The History of The Airship

Airships. In the early years of War, these beasts were known for their majestic
presence in the sky and were icons of a country’s power and prestige. They
reigned mostly as reconnaissance and transport utility aircraft but there was
something about this “lighter-than-air” ship that made it far more than a mere
utility workhorse. In this essay, I will discuss the ever-popular and ever-
living king of the sky; the Airship.


Airships, or dirigibles, were developed from the free balloon. Three classes of
airships are recognized: the non-rigid, commonly called blimp, in which the form
of the bag is maintained by pressure of the gas; the semi-rigid airship, in
which, to maintain the form, gas pressure acts in conjunction with a
longitudinal keel; and the rigid airship, or zeppelin, in which the form is
determined by a rigid structure. Technically all three classes may be called
dirigible (Latin dirigere, “to direct, to steer”) balloons. Equipped with a bag
containing a gas such as helium or hydrogen which is elongated or streamlined to
enable easy passage through the air, these Airships could reach speeds up to
10mph with a 5hp steam engine propeller.

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The first successful airship was that of the French engineer and inventor Henri
Giffard, who constructed in 1852 a cigar-shaped, non-rigid gas bag 44 m (143 ft)
long, driven by a screw propeller rotated by a 2.2-kw (3-hp) steam engine. He
flew over Paris at a speed of about 10 km/hr (about 6 mph). Giffard’s airship
could be steered only in calm or nearly calm weather. The first airship to
demonstrate its ability to return to its starting place in a light wind was the
La France, developed in 1884 by the French inventors Charles Renard and Arthur
Krebs. It was driven by an electrically rotated propeller. The Brazilian
aeronaut Alberto Santos-Dumont developed a series of 14 airships in France. In
his No. 6, in 1901, he circled the Eiffel Tower.


Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the German inventor, completed his first airship
in 1900; this ship had a rigid frame and served as the prototype of many
subsequent models. The first zeppelin airship consisted of a row of 17 gas cells
individually covered in rubberized cloth; the whole was confined in a
cylindrical framework covered with smooth-surfaced cotton cloth. It was about
128 m (about 420 ft) long and 12 m (38 ft) in diameter; the hydrogen-gas
capacity totaled 1,129,842 liters (399,000 cu ft). The ship was steered by
forward and aft rudders and was driven by two 11-kw (15-hp) Daimler internal-
combustion engines, each rotating two propellers. Passengers, crew, and engine
were carried in two aluminum gondolas suspended forward and aft. At its first
trial, on July 2, 1900, the airship carried five persons; it attained an
altitude of 396 m (1300 ft) and flew a distance of 6 km (3.75 mi) in 17 min.


The first commercial means of regular passenger air travel was supplied by the
zeppelin airships Deutschland in 1910 and Sachsen in 1913. At the beginning of
World War I, 10 zeppelins were in service in Germany, and others were built for
the military services. By 1918 the total number of zeppelins constructed was 67,
of which 16 survived the war. Those not captured were surrendered to the Allies
by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. At the outbreak of the war,
France had a fleet of semi-rigid airships, developed by officers of the French
army. The experience of the war, however, in disclosing the vulnerability of
airships to airplane attack, caused the abandonment of the dirigible for
offensive military purposes. Non-rigid airships became useful for aerial
observation, coastal patrol, convoying, and locating enemy submarines and mines,
because of their abilities to hover over a given location and to remain in the
air for longer periods than the airplane. Toward the end of World War I, the
British began intensive development of rigid airships, stimulated by the
prospect that nonflammable helium gas would soon be available in quantities
sufficient to inflate large ships. The R34, with a length of 196 m (643 ft) and
a gas capacity of 56,067,355 liters (1,980,000 cu ft), was commissioned in 1919.

It made the first transatlantic flight of an airship, flying by way of
Newfoundland, Canada, from East Fortune, Scotland, to Mineola, New York, and
returning to Pulham, England. The total flying time for the round trip was 183
hr and 15 min and the aggregate distance traveled about 11,200 km (about 7000
mi). In 1921 the R38, some 25 percent larger than the R34, was completed; both
were wrecked that same year.


The famous German-built Hindenburg had a length of 245 m (804 ft) and a gas
capacity of 190,006,030 liters (6,710,000 cu ft). After making ten transatlantic
crossings in regular commercial service in 1936, it was destroyed by fire in
1937 when it was landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey; 36 of its 92 passengers and
crew were killed. Since the destruction of the Hindenburg, airship activity has
been confined to the non-rigid type of craft. In 1938 all military blimps in the
U.S. were placed under navy jurisdiction, with the Naval Air Station at
Lakehurst as center of operations. During World War II, blimps were employed for
patrol, scouting, convoy, and antisubmarine work. A private commercial firm in
the U.S. developed several small, non-rigid airships that have been used to
provide aerial television views of sports events, to take people on rides, and
for advertising purposes. After World War II the U.S. Navy continued to develop
the airship for such purposes as antisubmarine warfare, intermediate search
missions, and early-warning missions. The largest of navy airships, the ZPG-2
type, was 99 m (324 ft) long and had a capacity of 24,777,240 liters (875,000 cu
ft) of helium. An airship of this type stayed aloft without refueling for more
than 200 hr. The navy discontinued the use of airships in 1961; however, during
the later-1980s there was a renewal of military interest in airships, and both
the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy began to study the feasibility of using airships
for airborne early warning and electronic warfare as well as antisubmarine
warfare. Some countries were also showing an equal interest in airships for
civil aviation and advertising purposes. In present day, airships may be
observed at any given football game as the “Goodyear Blimp” hovers high above
the stadium and transfers live video feed to the viewers at home.


In conclusion, ever since man has learned to fly, there have been airships.
These seemingly harmless giants can pack an enormous punch now-a-days either
with heavy weaponry (not common) or through data transfer and electronic warfare.

These masters of the sky may always be valuable to the human race as they
deliver an advantage that no other aircraft can deliver: a walk in the clouds
with a giant chunk of world history.

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