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A short history of commercial airships

Commercial airship travel: A short history

Lighter than air itself, at one point the airship was lauded as being at the cutting-edge of commercial air travel. After all, what could possibly go wrong when you filled a huge balloon with hydrogen, which, as well as being the lightest element also happens to be a highly-flammable gas? Well, the Hindenburg is what went wrong.

After the Hindenburg disaster, which killed 36 people, it was understandable that passenger flights in airships came to an end. But, that wasn’t necessarily the end of the airship itself. And, after Hindenburg is there still the possibility that airships could be used for passenger travel. Here, we examine the past and present of traveling by airship from carrying passengers to being used by the military, and for marketing campaigns.

Airships explained

First of all, exactly how do you define an airship, a blimp or a dirigible to give it the other names it is known by? Well, put simply, an airship can be described as a close cousin to the hot air balloon. It is a giant balloon which is able to rise because it is filled with gas. It can also be steered in different directions through the use of propellers. Just like hot air balloons, airships get their flying powers from the use of gases including helium and hydrogen.

Not all airships are the same, however. They tend to be found in three different categories. Non-rigid airships are simply inflated by gas and that is how they keep their shape. However, there are also models which are either semi-rigid or rigid which use a frame made from metal so that they retain shape. During the history of the airship, they have been used for three main purposes.

  1. To carry passengers. The US as well as Germany and Britain all designed giant airships using metal frames so that they could be used to carry passengers. This form of air travel was particularly popular in both the 20s and the 30s. The US was able to use helium, which was safer, but other airship designs had to rely on hydrogen which is extremely flammable. There were many explosions in mid-flight, which meant that passenger travel via airship came to a close.
  2.  In military use. Arguably the most famous airships, perhaps after the Hindenburg, were Germany’s Zeppelin crafts, which were used during the country’s bombing campaign in the First World War. This led to the Navy in Britain fighting back by creating airships known as the B-Class design which were used to find enemy submarines. Following World War One, airships have continued to be used by the military, but mainly for surveillance purposes.
  3. For advertising. There can be few people who haven’t seen a blimp flying high to advertise a car showroom or a new property development, for example. Advertising campaigns have used blimps as part of their marketing tools since the 20s because they are visible from such a wide distance.

Airships in the early days

This history of the airship begins not in Britain, Germany or the US, but in France. After hot air balloons were invented back in the 18th century, Jean Baptiste Meusnier, who was an engineer by profession was so inspired that he came up with a design for a propeller-powered balloon. His airship was 84m in length and had a basket underneath it which was secured to the dirigible by ropes.

His design wasn’t ever made into a reality. However, just a couple of years later, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who was an inventor from France, teamed up with Dr. John Jeffries from the US. The pair managed the feat of flying an airship over English Channel waters. It was kept afloat with hydrogen. However, during the flight, which took more than two hours, the duo must have feared for their safety, if not their lives. They found keeping the balloon on its correct course difficult and the balloon was also struggling to cope with their combined weight as well as the rest of their cargo and came perilously near to the sea on several occasions. To make sure that the balloon gained altitude again, the pair threw their cargo overboard and even went as far as to take off what they were wearing and throw it into the waters below.

In subsequent years, the enthusiasm for airship design continued to grow. Henri Giffard made history in 1852 by creating and flying the very first airship which was powered by steam and hydrogen, and which came complete with steering. A big leap forward then came in 1895, when the David Schwarz-made Zeppelin was unveiled.

The Zeppelin and the Goodyear take to the air

A fearsome sight during WWI, the Zeppelin was created with a rigid interior so it could keep its shape. Long and thin with a skin tough enough to withstand flight, it was inflated using hydrogen gas so that it could take to the air. There were compartments for passengers and crew sitting underneath as well as two engines which were 15-horsepower. The design and powerful engines meant that the Zeppelin was capable of flying at speeds of 25mph. When they were first created, Zeppelins were designed to take the skies to let passengers take a relaxed look at the scenery below. However, 20 Zeppelins were built with war in mind. These craft took to the skies to carry out bombing raids during the First World War in Britain, having not inconsiderable success as a result of their load-carrying capabilities and the speed they were able to travel at.

In 1925, the smallest airship anywhere on the globe was launched. At just 110ft in length and 45ft in height, when the Goodyear Pilgrim took to the skies, it was using helium. It boasted an engine with 80-horsepower and had the capability to take two people up into the air, and could also hold two crew members. It quickly became popular among well-heeled passengers, but also went on to be used by the military in the US for surveillance purposes. Nowadays, Goodyear’s airships are best known for their use in the advertising industry.

Hindenburg and what it meant for airship travel

While airships had been used for peace and for war, the very premise of travelling by airship hit a fatal stumbling block in the 30s when the Hindenburg which was at the time the airship capable of carrying the most passengers crashed and exploded as it was trying to come to New Jersey to land. Thirty-six people including both crew and passengers were killed in the accident. The advent of television meant that images of the explosion were broadcast with the result that passengers no longer wanted to travel by airship because of natural safety fears.

Only a year earlier, the Hindenburg Zeppelin had become famous for more positive reasons. The passenger balloon had successfully completed a flight over North Atlantic waters and was lauded as a beacon in the air travel industry. The Hindenburg was famous for the luxury experience it offered its passengers, which was said by those who flew on her to be similar to the five-star experience offered on luxury cruise liners.

Remarkably, the Hindenburg boasted a total of 34 cabins which could accommodate two passengers each. There were also lounges where passengers could relax, and also a bar, promenades to take in the views and dining in the sky. Astonishingly, considering the flammable gas used to keep the balloon in the sky, there was a room for smokers.

When the appetite for passenger airship travel vanished following the disaster, airships continued to be in military-use for surveillance operations as well as for deploying cargo to troops in hard-to-reach areas. The Navy in America started a scheme to create airships for use by the coast guard. However, that scheme was shelved as a result of budget constraints. However, that work was taken on by the Westinghouse Airships company who introduced its Sentinel 1000, giving it its inaugural flight in the early 90s.

Is there a future for the airship?

Following such a high profile disaster as the Hindenburg, is there still a future for the airship industry? Will airships be used for passengers in future years, or will they have other uses? Here is how airships are being utilized already, and future uses.

  1. A lifeline for disaster zones. What happens when a rescue crew can’t get to a disaster-hit zone when there has been an earthquake, a flood or a hurricane for example? Airships are able to get to even the most remote of areas because they don’t rely on a runway for landing and can get close to the ground to be tethered without ever having to touch down. The Aeroscraft is one such craft, which can make cargo drops without having to come to land. There is also the craft called the Airlander 10 which has been developed in the UK. Kind of a hybrid of an airship, a plane and a helicopter, it boasts the title of being the largest aircraft in the world, which makes it ideal for helping in disaster-area relief efforts.
  2. For scientific projects. Airships have the advantage of being much quieter than other craft, which makes them ideal for a number of scientific experiments and projects. Goodyear blimps which are speedy yet quiet have been sent up into the air for this purpose.
  3. Environmentally-friendly flights. With increasing concern about carbon emissions, airships are seen as a more sustainable way to take to the skies. As they have lower fuel costs as well as lower emissions, airships could see renewed popularity. Airships which are battery-powered don’t emit pollution in the same way as other aircraft as are also very quiet, which could make them a popular choice where noise is an issue.
  4. To communicate and to watch Airships are already in use by military across the world for surveillance purposes, with some being able to offer continuous surveillance of up to 21 days; something that would be impossible for traditional planes or helicopters which would obviously need to refuel. Airships could also be used for border patrols where it is impossible for border control personnel to patrol huge areas.
  5. For tourism and leisure. The history of the airship really could come full circle. Whereas the Hindenburg exploded as a result of the use of hydrogen, modern-day airships now use helium as well as being able to take advantage of advances in technology and safety. They could see an increase in popularity among tourists and leisure passengers. Already, Zeppelin has launched routes across Europe as well as targeting the lucrative Chinese market. 

It seems the blimp really is back. As the commercial aviation industry continues to develop and evolve, the airship has not yet had its day. However, airships are still limited in terms of the speed and distance they can cover. Until they become a more practical option for longer-distance travel, you could get quote to meet your travel requirements.

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