A lighter-than-air, pressurized airship, comprising an elliptical, gas-filled bag, a means of propulsion, a means to control buoyancy and flight, and one or more gondolas to hold crew, passengers, the power unit, and cargo.
The early days of aviation witnessed a competition between two very different vehicles: the heavier-than-air airplane and the lighter-than-air airship. Although the airship initially prevailed, it would, by the 1930’s, be largely replaced by the airplane. Airships, however, continue to perform functions that are beyond the capabilities of airplanes.
Airships evolved from the free, or hot-air, balloon, first launched in 1783 near Lyons, France, by Jacques-Étienne and Joseph-Michel Montgolfier. This balloon would be modified. Henry Cavendish, a British chemist, found that hydrogen gas was at least seven times lighter than air, and by 1785, French army engineer Jean Baptiste Marie-Meusnier designed a bag of an ellipsoidal shape. French inventor Henri Giffard took these notions, added mechanical propulsion and steering, and flew a dirigible-balloon, named from the Latin dirigere, “to steer,” on September 24, 1852. This 143-foot-long airship, driven by a screw propeller rotated by a 3-horsepower steam engine, traveled at the speed of 10 miles per hour. It was the first successful flight of an airship. Thirty-one years later, the Tissandier brothers, Albert and Gaston, built an electrically powered, 37,000-cubic-foot airship. On August 9, 1884, Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs piloted the 66,000-cubic-foot, electrically driven LaFrance for 5 miles, returning safety to the point of departure. A Brazilian aeronaut, Alberto Santos-Dumont, who “mused on the exploration of the aerial ocean,” launched a series of fourteen airships in France before 1905. His airship Number 6 made headlines when it successfully circled the Eiffel Tower. The eccentric Santos-Dumont popularized airships by parking them over the rooftops of his Parisian hosts, descending to join them for dinner.
An airship has five crucial components: an elliptical bag filled with either hydrogen or helium and covered with a strong, light “envelope” (an outer skin initially made of cotton and rubber; today synthetic fabrics are used); a means of propulsion, using propellers and engines powered by fuels ranging from steam and electricity to gasoline; control of buoyancy attained by releasing ballast for ascent, gas for descent; flight control, with the pilot using vertically hinged rudders for steering, horizontally hinged elevators for lift; and one or more gondolas for crew, passengers, the power unit, and cargo.
There are three classes of airship. One is the nonrigid, or pressurized, airship. Without a metal frame, the bag collapses when the gas is released. During World War I, this type of airship was the most common in the Royal Navy and gave rise to the slang term “blimp,” which took its initial “b” from “British Class B Airship,” and “limp” from its nonrigid nature.
Another type of airship is the semirigid, in which, to maintain the form, gas pressure acts in conjunction with the longitudinal keel. A third type is the rigid airship, or zeppelin, named for the German count, Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who perfected it. With a skeleton, it retains its shape when deflated.
The Germans stressed the rigid, the British the nonrigid type. During World War I, the Germans had some sixty-seven zeppelins flying a variety of missions. The British Navy favored blimps, deploying over two hundred of them for submarine and mine detection, aerial observation, coastal patrols, scouting, and escorting troop and merchant vessel convoys.
Following World War I, rigids were preferred. That popularity ended dramatically when Germany’s pride, the Hindenburg, perished in fire at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. The United States, fortunately, had not abandoned blimps. By 1930, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company had a fleet of twelve blimps, used primarily for advertising. The only nation to make effective use of blimps in World War II, the United States had a fleet of 150 of them, serving in fifteen airship squadrons on three continents, patrolling three million square miles. The first nonrigid airship crossing of the Atlantic occurred from May 29 and June 1, 1944, when a U.S. Navy blimp squadron made the 3,145-mile flight from South Weymouth, Massachusetts, to Port Lyautey, French Morocco. Blimps proved effective in detecting German submarine wolfpacks. Not a single blimp-escorted convoy lost a ship. Only one blimp was downed by enemy fire.
During the Cold War, blimps were of value not only for coastal patrols, but also as an early-warning device against piloted bomber flights. In 1958, the U.S. Navy commissioned a series of four ZPG-3W airships, each 403 feet in length, 85 feet in diameter, with a capacity of 1,500,000 cubic feet. These were the largest blimps ever. When, after 1962, the piloted bomber gave way to the intercontinental ballistic missile, the value of blimps declined.
By the 1990’s, however, there was a renewed interest in blimps. From a commercial standpoint, they could carry passengers and cargo cheaply and efficiently. Television networks used them for aerial views of sporting events. Advertising (as with the well-known Fuji and Goodyear blimps) was profitable. The recreation use of airships was appealing. Synthetic fibers, computer-aided design, and enhanced engineering led to such “super blimps” as the Sentinel5000 launched in 1997. It had a three-story pressurized gondola. Virtually impervious to weather (icing, snow, sleet, rain, fog, hail) and radar, it traveled in excess of 60 miles per hour. Blimps, because of their range, fuel efficiency, low cost of development and maintenance, capacity for in-flight refueling, and lack of negative environmental impact, proved attractive to both military and civilian agencies for a variety of surveillance work. The blimps promise to have a long and useful future.
Botting, Douglas. TheGiantAirships. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1981. A concise and profusely illustrated introduction to the history of lighter-than-air aviation. Collier, Basil. The Airship: A History. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1974. A readable and reliable survey of the subject from its inception until the late twentieth century. Dick, Harold G., and D. H. Robinson. The Golden Age of the Great Passenger Airships. Reprint. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. A valuable analysis of the early decades of airship history by two skilled authors. Horton, Edward. The Age of the Airship. Chicago: Regnery, 1973. Though somewhat dated, this remains a useful introduction to the subject for the beginning student.
World War I
World War II
Ferdinand von Zeppelin