disappeared from the skies. Today, we will explore the rise and fall of these remarkable machines and examine what happened to these giant airships.

Image by PixelAnarchy from Pixabay
Image by PixelAnarchy from Pixabay

The Birth of the Airship

The history of airship dates back to the 17th century, when the Jesuit Father Francesco Lana de Terzi, sometimes referred to as the “Father of Aeronautics”, published in 1670, a depiction of an “Aerial Ship” backed by four copper spheres from which the air was vacated.

In 1709, the Brazilian-Portuguese Jesuit priest Bartolomeu de Gusmão created a hot air balloon, the Passarola, ascending to the skies, before an awestruck Portuguese court.

However, the more profound work on dirigibles took place in the 18th century, as many aviators came forward and tested them.

Lieutenant Jean Baptiste Marie Meusnier in a paper entitled “Mémoire sur l’équilibre des machines aérostatiques” (Memorandum on the equilibrium of aerostatic machines) presented to the French Academy on 3 December 1783 described the flying ship.

Likewise, the 19th century saw continued attempts to add methods of propulsion to balloons. In 1851, during the great exhibition, the Australian William Bland sent designs for his “Atomic Airship.” This was an extended balloon with a steam engine driving twin propellers suspended beneath.

Airships were initially called dirigible balloons, from the French ballon dirigeable often shortened to dirigible (meaning “steerable”, from the French diriger – to direct, guide or steer). The name that inventor Henri Giffard gave to his powered and steerable machine, which made its first flight on 24 September 1852.

On July 2, 1900, the Luftschiff Zeppelin LZ1 completed its first flight. German airship in the coming years become the most successful airship, it was named after Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin who began working on rigid airship designs in the 1890s.

The advantage of airships over airplanes is that static lift adequate for flight is induced by the lifting gas and mandates no engine power. This was an enormous benefit before the middle of World War I and stayed an edge for long-distance or long-duration operations until World War II.

By Colorized ver. CIVIS TURDETANI / U.S. Department of the Navy. Bureau of Aeronautics. Naval Aircraft Factory, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA). - This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing., Public Domain,
The Hindenburg. Photo: Colorized ver. CIVIS TURDETANI / U.S. Department of the Navy. Bureau of Aeronautics. Naval Aircraft Factory, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA). Public Domain

The Golden Age of Airships

The golden age of airships began in the early 20th century when several companies and governments began investing in technology and building massive, luxurious dirigibles.

DELAG (Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft, or German Airship Transportation Corporation Ltd.), the first Zeppelin passenger airline in history, was founded as a spinoff of the Zeppelin Company on November 16, 1909. The company operated a passenger air service until 1935 when the newly established Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei took over its operations.

When the DELAG airship Bodensee started offering scheduled service between Berlin and southern Germany in 1919, many of the early flights were sightseeing excursions. Compared to 18–24 hours by train, the flight from Berlin to Friedrichshafen took 4–9 hours. Nearly 2,500 passengers, 11,000 lbs. of mail and 6,600 lbs. of cargo were all carried on 103 flights by Bodensee.

It is worth noting that dirigibles seldom came down to earth. Instead, they moored on tall towers. In anticipation of future passenger airship service, the Empire State Building was finished in 1931 with a dirigible mast; however, no airship ever used the mast. Several businessmen tested airship transportation for both commuting and freight, i.e. an “Intercity Dirigible Service.”

One of the most famous examples was the German-built Hindenburg, which was completed in 1936 and operated as a commercial passenger liner until its infamous crash in 1937.

The Hindenburg was a massive vessel, measuring 804 feet in length and featuring a range of amenities including a dining room, lounge, smoking room, and sleeping quarters for up to 72 occupants. The ship was powered by four diesel engines and could reach speeds of up to 84 miles per hour (135 kph).

Despite the tragedy of the Hindenburg disaster, which killed 36 people and effectively ended the commercial airship industry, the golden age of airships had some remarkable achievements.

In 1929, the Graf Zeppelin completed a round-the-world trip, covering over 21,000 miles and stopping at multiple cities along the way. The trip took 21 days and demonstrated the potential of airships as a mode of long-distance travel.

Over the 20th century, airships played a bigger role in various purposes, from carrying passengers, and payloads to carrying military armaments and weapons during world wars.

By Gus Pasquerella - http://www.lakehurst.navy.mil/nlweb/images/1213d.gif, Public Domain,
The Hindenburg disaster. Photo: Gus Pasquerella, Public Domain

Why Did Airships Fall out of Favor?

Despite their early promise and successes, giant airships eventually became disfavored for several reasons. One of the primary aspects was the high cost of building and handling these massive vessels. It required a large crew, expensive maintenance, and frequent refueling, all of which added up to considerable expenses.

In addition, airships were limited by their size and speed. Although they were capable of carrying large amounts of cargo or passengers, they were not as efficient or speedy as planes. As airplane technology continued to enhance and become more widely available, airships became less and less competitive in the marketplace.

Another factor that contributed to the decline of airships was safety concerns, with a series of accidents eventually dooming them.

The Hindenburg disaster was the most famous example of a fatal airship failure, but there were several other incidents that raised concerns about the safety of these vessels. One was the Akron disaster in 1933, which would result in the loss of 73 lives and be attributed to structural failure caused by bad weather.

Furthermore, airships were also vulnerable to bad weather conditions. High winds, thunderstorms, and other environmental factors could cause consequential damage to these fragile vessels, which were made of lightweight materials such as aluminum and fabric.

The greatest drawback of the airship is size, which is paramount to raising performance. As dimension increases, the hardships of ground handling advance geometrically.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), only 128 individuals in the United States are skilled to fly airships. And only 17 of them are hired to fly them full-time. Further, while it usually takes flyers ten to 15 hours to learn how to fly a single-engine aircraft, it takes 250 to 400 hrs of training for a captain to fly a solo trip on an airship.

But, as stated above, the main reason we never see airships in the sky anymore is because of the massive costs it takes to build and operate them. Airships are very expensive to build and pricey to fly. They require a large portion of helium, which can cost up to US$100,000 for one trip.

Image by OlinEJ from Pixabay
Photo: OlinEJ via Pixabay

Legacy of Airships

Although giant airships have largely disappeared from the skies, their legacy continues to be felt in various ways. Many of the technological refinements that were made in the development of airships, such as the use of lightweight materials and innovative propulsion systems, have been embodied in other forms of transportation, including airplanes and spacecraft.

Airships also continue to be used in certain niche applications, such as surveillance and advertising. The Goodyear Blimp, for example, is a well-known example of a modern airship that is used for advertising and sports coverage.

In addition, there is renewed interest in airships as a potential solution to certain transportation challenges. Some experts have suggested that airships could be useful for delivering supplies and equipment to remote or disaster-stricken areas, where traditional forms of transportation may be difficult or impossible.

Furthermore, the environmental benefits of airships cannot be ignored. Unlike airplanes, airships do not produce significant amounts of pollution and can operate on renewable sources of energy such as solar power.

 Image courtesy of Hybrid Air Vehicles
Render: courtesy of Hybrid Air Vehicles

Future Endeavors

As we move towards a more sustainable future, airships could play an influential role in reducing carbon emissions and increasing efficiency. The use of airships for cargo transportation could reduce the need for traditional transportation methods such as trucks and trains, which contribute significantly to carbon emissions.

Moreover, airships could be used to provide internet and communication services to remote areas, making it more painless for people to connect and access vital services. They can be used for surveillance and border control and could also improve safety and security in various parts of the earth.

There is a handful of companies currently working to bring airships back to the skies. One such company is OceanSky Cruises, It has one main focus and that is to bring the airship back to the public as a viable way of travel again.

In today’s world, we are facing a clean energy crisis and at OceanSky Cruises, they are doing its part to combat this crisis by developing an airline with exceptionally low energy needs. By preferring airships, one gets to cruise with the clouds and turn the ride into the most astonishing part of the voyage.

In an interview with NBC news, Julian Hunt, a postdoctoral fellow at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, and the paper’s lead author said, “Today’s more durable materials, including carbon fiber, would make airships safer and less fragile; computerized weather-forecasting systems would let them steer clear of storms and help optimize the use of air currents.”

While the era of giant airships may be over, their impact on the world of transportation cannot be ignored. The technological advancements and innovations made in the development of airships continue to inspire new ideas and solutions for the challenges we face today. As we look towards a more sustainable future, the potential of airships as a green and efficient mode of transportation should not be overlooked.

By AngMoKio - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Photo: AngMoKio – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Bottom Line

To conclude, the rise and fall of giant airships is a fascinating chapter in the history of transportation. These massive vessels captured the fantasy of people around the world with their luxurious amenities and thrilling sense of adventure. However, they ultimately fell out of popularity due to their high cost, limited efficiency, safety concerns, and vulnerability to bad weather.

Despite their decline, the inheritance of giant airships lives on in multifarious forms. The improvements made in the evolution of airships continue to be incorporated into other forms of transportation, and there is renewed interest in airships as a potential solution to certain transportation challenges.

Whether airships will make a comeback remains to be seen, but their impact on the world of transportation is undeniable.

Do you think airships will return to the skies as part of commercial aviation? Be sure to comment on our social media channels.

Feature Image: The LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin. Photo: Grombo – own work, picture taken by my grandfather Alexander Cohrs, not published yet, CC BY-SA 3.0

Aircraft maintenance engineering graduate and Aviation enthusiast with more than four years of experience in running a successful aviation startup.

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