Giant German airships were used on commercial trans-Atlantic flights during the early twentieth century. Although these airships were replaced by airplanes, smaller, nonrigid airships called blimps are still used for special purposes, such as advertising and photography.

Airship history began as early as 1785, when the French inventor Jean-Pierre Blanchard flew across the England Channel from France to England in a hot-air balloon. The craft was hand powered by winglike flaps and looked much like a hot-air balloon with a double tail. It took nearly one hundred years for the concept of lighter-than-air flight to advance beyond that level. What was needed were better aeronautical engineering and lightweight engines.Airships

By 1900, many blimps had been built and flown by inventive adventurers in Europe and America, but it was not until Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, Ferdinand vonZeppelin in Germany built his first rigid airship, the Luftschiff Zeppelin LZ1, that the full possibilities for commerce were realized. Convinced that airships were the transport of the future, Zeppelin created the world’s first airline, the Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-AG (the German airship travel company). By the time of World War I, the dirigibles built by this company had traveled some 120,000 miles, carrying a total of forty thousand passengers. The war, however, brought this commerce to an end.

Following the war, airships were reintroduced as commercial vehicles. Both tourist jaunts and long-range transport were promoted, primarily in Europe. The Zeppelin company was building large airships for peaceful use. The Graf Zeppelin, launched in 1928, was the first commercially successful dirigible of a period sometimes dubbed the “golden age of the dirigible.” Almost eight hundred feet long, the Graf Zeppelin attracted great interest, especially when it circumnavigated the world with passengers in twenty-one days, traveling a total of thirty-two thousand miles. The passenger facilities included sleeping rooms, a dining hall, bathrooms, a library, and many of the amenities associated with ocean liners. The golden age lasted a decade but ended spectacularly in 1937, when the company’s largest airship, the Hindenburg, caught fire while landing in New Jersey, killing thirty-five of its ninety-seven passengers and crew.

The Hindenburg just after bursting into flames on May 6, 1937.

(Courtesy, Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, Inc.)

In the years since the Hindenburg disaster, commercial use of airships has been limited to smaller, nonrigid or semirigid craft used for special purposes. The famous Goodyear blimp is the most familiar example of an airship used for advertising. Airships have also been used as stable platforms for aerial photography, for mapping, and for mineral resource exploration.

Further Reading

  • Botting, Douglas. Dr. Eckener’s Dream Machine. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.
  • Brooks, Peter. Zeppelin: Rigid Airships, 1893-1940. London: Putnam Aeronautical Books, 2004.
  • Shock, James R., and David R. Smith. The Goodyear Airships. Bloomington, Ill.: Airship International Press, 2002.

Air transportation industry

Aircraft industry