The rise, fall and return of Airships | Sunday Observer

The rise, fall and return of Airships

27 June, 2021

Airships, also known as Dirigibles, Zeppelins and Blimps are relatively primitive aircraft that stay afloat by harnessing lighter than air gasses like helium and hydrogen. Invented long before the airplane, airships were the first aircraft capable of controlled flight and were the premier form of passenger travel through the air for the first half of the 20th century, even after the introduction of airplanes. Airships were, as far as the world at the time was concerned, the future of air travel until one solitary tragedy ended the entire airship industry.

While workable designs for airships were dreamt up as early as the 17th century, precursors that employed the same general idea of lighter than air flight were in use as early as the third century.

The Chinese used Sky Lanterns, which had hot air to lift small lanterns into the air, as military signals during the Three Kingdoms era of China.

However, the first real hot air balloon would not be invented until the 18th century by the French and it kicked off Europe’s obsession with air travel for many years to come. It was during this ‘Balloonomania’ that many landmark inventions, like propelled and powered balloons were invented.

Popular designs

Soon, many popular designs would crop up for lighter than air aircraft which would fall under a few important classifications. Non-rigid airships, most popularly known as Blimps, were aircraft which had no structural frame and relied on gas to maintain their shape. Semi-rigid airships possessed a frame but still needed gas to maintain its shape.

The most popular classification of airships, the ones that usually come to mind when thinking of airships, were rigid airships.

Rigid airships had a solid frame and maintained their iconic cylindrical shape even when not in flight. Rigid airships would colloquially be known as Zeppelins today.

Zeppelins only referred to a specific line of airships built by the German inventor Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin but as Zeppelins were far and away the most popular type of rigid airships ever, the name stuck for the classification.

Hindenburg disaster

The most popular airship to date was the Hindenburg, a Zeppelin type airship that was built for commercial passenger transatlantic travel. It was the largest airship to date, outclassing the previous record of the largest held by its sister airship, the Graf Zeppelin. It was the flying equivalent of a cruise liner, considered luxury travel across the sky. However, it was due to its high profile nature that once it crashed and burned, it effectively ended the use of rigid type airships. Out of the 97 people aboard, 35 would die, a lower number than prior incidents of crashing airships. But while the casualties were lower than other incidents, the Hindenburg disaster was infinitely more well documented. With multiple news crews stationed at the location of landing for a standard photo op, the destruction of the Hindenburg was perfectly captured on film, and the fear it sparked resulted in no more airships coming into commercial use and existing airships being recalled and scrapped.

At present, the only airships in any kind of use are non-rigid blimp class airships, only in use for the novelty. However, rigid airships seem to be making a comeback as many cruise and cargo companies are investing in airships as they provide many advantages compared to modern planes and ships. They are far more environmentally friendly, cheaper to construct, carry more cargo and operate for longer than any commercial vehicle of a similar cargo size. Their primary disadvantage, the insanely flammable hydrogen gas fuel would never have been a problem had America not had an embargo on the inert helium gas at the time. This is no longer the case, and while helium is a rare non-renewable resource, modern designs ensure that future airships would need no more helium than when it is built. Should these new projects succeed, it could mean the return of the lighter than air airship for commercial travel.